Outline:Project Members and Abstract
Changes and Improvements
Method for Evaluation of the Project
Results and Feedback
Theoretical Perspectives and Discussions
Theoretical Perspectives and DiscussionsThis project was completely conducted based upon students' feedback, TAs' observation, our insights, and consistent discussion. We did not follow any policy or educational standpoint. However, it is beneficial to discuss with educational theories to reflect our work. Constructivism point of view In Wikipedia, "Constructivism is a theory of knowledge that argues that humans generate knowledge and meaning from an interaction between their experiences and their ideas." There are many aspects to summarize it as a method, according to Jonassen and Land (2002), there are three main ideas, which are context, construction and collaboration. These can be summarized as follows:
- Contextualized real-world setting This emphasizes that the tasks must be authentic and associated with reality, which can be social situation, scientific applications, etc. The topics are provided as case- or problem-based, instead of structured instruction; in general, a topic to be learned by students should be situated with other resources.
- Constructive learning Learners should be learning constructive ways, such as mustering pieces of evidence, conjecturing consequences with logical systems, presenting results to share them with others. The discussion should be pragmatic, which is based upon causes and effects or needs and solutions, and also dialectic over theoretical contradictions to approach truth. The derivation has to be moderate that is not too simplified, not far-fetched, or not distorted. Practices should have reflective nature.
- Collaborative environment Group working, negotiation toward understanding, task division among group members, exchanging information in the group, monitoring or encouraging toward progress among group member, etc. are procured as a learning environment.
By referring to the above theory, let us discuss what we have done with making a new curriculum. As we already mentioned, the previous (traditional) curricula did not consider students' learning process. Most of students are novice to mathematical and physical sciences; however, the manual's instruction expected students to know the entire basic ideas, which are not constructive toward their understanding (especially for these particular students). Furthermore, most of students do not grasp the experimental settings to comprehend the concept, meaning of data, and causes of errors, even at the end of semester. The solution we tried is to facilitate the bridges so they can understand the basic ideas and they can construct it as their own knowledge. The picture instructions, warning messages, and questions help them reflect what they experienced. By considering their math and science abilities, we include various elaborated ideas into the new lab textbook so they can learn them by themselves. The entire idea owes our investigation toward students' background for more than four years at the University of Southern Mississippi.
To improve students' understanding, we simplify the experiment setup so students can overlook the physics well. Questions are provided after each section to challenge students' conceptual understanding, students' justification toward their data, comparison with the theory, and possible applications or interpretation of related natural phenomena. Most of ambiguous instructions have been excluded, such as purely mathematical concepts, etc. In addition, we include some open-ended questions so students can discover things in their daily experiences to contextualize the idea in terms of real-world setting.
Doing lab with partners already facilitates their group work, but the textbook does not indicate a specific group work. One of the reasons is when the experiment is unmonitored, group work may cause unbalanced task distribution among the members, which has been reported by our students and it makes them de-motivated to keep studying the subject. According to Linn and Burbules (1993), group learning can be effective with other control conditions and teaching methods. Thus, instead of advocating group work, we arranged that the lab procedures allow students to work together. For example, one student holds a cart and the other click the start. The feedback from summer showed that it was effective way to facilitate the group learning environment.
The textbook has been designed as a "teacher-independent manual" so any new TAs can teach the topics effectively. Therefore, we focused on not only how students responded but how TAs interpreted the instructions. We also had to avoid students' rote learning. Although teachers' ability is found out to be very influencing toward students' learning through this project, how we construct the lab manual can improve students' understanding the subjects, which agrees on the theory of constructivism and the related methods.
Discussion with an article, Teaching for Understanding
Let us discuss students' understanding of physics labs with an article (American Educator in 1993). First of all, we have to acknowledge "Education plays an important role to aim for active use of knowledge and skills in the long term." Perkins, (1992). However, most of schools emphasize grade-centered education. Students are forced to obtain a better grade one way or another without understanding the subject. Therefore, quite a few students tend to conduct cheating or plug-in physics as some form of rote learning. Even under a well-conducted class, good students who are able to obtain a good score still have misconceptions in the topics. In general, Gardner, (1991) says that, even in a good school, quite a few students hold misconceptions in science. Reforming school's quality of education is not straightforward since many of the factors are involved, such as teachers, textbooks, problems for quizzes and exams, lab equipment, demonstrations, curriculum, methods, politics, etc. Furthermore, here at the University of Southern Mississippi, low pre-college education on STEM is also a great burden to improve the entire issue. The referred article also mentions, "Teaching for understanding is not simply another way of teaching, just as manageable as the usual lecture, exercise-test method. It involves genuinely more intricate classroom choreography." This epitomizes what we have been experiencing.
