P132 – Second Semester IPLS

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Focus of 132

The syllabus for the course can be found at this link.

A second-semester IPLS course centered on two central questions: “What is an electron? What is light?”

The student demographics are similar to 131. In this second semester course, these are the big questions that I am hoping to provide at least some answers to  over the course of this semester. Understanding these two basic elements and how they interact with each other will help students better understand many other fields of science and technology from chemistry to electronics. 

In addition to these big overarching questions, each of our units also focus on a specific question or context from chemistry or biology to guide our investigations. We, of course, look at other contexts as well, but we return to these primary questions repeatedly throughout the unit.

The five units of the course

Unit Number – Name(Conventional Name)Central question from biology and chemistry that we will exploreStart Date /
Homework due date
Unit I – What is the Fundamental Nature of Light and Electrons?
(Quantum Mechanics)
Why does chemistry work? We know electrons in atoms exist in discrete energy levels, why?First day of class
Homework due: 29 January
Exam ICovers Unit I13 February
Unit II – How do light and electrons move around and interact with matter?
(Geometric Optics)
The human eye, how does it work? Why do different people have different glasses prescriptions? 18 February
Unit III – How does having charge impact how electrons behave?
Gel electrophoresis and membrane potentials: both of these biological techniques center around the idea of “voltage.” What is “voltage?” How is it related to the ideas of force and energy we discussed in 131?2 March
Exam IICumulative through Unit III26 March
Unit IV – Getting electrons to move together and how can we use that? How do neurons work?
The neuron: how can we model it as an electrical circuit? What can we learn about the biology by looking at a neuron from this perspective?1 April
Unit V – Where does magnetism come from? What is waving in a light wave?How does this whole course fit together? 19 April
Exam IIICumulative through Unit VFirst week of May

How 132 is taught: a Team-Based Learning pedagogy in a 300-person lecture hall

My experience in Physics 131 has truly convinced me of the power of a flipped team-based model. The flipped model ensures a common baseline for all students regardless of prior preparation and skipping “boring” base-level information. Instead, I can jump right into challenging conceptual corners and more interesting applications. I also love the energy of the 131 classroom where students really get into solving problems. Physics 132, therefore follows the same structure as 131: five units each comprised of preparatory homework, summative assessment on that homework, and days of in-class problem solving. There is no required end-of-unit homework, although worksheets of sample problems are provided for additional practice for those who want it. The fundamental challenge for Physics 132, however, has always been how to implement this pedagogical strategy in a room ill suited for it.

The physical spaces of Physics 131 and 132

Physics 131 is in a wonderful classroom with round tables and whiteboards on the walls. Myself and my TAs can easily see which groups are stuck and physically get to them to help them out. Physics 132, on the other hand, is in a standard lecture hall with rows so close together that there is no possible way that in-classroom assistants could possibly get to each individual group.

Impact of the space on student behavior

While I have not conducted systematic studies, the different layouts of the two rooms has an obvious impact on student behavior. The lecture hall of Physics 132 prompts students to engage in the same behaviors that they have followed in previous lecture halls: attend if you feel like it, sit quietly, take notes, and do not interact with your neighbors/peers. The Physics 131 classroom, with its non-traditional design, breaks student expectations, especially when students are required to get up from their seats and work at the whiteboards on the walls; when working on wall-based whiteboards, students’ attention is focused somewhere else than their notebooks and they focus on solving the problems instead of copying. In addition, the round tables encourage interaction with peers as students are face-to-face, which enhances team cohesion relative to students trying to work together in a lecture hall.

I hypothesize that these two factors, improved group cohesion and daily interaction with classroom staff, are the reasons for the difference in attendance that I have traditionally observed between Physics 131 and lecture-hall based courses. In previous iterations of Physics 132, as well as other lecture courses I have taught, attendance always starts high and then drops down to about 60% by the end of the semester if attendance is not required (and that is if you are doing well!). In contrast, the attendance in Physics 131 is typically in excess of 80% without any grade-based attendance requirements. I suspect that the social pressures and the classroom environment of Physics 131 are the driving factors.

