Talk About Teaching and Learning:
April 28, 2015, Volume 61, No. 32
Activating Students’ Excitement
In preparing for my first class every semester, I try to answer the following questions: What is the main purpose of this course? What do I want the students to accomplish? What is my job as an instructor? I find answering these questions for my introductory physics classes particularly challenging. First, the diverse background and preparation of the students: some come with no prior exposure to physics while others have years of high school physics and calculus. Second, as a gateway course, students from all disciplines are enrolled—engineers, pre-meds, science majors and those who are filling core requirements. Students also bring different expectations. Some like to sit and listen in large lecture halls. Others favor seminar-type classes. And there are also those students who don’t want to be in class at all. Finally, I have my own goals, too, as an instructor. My number one goal is to get students excited about physics by presenting them with challenging problems and allowing them to discover the beauty of physics by thinking through those problems.
I found it difficult to reach these goals in a large lecture-style class. On a typical day, about a third of the students were not paying much attention. A quarter of them didn’t even come to class at all. In the end, I was doing a disservice to nearly half of all my students. A depressing feeling indeed.
I have first-hand experience with the disconnect between students and the instructor that happens in large classes. Students find it intimidating to ask questions in front of 100 other people. The same students dominate the five minutes after class when students swarm around the podium. Some students go completely unnoticed deep into the semester until often it is too late. It was especially challenging to identify those students who are motivated and eager to learn, but need a little bit of extra help.
SAIL (an acronym for Structured Active In-Class Learning) improves student-instructor communication and helps manage the diversity of the students. SAIL includes many pedagogical methods, including the flipped classroom, peer instruction and studio physics, that emphasize student-instructor and/or student-student interaction in a collaborative atmosphere. Frequent in-class communication allows immediate feedback. Students benefit from helping other students because they realize quickly what they do not know, and instructors can also immediately identify where the confusion lies.
I offered an experimental SAIL section of our calculus-based introductory physics sequence (PHYS 150 and PHYS 151) in the 2013-2014 academic year. These experimental sections allowed me to test several pedagogical methods and investigate whether this is a practical and sustainable solution for our department. Initially the size of the room limited enrollment to 36 students. In Fall 2014, I taught a larger 60-student section of PHYS 150 in the newly-built classroom in DRL.
The class consisted of regular lectures on the board, numerous in-class demos, collaborative problem solving sessions and labs—all done in the same classroom. We met six hours/week, which is the same as the other regular sections that meet four hours/week in a large lecture hall with the instructor plus two hours/week in a lab with about 15 other students taught by a graduate student TA. My classes were not flipped. I lectured almost as much as I did in a regular class.
During the two hours/week of “lab” time, students completed tasks designed to require creative thinking. Students used simple equipment to answer simple questions. The majority of the time was spent discussing how to make the theoretical predictions and, in particular, to figure out what approximations they can make to simplify the problem. Students were expected to reason and judge for themselves.
We also spent one to two hours per week on in-class problem solving sessions. This element of the class was the most different from my regular lecture classes. Students tested their ability to apply the theory while getting immediate feedback from their classmates and instructor. These sessions began with a lecture. Then I would write a problem simple enough for every student to finish in under 10 minutes on the board and let students solve it in class. After a few minutes of silence, while the they digested the problem, most students began lively discussion with their table-mates. A small number of students preferred to work individually, which was fine with me. The advanced students finished quickly, at which point I would write a second, slightly more difficult problem on the board. I would continue to write progressively harder problems on the board as students finished. My time was spent working with both struggling and advanced students and groups. Whenever possible, I wrote problems based on demos that I brought to class to show that physics actually works! Students took these in-class activities seriously even though they were not collected or graded.
I noticed several advantages teaching in the SAIL format. First, it gave me immediate feedback on what students struggle with, which allowed me to adapt my lectures before we finished covering that material. Second, class attendance was nearly perfect throughout the semester. This is a great advantage as I have no way of teaching students who never show. Many students told me that they looked forward to coming to class. Third, my office hours were very well attended. About a third of my students came on a regular basis, compared to the approximately 10% who attended when I taught a large lecture course. The office hours were also interactive, carrying over the spirit of the class. Finally, I saw a lot of improvement in students who initially struggled. These students came for help early, attended office hours regularly, worked extremely hard and ended up doing well in the course. This alone made my job worthwhile.
SAIL, however, is not without its downsides. First, instructors directly face the frustration experienced by students when they struggle. It was not easy to watch them go through this even though I knew they benefitted. Second, not everyone is an active learner and forcing those students to take SAIL courses can be a problem unless students have other options. Finally, managing a large SAIL class is not easy. Although I was able to cope with 36 students, 60 students was sometimes overwhelming without a TA.
Instructors are still looking for best ways to implement their SAIL classes. I have experienced my bumps and I am sure my students have felt them too. There has been quite a bit of negative publicity stemming from poor experiences of some students in some classes. SAIL also tends to be immediately associated with flipped classrooms and students complain that professors are not doing their jobs.
However, I know that introductory classes play a significant role in students’ decision to continue in STEM. Many students leave a STEM major for the right reasons, but there are also some who leave because of just one bad introductory class. Their experience in a single course can potentially affect their lifetime decision. I want students to get a full experience of what physics is all about and come out with an unbiased attitude towards it, as they acquire the technical skills to solve complicated physics problems. A course is not much of a success for me if the students don’t enjoy it, or at least don’t think that I enjoy it. I strongly believe SAIL provides an excellent way to communicate our enthusiasm to more students.
Masao Sako is an associate professor of physics & astronomy.
He is a recipient of the 2015 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.