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Helping under-prepared students in introductory physics

Posted by Melissa on February 17, 2009

Although every class presents its own challenges, I’ve found teaching introductory physics presents a unique set of issues associated with the diversity of preparation that students bring to the classroom.  Students arrive at college having taken a range of different high school physics and math courses with different levels of rigor, different amounts of lab work, and taught by high school teachers with varying familiarity of physics. At Carleton, there’s no introductory physics class solely for pre-meds, nor one class recommended for all future physics majors. We don’t offer an algebra-based introductory physics course, and we don’t encourage students who scored well on the AP to skip introductory physics. Nevertheless, in an attempt to ensure students don’t find themselves in courses where they are either overwhelmed or bored, we offer four different “flavors” of introductory mechanics: Physics 131 Newtonian Mechanics, Physics 132 Gravity and the Earth, Physics 141 Gravity and the Cosmos, and Physics 142 Matter and Interactions, which is based on the Chabay and Sherwood text of the same name.  Physics 141 and 142 are intended for students with a strong preparation in physics and math, and these courses revisit mechanics concepts in a context that differs from what students might have seen previously, while Physics 131 and 132 are intended for those students who haven’t had as much physics or aren’t as confident of their background.

Of the four flavors of introductory mechanics, I have only taught Physics 131 Newtonian Mechanics. This course is similar to the standard introductory mechanics course you might find at colleges across the country. It often includes a few students who have never taken physics in high school as well as a few students who have taken two years of physics in high school but for reasons of scheduling end up in 131, and there are a huge range of backgrounds in between. Designing the course to meet the needs of all these students is difficult.  I find myself particularly concerned about students who have a strong interest in physics, but struggle to keep up because of poor preparation from their previous high school physics and/or math classes. These under-prepared students are incredibly bright and did well in their high school coursework, but they come from high schools that did not offer a rigorous, comprehensive science and math curriculum, and as a result, they face more challenges than peers who arrived with better preparation.

In an effort to find ways to help underprepared students in introductory physics, I just read Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education by Kathleen Gabriel. Gabriel seems to work with students who are truly unprepared, some of whom must take remedial courses because they are not ready for college-level coursework. I haven’t found any Carleton students to be unprepared for college work, but as mentioned above, some students are under-prepared as compared to their peers. Reading Gabriel’s book, I took away three ideas for helping students, particularly under-prepared students, succeed in introductory physics.

1) Both teachers and students should be explicit about expectations, responsibilities, and goals for a course. Gabriel is a proponent of leaving no guideline, expectation, or justification unwritten. While I’m not confident that I can be as detailed as Gabriel suggests, the book certainly made me realize that the more that is unwritten (and Gabriel truly contends that these ideas must be written and not just conveyed verbally), the more you put under-prepared students at a disadvantage. Students benefit if they know both what is expected of them and why, as well as what they can (and cannot) expect of the instructor and why.

If faculty must be explicit in their discussions with students, Gabriel also contends that it is important to ask students to be explicit as well. Students need to identify why they are taking a course, what they want to get out of it, and how they will work to achieve those goals. According to Gabriel, faculty members who are trying to help struggling students shouldn’t accept student explanations that they will improve by “working harder” or “studying more.” Instead professors should ask the student to lay out concrete steps for how the student will approach the coursework and make use of additional support mechanisms. Clear, detailed communication, not just about course content but about other aspects of learning and teaching, is a critical component of helping under-prepared students succeed.

2)    Recognizing that learning styles vary, faculty should help students identify how to adapt their study strategies based on their learning preferences. Gabriel suggests faculty members have students take a learning styles inventory at the beginning of a course, and then talk with students about their learning styles. While using varied instructional approaches to address different learning styles is helpful, it’s not possible to create a classroom where all learning styles are engaged equally.  Students (particularly under-prepared students who are questioning their place in a course or the college environment as a whole) need to understand that the challenges they face in a particular course are not necessarily related to a lack of ability, but rather  may be due to a mismatch between their learning style and the instructor’s teaching style.   Gabriel notes that under-prepared students often struggle to find study strategies that complement their learning style preferences.

Prompted by the discussion in the book, I explored the on-line Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire by Solomon and Felder. This website produces an overview of learning styles when it returns the questionnaire results, and is a website to which I would be comfortable sending my students. Through the learning styles inventory website, I stumbled upon Richard Felder’s 1993 article from the Journal of College Science Teaching, “Reaching the Second Tier: Learning and Teaching Styles in College Science Education.” I found it provided relevant suggestions about how to address varied learning styles in the science classroom and an interesting discussion of how the strengths of different types of learners correspond to students bringing different strengths to the science profession  (i.e. theorist/experimentalist, discipline-based/interdisciplinary).

3)     Under-prepared students are more likely to find success in a learner-centered classroom that includes a variety of activities and approaches than in a traditional instructor-centered classroom, where lectures are the norm. For those who follow the physics education literature, it comes as no surprise that students do better in a classroom where they are expected to actively engage with the material and participate in activities during class, but for under-prepared students this is especially true.  However, in light of the above learning styles inventory, it also became clear to me that reflective learners may appreciate a different kind of opportunity for in-class engagement than active learners.

Additionally, Gabriel stresses the importance of including a variety of formative assessments, activities, and feedback beginning early in the course to allow students to evaluate their understanding before any formal assessment, such as a quiz or exam, is administered.  In my introductory physics classes, I tend to assume that pre-class warm-up questions, in-class problem solving, and homework problem sets provide students sufficient opportunities to assess whether they are understanding the material, but based on Gabriel’s book, I think I might have to re-examine my assumption and offer students more varied opportunities to assess their understanding. Gabriel provides some good ideas for doing this, as well as suggestions for getting students who are not doing well on the formative assessments to come for help  She points out that formative assessment is a way to help students build confidence while evaluating their performance in a low-risk manner.

I’d recommend Gabriel’s book as it is a quick read that has some concrete ideas for the classroom. I’d also be interested in hearing what tricks of the trade others use in their introductory classes to help even the playing field for students with varied preparation.


One Response to “Helping under-prepared students in introductory physics”

  1. Dr. Sanford Aranoff said

    What is essential is to undertand how students think and build from there. We must understand what the principles of physics are, and communicate. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

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