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Reflections on Physics 132 Spring ’22 Part III – Added this semester: A problem solving “process”

Another addition this semester was a “problem solving process.” While most physics textbooks include problems solving processes, I have a fundamental disagreement with the philosophical underpinnings implied by these published sequences. Many of these processes implicitly suggest that students should be able to look at a problem and see all the steps before beginning work; that they should be able to “outline a solution” before even beginning the math. In my experience, this is not how physicists solve problems. Frankly, a situation is not really a problem if you know all the steps upon setting out. I want students to learn to sit with the discomfort of not knowing all of the steps at the outset and to develop the confidence needed to figure out problems as they go.

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Reflections on Physics 132 Spring ’22 Part II – Something that has been evolving for a few semesters: After-class broadcasts

One of the biggest challenges in any course is managing the limited time available. The UMass semester is configured so that there are always 13 Mondays, 13 Tuesdays, 13 Wednesdays, etc. For a course that meets MWF, this schedule means there are 36 class sessions of 50min each. This is a really short amount of time to cover optics, electricity, magnetism, and modern physics as prescribed by the Physics 132 official course description. One way to save a little time each day, while simultaneously making the course more equitable is through the use of daily “broadcasts.” These emails, which I have been sending after each class since the start of the pandemic, contain both a summary of the day’s material and any announcements. After five-semesters of refinement, I feel I have a sense of the key features.

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Reflections on Physics 132 Spring ’22 Part I – Updates on the use of TAs in large-enrollment Introductory Physics for Life Sciences courses

Another semester is in the bag, and, if all goes according to plan, this will be the last time I teach physics 132 for quite a while. As such, I think a deep reflection on the semester is particularly warranted. While some changes/additions such as a fully remote option, there were several attributes added or revamped for this semester’s course. These, and existing features, all need consideration for their successes and areas for improvement. This is the first post in a series taking that deep dive into reflecting on Physics 132 Spring 22.

The teaching of large enrollment courses is always a team effort: requiring not only the instructor but also support staff such as lecture prep as well as both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs). During the Spring 2022 semester, Physics 132 had two graduate and seven undergraduate TAs. In order to optimally support student learning, I feel that, as leader of this team, my critical roles include: forming a team with diverse experiences and knowledge; leveraging each team member’s unique knowledge, skills, and perspective; promoting a culture wherein each TA feels their expertise is acknowledged; ensuring everyone feels comfortable in their role and empowered to do their best to support students.

 A successful TA team begins at its formation. When I started at UMass in 2015, I used graduate TAs exclusively as that was my prior experience. As time went on, and the level support I felt was necessary increased, I began to hire undergraduate TAs to help fill the gaps using exclusively upper-division physics majors. This preference for physics majors was not carefully considered. I am somewhat ashamed to admit this preference arose from a sort of “physics chauvinism.” I assumed that majors in their third and fourth years, with their presumably deeper knowledge of the content, would make the best TAs.

I have since discovered what, in retrospect, should have been obvious: that a more diverse teaching team that mixes in life-science majors who had previously been successful in the class was superior. While my assumption regarding the deeper knowledge of upper-division physics majors has turned out to be true, life-science majors bring several other important attributes which strengthen the team as a whole.  

The undergraduate Physics 132 alums not only bring their valuable perspective as former students in the course to the TA role, but also their life science knowledge and disciplinary mode of thinking are useful to share with the physicists on the team. Physics 132 is very much an introductory physics for life sciences course. In addition to biological applications sprinkled throughout the material, each unit has a central biologically- or chemically-authentic motivating context [link to talk]. Having biologists on the teaching team can help make these examples more authentic and can ensure that I am using the language with which my life-science students will be familiar. For example, I was using the term van der Waals interactions. However, thanks to my undergraduate TAs, I learned that the term London dispersion forces is more common. Thus, I switched to primarily using London dispersion forces while still mentioning van der Waals for those who may be more familiar with that term.

To further empower my team members, I adopted a new format for my weekly team meetings taken wholesale from Prof. Guy Blaylock in our department. In past semesters, I struggled with promoting engagement during these planning and preparation sessions. TAs would often remain quiet while I presented information about upcoming topics and would even remain reticent when I explicitly solicited their feedback on student challenges they had observed. Prof. Blaylock’s practice for these meetings involves assigning one teaching team member each week to present on the upcoming material with an emphasis on the particular challenges that they think students might face along with suggestions on how they themselves learned the material. To ensure that the presenting member was fully prepared for this role, they were notified a week in advance and had access to the prior semester’s materials.

