|Talk About Teaching and Learning
March 19, 2013,
Volume 59, No. 25
Teaching Large Physics Courses: Challenges and Rewards
Large science introductory courses pose a special challenge for both students and instructors. A majority of the students enrolled in these courses have enrolled in them only because the course is a requirement for their respective major or for the general education requirements. On the other hand, the course topics cover the basics of the field, and while the material does not pose much of an intellectual challenge for instructors, it is critical that the students are given a solid grounding in the subject. Courses in physics, my field of expertise, face additional challenges due to specific conceptual approaches to problem solving and applications of mathematical techniques.
My colleagues and I are faced with these challenges when assigned to teach such large physics courses, which in my case are calculus-based core physics courses on Mechanics (PHYS-150) and Electromagnetics (PHYS-151). These courses are usually taken by engineering students, increasing numbers of pre-med students and students intending to major in physics, of course. The subjects covered are typically difficult and challenging for many students, since they introduce a number of more abstract concepts unfamiliar to them and employ calculus. While such courses are taught in multiple sections, with coordinated topics and common exams, specific sections often end up with more than a hundred students. Thus, the first challenge is that a majority of students do not connect with the course material, since
these courses are only one of the requirements to achieve their career goals, and conceptual and technical difficulties (such as the extensive use of calculus) get in the way. On the other hand, the second challenge is that instructors too have a hard time connecting to the material, which is elementary for them and typically far removed from their actual research.
As an assistant professor at Penn, I had a bumpy start teaching such a large course. To some extent, it was due to my mistakenly using rather impersonal teaching methods inherited from my formal undergraduate education in Europe. In this regard, I would like to acknowledge a great piece of advice I received from Professor Walter Wales, who not only held an impressive number of leadership roles in the department of physics and astronomy, the School of Arts & Sciences, and the central University administration, but was also a wonderful teacher in the physics department and a great influence and mentor to me. At the early stages of my start in teaching, he told me something along these lines: “You have to connect with students at the beginning, during the first few lectures. If you manage to build a bond with them at that stage, students will forgive any later minor teaching lapses, such as a missed minus sign or a flawed experimental demonstration.” I took his advice to heart, and it was transformative. I developed a teaching style that connects students with the material by bringing to lectures my own scientific experience and outlook. This approach turns out to be first of all rewarding for our students, but it has also become a very rewarding part of my academic career.
As a general strategy to achieve students’ connection with the material, I strive to convey to students not only the core principles, but also to project my own enthusiasm and the perspective that drew me into studying physics and pursuing research in my field of theoretical high energy physics. I bring to lectures a personal outlook on the subject, which is not available from most basic physics books. Furthermore, due to the specific challenges of physics, I hope to elucidate the core concepts of physics by connecting them to research topics of current interest whenever possible. As an example, from the perspective of my research in theoretical physics that involves the quest for unification of the fundamental forces of nature, I introduce electric and magnetic phenomena as the first example of such a unification. Even though research techniques in this field are mathematically advanced, students nevertheless get a glimpse into the quests of theoretical physics. My goal is thus to convey to students how the topics of this basic physics course relate to the underlying methods and goals of theoretical physics and how similar approaches can be applied to other fields of research they may encounter in their professional life.
Of course a detailed implementation of a general goal to build a connection between the students and the material requires a thoughtful process and thorough preparation for the course as a whole and for each lecture specifically. At the beginning of each course, the rules and requirements should be clearly spelled out. An outline of the course with the syllabus and detailed expectations should be handed out as well as posted on Blackboard. I try to prepare each lecture as a rounded presentation of the specific topic. In physics, it is important to distill a particular topic to a key concept and not to overburden it with too many tangential examples and verbal explanations. I demonstrate these core principles on a carefully chosen prototype example that shows comprehensively the complexity of the subject. Such prototype examples should also reflect the level of the problems in the exams. Problems for homework assignments should be chosen to clarify the students’ knowledge of the topic and to challenge them enough to make them proficient and confident in the subject matter. Similar care should be taken with experimental demonstrations to complement the problems.
Other specific tools appropriate for large physics courses are the old-fashioned blackboard and high-quality colored chalk. Unlike some large lecture courses, I typically do not use PowerPoint or other high-tech equipment, since core physics topics are conceptual and require detailed mathematical derivations. A number of my colleagues and I use colored chalk to highlight, emphasize, and differentiate specific concepts. In my experience, students appreciate these tools, since they help students organize their thought processes and prepare them well for the exams where they have to use their own handwriting to solve specific problems.
Above all, it is important for instructors to engage the students during class and project our enthusiasm for our respective fields of research. It is key that we bring in our genuine personal experience and outlook which also naturally builds a bridge between the instructor and the students. Furthermore, being available outside the class to help and support students and to build a personal bond with them is an important part of our mission. I believe our students are a wonderful group of future professionals, scientists and leaders. While they may not be necessarily interested in the subject which they have to master for a specific required course, they are smart and driven achievers, and as instructors we can make an impact on their future endeavors by conveying to them the knowledge, scientific methods and excitement of our specific field of research.
Mirjam Cvetic is the associate chair for undergraduate affairs in physics and astronomy
in SAS and the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Professor.
Last year, she won both SAS's Ira H. Abrams Award for Distinguished Teaching and
the University's Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.
This essay continues the series by the Center for Teaching & Learning that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts & Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.