About four years ago, the physics lab at USM was almost completely disorganized. There were not enough number of pieces of equipment, and some of them were broken. Not only the lab equipment, but most of the computers and printers did not work properly. The graduate TAs and I conducted several projects to organize the lab and fix various problems for a couple of years to establish infrastructure of the lab education system. We have reduced tremendous amount of problems and TAs are able to focus on their teaching more.
Last couple of years (2009 - 2011), I was able to get into more details of students' understanding from the lecture side as the instructor. Also TAs and I have had profound discussions to challenge our limitation of knowledge toward introductory physics education. We found out that there were quite a few problems in the lab manual, especially for PHY111 and PHY112. The physics curriculum should be different since the life-science and geological-science majors have completely different ways to learn physics compared with physics and engineering majors. In addition to that, these students tend to be de-motivated or only externally motivated to study physics, such as requirement. They use plug-in physics as one of the rote learning to pass the classes. A quite a few students have told that they did not understand the class even they obtained an A as the final grade. We have also observed that the professors have to lower the level of curriculum so appropriate number of students can pass the class. Namely, no student is left behind in a way, but most students will be left behind in the long term from a global aspect.
The physics lab curriculum is supposed to be effective so students can do hands-on experiments to confirm what they learn in the lecture class. However, most of labs do not make students learn effectively. From my interview with physics TAs at other universities, the arrangements are structured, and it is not easy to be interested in teaching. Some people practically do not think that lab part can be beneficial to the lecture. Even though the lab topics seem to follow on the lecture topics, the concept does not make sense to students because the curriculum ignores their learning process. From this referred article by Perkins, to improve understanding, "Occasions of assessment should occur throughout the learning process from beginning to end. Sometimes, they may involve feedback from the teacher, sometimes from peers, sometimes from students' self evaluation." The current lecture and lab curricula absolutely lack such communication and evaluation.
Our main strategy to repair the education system is observation of what and how students understand the topic, students' behavior, and students' ability or background. Students' direct feedback and TAs' ideas have been aggressively collected. The most important keyword is students' (and even teachers') understanding. Most of students are semi-forcibly taking physics as requirement, which implies that understanding can be sacrificed for the credit or a better grade. In addition, it is difficult to deal with such students since they tend to give up grasping the subject due to some external factors, such as teachers, textbook, quiz problems, exams, etc. Therefore, we had to design the curriculum an optimized way to support students' learning process. The article refers to Case (1985), Case (1992) and Fischer (1980), "Understanding complex concepts may often depend on a 'central conceptual structure' i.e., certain patterns of quantitative organization, narrative structure, and more that cut across disciplines." Physics contains complex concepts and it is often hard for most people to understand them to apply to related problems. In the same sense, it is not easy for them to see physics concepts even in their daily lives. As mentioned already, the questions right after each section are included in the lab manuals to assist their connectivity of knowledge. " We need to teach explicitly for transfer, helping students to make the connections they otherwise might not make, and helping them to cultivate mental habits of connection-making." Brown (1989), Perkins and Salomon (1988), and Salomon and Perkins (1989) Also, "Better education calls for a simplification of agendas and a deepened emphasis on understanding." Sizer (1984) This statement illustrates a best design of curriculum; however, the reality is not so straightforward. If the students have low motivation with inability, promoting them to understand is one of the hardest jobs since normal methodology cannot be applied. In addition, most of the educational institutes disregard the quality of such efforts, which also discourages teachers' efforts. This results in allowing a number of students to pass; namely, only quantity matters. We need to consider sociological factors for further discussions, which give us an idea of how to set the rules and framework in terms of people's collective behavior.
As mentioned, a lab curriculum must have a tight connectivity between teachers, students, and pieces of equipment. This is completely different from any other lecture curricula due to flexibility with the schedule. We have discussed the lab textbook as a part of the curriculum: How do students follow the instructions? How can we design the instructions and questions so they can "understand", not just getting done? What are the appropriate parameters such as hanging mass to obtain accurate results for students? Does the experimentation make sense to students to understand the physics concept? Is it easy for TAs to follow the flow of lab procedures? Is there any item (unclear wording etc.) to interrupt TAs' instruction during the lab? After summer, we have also found the things beyond writing the textbook: Since the textbook has concise instruction and detailed procedure, teachers' instructional ability to students becomes more exposed. Namely, teachers have to know the class management such as checking out students' proper results, answering students' questions in an appropriate manner, and convincing them of how reasonable or unreasonable the results are. This fact also encourages us to make more philosophical discussions on education.
When students accumulate their own knowledge to understand the physics "context", they become eager to obtain more accurate results. This forms their internal motivations rather than external incentives such as a better grade or extra credits.
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