This meeting format has, in my opinion, been a wildly successful switch. All my TAs were more engaged throughout the meeting process – not just when it was their turn to present. These presentations resulted in more feedback from the TAs on student difficulties, their own struggles with the material. I feel that giving officially dedicated space for TA insights gave them all permission to contribute as full members of the teaching team.

My role in these discussions was often became that of “translator:” explaining biological concepts to the physicist members of the teaching team and physics concepts to the biologists. This role forced me to grapple more deeply with the disciplinary differences between biology and physics resulting in, I feel, a better understanding for myself and thus a better course.

These observations are not just my own. The TAs themselves shared similar opinions in an end-of-semester evaluation of me. In the words of one TA, “I thought the structure of the team meetings each week was quite beneficial. Specifically, having each TA lead a brief discussion on the current and/or upcoming topic being taught in class often provided the rest of the team with tips on how to explain concepts students often struggle with using different approaches and perspectives that are conducive to a more wholesome understanding. Overall, the team meetings were more involved than those I attended the previous semester, which I felt made a difference in the way I engaged with students taking the course both during class and in the physics help room; there were numerous times were I employed suggestions taken from the team meetings and found that the concepts clicked with students after doing so.”

Beyond ensuring that the TAs were prepared for the material, I feel that giving the TAs the potential for ownership helped them feel more comfortable sharing other challenges with me. For example, two young women on my teaching team were comfortable enough to share some personal difficulties they were having with some students in the help room. I am very glad that I was able to create a sufficiently trusting environment that these two young women felt comfortable sharing this with me and that we were able to work together to find a solution to address the issue.   The fundamental philosophy of these meetings is, I think, beneficial to leadership in general: allow the team to have a substantial and empowered leadership role (as opposed to simply explaining their importance as I used to do). While I know that this is not at all a new idea, as a faculty member moving in to more roles of leadership, such insights are of critical importance. Perhaps a similar philosophy could be, at least partially, implemented in 691G?

My implementation of a fully flexible Physics 132

Showing my flexible learning setup.
A fully flexible setup.
Allowing participation in-person, synchronously remote, and asynchronous is quite complex!

As described in a previous post, the relaxation of the mask mandate at UMass Amherst around spring break motivated me to introduce a third way to attend Physics 132. For some time, this course had provided students the option to either attend in-person or engage asynchronously by watching the videos of lecture recorded by Echo360 later and completing in-class quizzes within the week via Moodle. However, the lifting of the mask mandate and a general push here at UMass promoting “flex learning” motivated me to add a synchronous remote option. For the second half of the semester, therefore, there were three different ways of engaging with the course: in-person, asynchronously, and the new synchronous remote.

Key features of the course that need to be present in all the different modalities

  1. The class is taught in a flipped style: students are responsible for engaging with the fundamentals of the content before we begin the unit via reading and homework problems. Students need the ability to get help with this material.
  2. To ensure adequate mastery of the preparation, there are (almost) daily one-question quizzes. Students need to be able to complete these quizzes regardless of their modality.
  3. Class time is spent in various ungraded activities including problem solving, conceptual questions. Students need to be encouraged to actively engage with the material as opposed to passively listening/watching.

How the different modalities achieve these goals

In-person

  1. Help with preparation: For those students who are physically present, we offer a slew of help hours in our help room. This room is open for significant parts of the day as shown in the schedule below. While the specific assignments for each TA are listed, any of the students in any of the service courses offered by our department can attend any hour.
  2. Engagement with quizzes: The quizzes are done via the iClicker system. This technology is the standard audience participation system at UMass and most of the students, being second and third year students, already have one. Therefore, these remotes do not imply an additional cost.
  3. Engagement with in-class activities: This goal is easiest to implement in-person. The social pressures of the room: giving dedicated time plus having myself and my TAs walk around, encourages most students to engage with the material.

