In spite of the numerous challenges facing undergraduate physics education, a realistic future includes introductory physics courses that students view as an opportunity to exercise their thinking rather than their memory; learn approaches to solving problems that transfer to other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses; improve their expertise in and attitudes toward learning science; and see the relevance of physics to their future lives and to the world around them. In this future, more students, especially women and minorities underrepresented in physics, will decide to major in physics and teach others about it.
The major result of this committee’s deliberations, expressed in more detail in the recommendations below, is that the physics community pursue this vision by making significant changes in undergraduate physics education that are grounded in scientific evidence. To achieve this transformation at scale, the community must undertake a systematic process that draws on discipline-based research on student learning and on rigorous assessment of the degree to which students are acquiring the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are needed to solve 21st-century problems. Change in the academic culture is required in order to encourage, enact, spread, and sustain these improvements.
Achieving the necessary rate and scope of change will require coherent, coordinated action among many different groups at different levels—both inside and outside educational institutions. In this chapter each group is offered specific suggestions, based on research, where possible, and on successful practice, or on the judgment of the committee where it is not. To augment the specific examples
and sources of organized research findings given in the preceding chapters, several general sources for materials and ideas, as well as summaries of related national reports, are included. Broadly speaking, the key recommendations for each of the major audiences, whose active and concerted engagement is essential to building a successful future for undergraduate physics education, are as follows:
• Individual physics faculty should improve their courses, using objective evidence to judge success.
• Departmental leadership should create a culture of continuous improvement in which educational innovation is encouraged, sustained when it succeeds, and tolerated when it fails.
• Academic leadership should encourage faculty groups to seek improvement and should reward faculty and departments that are successful at implementing positive changes.
• Funding agencies should support change at all levels and should support fundamental educational research, development, adoption, and dissemination.
• Physics (and other) education researchers should focus some of their efforts on critical areas, including improving fundamental understanding of learning and instruction and developing and disseminating improved assessment tools and instructional methods and materials.
• Professional societies should emphasize the importance of education research and play a major role in the dissemination of its results, recognizing those who successfully improve instruction.
Change in undergraduate physics education is long overdue. Advances in research on learning and in technology have given us new insights and opportunities to change the way students learn physics. The committee’s suggestions can be used as a launching point to increased awareness of developing findings through publications, workshops, and seminars produced by the growing corps of education researchers and instructors who are discovering and developing more effective ways for students to learn. The detailed recommendations presented below for each major audience group identified in the key recommendations provide a guide to each of the constituent groups on ways that they can contribute to the important task ahead.
Key Recommendation A. Individual physics faculty should improve their courses, using objective evidence to judge success.
Physics faculty can improve learning, prepare students for further work in science and engineering, broaden participation of students from groups
underrepresented in physics, increase the numbers of majors, minors, and high school physics teachers, and augment the stature of their departments via innovative teaching and creative use of resources. However, priorities and challenges vary tremendously in institutions of different sizes, overall objectives, and student demographics. Therefore, the committee is not giving prescriptions but is urging faculty to adopt the very approach that the physics community employs in conducting experiments or developing theories: know the underlying principles that have been established by systematic research, apply what seems relevant to the problems at hand, observe and quantify the results, and repeat this process if further improvement is desired. Sustainable improvement results from incremental changes, continual renewal, and long-term commitment.
Educational change has historically begun with the dedicated efforts of a single faculty member who realizes the status quo is inadequate and decides to take action. Frequently, it is a motivated individual who realizes that students are not learning as intended and has heard about novel physics pedagogies or assessment instruments or has attended a workshop or meeting on physics education research. Such an individual can be a catalyst for change, motivating others to get involved.
Recommendation A1. Faculty should become knowledgeable about educational innovation in physics and the importance of active engagement of students in the learning process.
Box 3-1 summarizes several useful resources that provide accessible introductions to educational innovations in physics. Attending a talk or workshop about a new instructional strategies (e.g., as at an American Physical Society [APS] or American Association of Physics Teachers [AAPT] meeting) can be a very efficient way to learn enough about a new strategy to judge if it is worth investigating in more depth. Attending intensive workshops, when available, visiting other institutions to see interesting advances, or inviting individuals whose knowledge can assist in this learning process may also be useful steps.
Recommendation A2. Faculty should engage colleagues in discussions of learning goals, measures of outcomes, and strategies for a scientific approach to teaching and evaluating students’ learning and observe successful approaches to engagement in classroom settings.
Faculty members can share ideas and class materials and help each other solve problems that arise as they redesign their instructional activities. They could
consider including in these discussions interested colleagues from neighboring units or departments, including education departments, and encourage feedback. Many commonalities exist between STEM disciplines in terms of effective teaching.