Challenges of implementing TBL in a large lecture hall

Opt-in teams

In the current iteration of 132 teams are opt-in. Due to the poor layout of the room for team-based learning, I am ethically uncomfortable with requiring students to participate in teams. Students must therefore select to be on a team. Moreover, I feel that team participation should be benefit-driven (carrots) and not punishment-driven (sticks).

Another motivation for opt-in teams is established by the room itself. If every student is in a team, some teams would be in the middle of the rows of seats devoid of access to in-classroom assistants and at a significant disadvantage. Perhaps this disadvantage could be spread out by rotating which teams would be in the middle, but that gets logistically complex very quickly. In an opt-in team system, enough students elect to go it alone (so called solos) that the middle of the rows can be populated with them ensuring that every team has aisle, and therefore assistant, access. Assistant access then becomes a non-grade-based carrot for team membership.

Challenges In Developing Team Cohesion

Previous Iterations

In previous iterations of Physics 132, teams of four were formed and expected to work together in class. Four seems to be the maximum size that I can expect to work together in the hall: two in front and two behind. I spent a class day after team formation to provide a space for teams to set their own norms regarding attendance etc. The only graded team-based assignments, however, were as part of the pyramid exams. While these pyramid exam grades were manipulated by a peer evaluation using the CATME system, there were still several complaints in the course-evaluations about team-members not showing up or failing to participate. In fact, since the quizzes on preparation were given online, there were zero extrinsic motivators to attend class.

The teams are hit or
miss because you can have teammates who
never show up to class because there is no
penalty for missing class since there aren’t
iclickers or anything like that.

Course evaluation comment from Spring 2018

Preparation quizzes as a way to facilitate team bonding

One of the ways in which the teams in Physics 131 bond is through the preparatory quizzes. At the beginning of each of 131’s five units, students complete a 10-question quiz first on their own and then as a team using the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT) cards. These quizzes provide a social pressure to not only come to class, but to be prepared for team members. Moreover they exert an equalizing pressure: students who may be over-confident are quickly corrected. I believe that the lack of such a team-cohesion opportunity with immediate feedback was one of the problems in previous versions of 132 teams.

Logistic Challenges of Preparation Quizzes

How to give a 10-question quiz to 300 students in 50 minutes to a room with limited mobility? The logistics in 131 are fairly simple. Due to the room, students can wait for the other four members of their team to finish, hand in their individual quizzes, get an IF-AT card, go out in the hall, and leave when they are finished. Such a system is impossible in a lecture hall. What if the student in the middle of a row finishes early? They cannot get up and begin the team portion without disturbing at least 30 students! Moreover, the 131 class sessions are 75 minutes which has always been sufficient time for all students, even those who may need extended time, to complete the quiz and still finish the team portion. Fifty minutes, on the other hand, would not be enough time and thus some system of accommodating students who may need more time would be needed. In a class of several hundred, and system that requires individual accommodation becomes logistically unweildly very quickly.

Solution: Daily Single Question Quizzes

While asking students to wait for all students to finish a 10-question quiz is unreasonable, asking them to wait for all students to finish a one-question quiz is fine. Each day, I therefore gave a single question quiz, graded by iClicker. The students would complete the question individually and then cooperatively: students who were members of organized teams were instructed to work with their teams while those who were solo just worked with whomever was sitting next to them. The topic of the quiz was always announced in advance so that students could prepare.

To cover all absence issues a certain number of quizzes were dropped. To ensure attendance, those who elected to be on a team had the lowest four quiz scores dropped. Solos had the lowest twelve. There are 39 days in a semester. This system resulted in much higher attendance and drastically fewer comments regarding team members’ attendance.

I have a great appreciation for my team. Although I was worried at first because I highly dislike group/team based classes or work, it ended up being perfectly fine at the end. I don’t know how much effort goes in to creating these teams, but Dr. Toggerson or whomever created the teams did a good job when pairing mine together. I learned a lot and stepped out of my comfort zone several times. I enjoyed contributing to a team that cared as much as I did. Learning physics (a subject I most definitely dread) was actually a lot more fun. I definitely have somewhat of a better understanding of it – and I can thank my teammates for helping contribute to that understanding.

A student’s feedback on participating in a team during Spring 2019