Asynchronous attendance

  1. Help with preparation: In addition to the help room, we also organize Zoom-based help hours.
  2. Engagement with quizzes: In addition to the in-class quizzes, a related quiz is posted to Moodle each day. Students who do not take the quiz in class have one week to complete this quiz which has an 8min time limit.
  3. Engagement with in-class activities: Encouraging this behavior in students taking the course asynchronously is notoriously challenging. One way I tried to inspire students to go beyond just watching the videos is by segmenting them into smaller pieces and adding a card into the videos encouraging students to pause, try to solve the problem before moving on. To assist with this time consuming task, I hired a physics major with experience in video editing. This student’s physics knowledge was sufficient to figure out logical breaks.
A screenshot of the video uploaded to Echo360 system. Note the captions provided by PowerPoint, the camera of the room, and the instructions overlaid encouraging students to pause the video and solve it before moving on.
A screenshot of the video uploaded to Echo360 system. Note the captions provided by PowerPoint, the camera of the room, and the instructions overlaid encouraging students to pause the video and solve it before moving on.

Synchronous zoom-based attendance

  1. Help with preparation: the Zoom-based help hours are also useful for these students.
  2. Engagement with quizzes: UMass students who purchase an iClicker also gain free access to the cloud-based app which they can download to their mobile devices. Via the app, students can engage with the iClickers the same as students who are attending in person.
  3. Engagement with in-class activities: Students who choose this option attend class via Zoom. A single TA is assigned to manage the Zoom room: answering questions, facilitating conversation etc. The aim is for this guidance, plus the dedicated time during the class session, to promote students trying the problem as opposed to simply waiting for me to go over it.

Different ways students can move between the modalities

Primarily in-person

Some students will come to almost every class of their own volition. Others like to have some extrinsic motivator to encourage their attendance. For both of these groups, I offer the opportunity to join in-class teams which I organize via the CATME system which helps ensure equitable team formation. Students who elect to join such teams have an explicit attendance expectation enforced through the in-class quizzes; team members are limited in the number of times they can use the Moodle quizzes to four times or less during the semester. However, the various remote options are available for the occasional absence.

Significantly remote

This course is dominated by second and third year students as shown by the figure below. However, there are also a significant number of students in their final semester before graduation. Many of these students have a lot of external responsibilities: job interviews, touring graduate schools, etc. Other students have unanticipated life events that require them to be away from campus for extended periods, while still others find remote attendance to be more accessible. These students might complete a significant portion of the course remotely: either synchronously or asynchronously. These students are still encouraged to work together. However, there is no official recognition of their groups and, as such, no attendance requirement at all.

The demographic breakdown of Physics 132.

Exams and labs were still in person

As described in a previous post, the exams for this course were hosted on Moodle. Even so, given the challenges of remote proctoring, all students, including those who completed most of the rest of the course remotely were required to come to exams in person except in exceptional circumstances such as COVID-19 isolation. Moreover, remote labs are always a unique challenge. Remote labs for electronics and optics doubly so due to the equipment requirements. Therefore, all students were also required to attend lab in-person.

How it went

Technically

In terms of the technical aspects of the fully flexible course, I think it went pretty well. Students seemed to like the flexibility and things went rather smoothly. A full picture of the setup is visible at the top of this post. In general, however, the Zoom room was run by one of my TAs who was also the facilitator of collaboration. A key for this TA was to provide a separate webcam for them to use as the camera angle of most built-in laptop webcams is not very good. The sound was also passed through this laptop as sound was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for my surface’s hardware and bandwidth. We connected a Jabber microphone to the TA’s laptop. Sound, therefore, ultimately went from my mouth through the room microphone (which recorded the sound for the Echo360 viewing later), into the Jabber, and then to Zoom. Meanwhile, my surface hosted the slides with closed captioning, a Zoom chat window (for questions during the lecture), a webcam, and a document camera for demos.

Socially

This was a bit more mixed. I had a statement of expectations (reproduced below) which students had to read and earn a 100% quiz on (unlimited attempts) in order to get the Zoom link. However, the level of engagement on Zoom was still not the same as in class. Moreover, I had almost no students turning on their cameras, an issue with which most faculty who have taught remotely will be very familiar. Finally, I am concerned that some of the students who elected to engage via Zoom were simply doing it so as to not need to come to the classroom at 9:05 or 10:10 in the morning. I suspect that many of these students may have benefited more by being present. I will look into the data from the semester and see what it says.