Recommendation A3. Faculty should review and modify courses to reflect the needs of different segments of the student community, including those who might succeed in physics with some additional or different types of help.
All students can benefit from attention to general learning goals, including developing a better understanding of physics topics, solving quantitative problems, communicating effectively orally and in writing, designing experiments to answer specific questions, working effectively in groups, solving problems where the path is not clear, building models, learning how to learn, and so on. However, many students have additional specific needs that should be accommodated. Some are interested in eventually participating in scientific research. Others are interested in activities related to physics, for example, in technology, chemistry, medicine, engineering, environmental science, or businesses dependent on science. A significant number are interested in becoming teachers, science writers, or other professionals for whom a physics background can be useful. Courses and programs should be designed to reflect these diverse outcomes rather than being focused on only preparing students for graduate school.
Recommendation A4. Faculty should assess the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of students by using research-based instruments and methods.
Many research-based assessment instruments are readily accessible. Commonly used instruments for measuring conceptual understanding in an introductory physics course include the Force Concept Inventory and the Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism. Other instruments, such as the Colorado Learning About Science Survey, exist for measuring student attitudes and expectations. These are just a few of the research-developed assessment instruments that can be used by instructors to gain an understanding of what is actually happening as a result of instruction. For a more complete list, see the collection at http://www.ncsu.edu/PER/TestInfo.html. The results of these instruments should be treated as a starting point for discussions, not the definitive measure of learning. Recommended practices for using these assessment instruments can be found in many places (see, for example, Redish, 2003, Chapter 5).
Recommendation A5. Faculty should engage students in a discussion of why and how evidence-based methods that engender effective learning require changing the teaching and learning process.
Students are frequently resistant to new teaching ideas because of uncertainty and the perception that they will have to do more work. Some are wary of group work or of methods in which they may not be told the answers but are expected to determine them by themselves. By focusing on the scientific basis for the pedagogy being used, faculty can show students that the same type of reasoning was applied to the way they are learning as is applied to the science concepts that they are learning. Thus, an instructor can clearly explain to students what is expected from them and how evidence shows that this type of instruction improves learning.
Any useful discussion of undergraduate education must begin by making it clear what it is that colleges are trying to achieve.
—Bok (2006, p. 57)
Key Recommendation B. Department leadership should create a culture of continuous improvement in which educational innovation is encouraged, sustained when it succeeds, and tolerated when it fails.
In order for any changes in a department’s educational program to benefit the department and its students—and indeed for these changes to be more than ephemeral—department leadership should support and enable this as an ongoing process. Research indicates that leadership that emphasizes teaching and manages it collaboratively with faculty correlates positively with teaching that is focused on students and their understanding (Ramsden et al., 2007).
Department leadership should act to foster a culture that encourages evidence-based instructional changes and a collective approach toward improving the overall physics program. Creating this culture requires facilitating an ongoing discussion among key players in the department that acknowledges the mission of the institution, academic unit, and department.
Recommendation B1. Departmental leadership should review and implement appropriate ideas from relevant reports.
1 Note that “department leadership” is used in this section to indicate the chair or head of the physics department, or of the physics and astronomy department, the head of the science faculty unit, and so on.
A number of studies have outlined issues facing departments. Several are given below for various sizes of departments and departmental contexts. These reports clarify, and in some cases codify, actions that can be taken at the departmental level.
• Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report (Hilborn et al., 2003; see Box 2.2), known as the SPIN-UP report, was the result of an intensive study of how some undergraduate programs thrived in a period of falling enrollments nationally.
• Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics at Two-Year Colleges: Best Practices of Physics Program (Monroe et al., 2005), known as the SPIN-UP/TYC report, is a complementary effort to SPIN-UP that focuses on 2-year colleges.
• Gender Equity: Strengthening the Physics Enterprise in Universities and National Laboratories (APS, 2007) relates information gathered from Ph.D.-granting departments on techniques to improve climate and promote gender equity at research universities and national laboratories.
• Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (PCAST, 2012), issued by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, provides a national perspective on and recommends significantly increasing the number of high-quality STEM graduates in the United States.
• Transforming the Preparation of Physics Teachers: A Call to Action (National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics, 2013; see Box 2.3), from APS, AAPT, and AIP, documents successful programs of high school teacher education in physics and provides an analysis and recommendations for building and improving such programs.
Recommendation B2. Departmental leadership should discuss and consider how to implement physics-specific learning goals, recognizing the needs of varying student constituencies, the needs of future employers and teachers of these students, and the views of alumni.
