P361 – Introduction to Principles of Active Learning in Physics Education

What is PHYS 361?

PHYS 361 is a course proposed by Brokk Toggerson and approved in Fall 2018 to address some needs that arise from teaching Physics 131 in a team-based learning format and to help meet a demand for an introduction to principles of education from some of our students. The goal of this course is to provide an introduction to some of the modern researched-based pedagogies used in physics educational research in a theoretical way as well as providing students an opportunity to both observe and practice these techniques in a real classroom as a member of the PHYS 131 instructional team. Students be attending a P131 section, which is taught in a Team-Based Learning (TBL) format, and answering questions of students during the class-time activities. Moreover, students will watch and reflect upon the P131 instructor’s use of modern teaching techniques. There will also be a weekly meeting for students to explore the principles underlying modern pedagogical best-practices.

To get the materials for this mature course, please fill out this form.

Why Teach P361?

PHYS 361 Meets a Need in P131

One of the challenges of running a successful TBL version of P131 involves personnel. In order for the students to receive the immediate feedback necessary to make the system work, there needs to be a minimum student:staff ratio of about 20:1. There are not enough graduate student TA resources to meet this demand. Fortunately, undergraduate physics majors, being nearer-peers to the P131 students excel in providing such feedback. Moreover, there is a significant demand from students for an experience that provides insight into physics education.

Demand for a Teaching Experience

According to American Physical Society Statistics, approximately 8% of physics majors will work in high school environments upon graduation[1]. Moreover, the 57% of those who proceed on to graduate school will most likely be expected to serve as teaching assistants while those who move into industry or government upon graduation will most likely be expected to be involved in training at some point. Currently, no courses in the Physics Department at UMass, Amherst exists to provide students with any experience in teaching and education. A similar lack of support and preparation for physics majors interested in the teaching profession exists nationwide and was a subject of an article in the January 2016 issue of the News of the American Physical Society[2].

Course Structure

The course is divided into four units as shown in the week-by-week schedule shown below.

Unit I – Basics of Teaching

  • Week 1 – Intro to the course and your identity as a teacher
  • Week 2 – Learning is active and developing some techniques to be effective in the P131 classroom. Problems vs. exercises.
  • Week 3 – Properties of novice physics learners and effectively helping them in the classroom
  • Week 4 – Other active learning techniques you can use in your own classrooms
During this unit, students will begin a teaching journal reflecting on their practice throughout the semester. This journal will ultimately be turned in at the end of the semester.

Unit II – Backward Design

  • Week 5 – What is backward design? Thinking about your students
  • Week 6 – Developing goals for a course
  • Week 7 – Developing objectives for a unit
This unit will end with an assignment wherein students practice backward design by writing the goals for a course, objectives for a unit within that course, and an associated exam question.

Unit III – Evaluating teaching and issues of identity

  • Week 8 – Challenges with evaluating teaching
  • Week 9 – Interpreting teaching evaluations. Who you are impacts how you relate to others. What are you?
  • Week 10 – Principles of Universal Design for Learning. Projecting.
  • Week 11 – More workshop on Universal Design for Learning
This unit will end with an assignment where students develop instructional models for 3-D printing using the principles of Universal Design for Learning

Unit IV – Teaching Philosophy and Reflecting

  • Week 12 – Teaching philosophy workshop
  • Week 13 – Workshop/reflection/wrapping-up the semester
This unit ends with the student writing a teaching philosophy for their final assignment.

Project Leaders

Brokk Toggerson


[1] American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center. Physics Bachelor’s Initial Employment. June 2015. https://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/employment/bachinitemp-p-12.1.pdf. Accessed 9 March 2016.

[2] J. Stewart, G. Stewart, and A. Robinson. Recruiting High School Physics Teachers. APS News. Vol 25 (1). January 2016.