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Reflections on the use of Moodle-based exams in a large enrollment intro physics course

This past year, I have experimented with Moodle-based exams. This is a holdover from the remote instruction that I, along with basically everyone else, was forced to do during the COVID-19 pandemic. Personally, I am not a fan of traditional scantron-based multiple choice exams, preferring long answer. My motivation for this is based on the feeling that multiple choice exams test students’ ability to recognize a correct answer and/or use process of elimination to narrow down the choices to those that are most probable. Long answer exams, in contrast, require students to write detailed solutions and explain/justify their work in words – tasks which engage some of the “higher-order” domains of Bloom’s Taxonomy1.

Bloom's taxonomy
Bloom’s Taxonomy: labelled as creative commons licensed from https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/studystrategizesucceed/wp-content/uploads/sites/327/2018/02/Blooms-Graphic.png.

Despite my preference for long-answer exams, their implementation in courses of several hundred is difficult as the grading quickly becomes intractable. While some physics departments include the needed grading resources to grade several hundred long-answer exams into the TA workload allotment, UMass Amherst’s Physics Department does not by custom. My solution in the past has been to do a hybrid exam: 10ish multiple choice questions and then two long answer. Typically, one of these long answer questions would be a traditional “solve the algebra” while the other would require students to explain a physics phenomenon in words. While this worked in terms of respecting the TA workload, there were still challenges. The primary issue was turn around time. I felt that giving the TAs two weekends to complete the grading was the minimum. As such, a minimum of two weeks would pass before students would get their full exams back. Two weeks in my courses is typically a full unit out of the five in the course. After such a long turn around time, students had moved on and did not get as much learning out of the exam feedback as the would have if the exams had been returned more promptly.

Moodle-based exams, by contrast, allow for grades to be released immediately if the instructor so desires (I typically take a few days for review the scores to look for problematic questions etc.). In my mind, the pedagogical benefit of this immediate feedback compensates for the losses arising from a lack of long-answer questions particularly when the variety of auto-graded question types provided by Moodle is considered.

In contrast to paper scantrons, which are limited to five-choice multiple choice questions, Moodle allows for: unlimited numbers of choices, multiple select, entering numbers, fill in the blank (via drop down or string matching), and placing markers on images. In the case of physics, these question types can be quite useful. Questions which require students to enter a number are, of course, obviously applicable. The unlimited choices are also useful as all the possible options, for say the direction of a vector, can be available. With a little creativity, the other question types can also be employed. For example, questions which require students to place a marker on an image can be useful for ray diagrams; the configuration of lenses can be superimposed on a grid which is printed and given to students which they can use to solve the problem. Once students have figured out the location of all intermediate images and the final image, they can use the grid to place markers in the correct location on the screen.

An example usage of the "place marker on image" question type applied to ray diagrams.
An example usage of the place marker on image question type applied to ray diagrams. Students place the markers for “Intermediate image” and “Final image” in the correct spots. The grid helps students precisely transfer their work from a paper version of the setup to the screen.

Instructors can also include videos or animations in the exam questions. This can be useful to clarify questions that are difficult to word in an unambiguous way. Videos can also provide a connection between the exam and very real phenomena. A question can include a video of, for example, a demonstration which the students then need to explain as part of answering the question.

Beyond the student experience of the exam, Moodle provides other advantages. Students who need to be away on exam day due to minor illness or participation in a University sanctioned event, can take the exam remotely. The experience that almost all instructors have been forced to develop over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic makes this relatively straight forward, particularly considering the small fraction of the students who will need such accommodations. Also, Moodle makes it easy to, over time, build up a nice question bank of problems. Tags can be used to keep track of the content of each problem as well as to record the last time a problem was used.

Of course, exam integrity is always a key concern when considering computer-based exams. The proctored environment is one key. Another important step to maintaining exam integrity is to remove any need for students to switch windows: provide printed equation sheets and require external calculators, for example. There are also several other features one can build into the exam which help promote exam integrity which, for obvious reasons, I do not want to share publicly. If you are an instructor and would like to hear some of these tips, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

In summary, Moodle (and other LMS systems) provide a nice format for hosting exams in large enrollment courses. Such exams are, in my opinion, still inferior to full long-answer paper-based exams. However, such exams can be difficult to implement for large enrollment courses and generally result in very delayed feedback which we know to limit the educational value of examinations. Moodle provides a nice middle-ground between sophisticated questions and rapid feedback. In addition, such systems provide the instructor additional benefits reducing the need for makeups and maintaining lists of questions.


  1. I acknowledge the limitations of Bloom’s Taxonomy particularly in terms of thinking about levels, but it is a useful framework for conversation.