Physics departments need to be aware of and respond to the needs of the many different groups of students who enroll in introductory courses. For all students, physics education should help develop skill sets that prepare the student for further learning, for future employment, and for participation in the broader scientific enterprise.
Important goals for physics majors include the following:
• Participating in an undergraduate research experience. Programs should encourage students to apply for Research Experiences for Undergraduates and other off-campus undergraduate research experiences (see Box 4.1),
Professional Society Statements on Undergraduate Research
• American Physical Society:1
The Committee on Education of the American Physical Society calls upon this nation’s physics and astronomy departments to provide, as an element of best practice, all undergraduate physics and astronomy majors a significant research experience.
• American Association of Physics Teachers:2
American Association of Physics Teachers urges that every physics and astronomy department provide its majors and potential physics majors with the opportunities and encouragement to engage in a meaningful and appropriate undergraduate research experience.
• Society of Physics Students:3
We advocate that every student majoring in physics and/or astronomy engage in a meaningful undergraduate research experience.
• Council on Undergraduate Research Statement, Physics and Astronomy Division:4
We call upon this Nation’s physics and astronomy departments to provide, as an element of best practice, all undergraduate physics and astronomy majors a significant research experience.
1 American Physical Society, “Statement on Undergraduate Research,” 2008, available at http://www.aps.org/programs/education/undergrad/faculty/ug-research.cfm.
2 American Association of Physics Teachers, “AAPT Statement on Research Experiences for Undergraduates,” adopted by the AAPT Executive Board on November 1, 2009, available at http://www.aapt.org/Resources/policy/ugresearch.cfm.
3 Society of Physics Students, “SPS Statement Regarding Undergraduate Research,” approved on December 1, 2008, available at http://www.spsnational.org/governance/statements/2008undergraduate_research.htm.
4 Council on Undergraduate Research, Physics and Astronomy Division, Letter from Vijendra Agarwal, Chair, CUR Division of Physics and Astronomy, to the Chairs of Physics/Astronomy Departments, dated May 19, 2009, available at http://www.spsnational.org/governance/statements/cur_undergrad_research.pdf.
• Becoming effective in oral and written communication of scientific ideas,
• Achieving a basic understanding of statistical methods,
• Learning about numerical simulations, and
• Becoming familiar with current physics research.
Recommendation B3. Departmental leadership should recognize in the overall program the role of activities outside the classroom.
One of the key findings of the SPIN-UP report (Hilborn et al., 2003) is that thriving physics departments do more than just offer a series of high-quality courses. Thriving physics departments create an environment with significant out-of-class interactions among students as well as between students and faculty. Examples of ways to promote out-of-class interactions include:
• Offer active and personalized advising and career guidance.
• Sponsor and support a campus chapter of the Society of Physics Students and encourage students to participate.
• Create a comfortable student lounge or common room.
• Work with students to develop community outreach activities.
• Maintain a tutoring program matching upper-division students with introductory students needing help.
• Involve students in existing invited speakers programs with opportunities to interact and dine with these and other visitors.
Recommendation B4. Departmental leadership should establish collective responsibility and a commitment to incremental improvement, based on research on programs and courses.
Establish a faculty working group to formulate a set of realistic goals for the overall program and especially the introductory courses, consider how to reach these goals, and decide on what evidence will be used to assess progress. The resulting plans will need to consider the structure of courses and programs, the processes of teaching and assessment, and the structures that affect cohesion and motivation of students (such as advising and informal interactions between students and faculty). This group should utilize education research findings in their deliberations. Plans should include the following:
• Identify specific evidence to help assess learning objectives for each course.
• Consider pedagogies that can help to realize these objectives. As discussed throughout this report, the specific pedagogies that are appropriate will vary from one department to another. There exists a vast array of publications and websites that can help faculty select appropriate strategies, materials, and methods.
• Work with interested department faculty members and groups of faculty to implement the agreed-upon changes. This is one of the most difficult aspects of successful improvement programs. Faculty members who welcome experienced observers into their classes, and who consider their advice, can be more successful in implementing change. Conversations and resources should be extended to all interested faculty, including fulltime, adjunct, and
individuals who have special roles within the department (e.g., lecturers, laboratory preparation, and so on).
• Involve students in the process of improvement. New techniques often confuse students when they challenge them to think or act in ways different from their established patterns. Engage students from the beginning to help them understand the reasons for change and how the newly defined roles of instructor and student interact within the course. Regularly solicit student input to understand their concerns and assess how the innovations are working.
• Assess the results of these efforts regularly. Use the results to update the plan for continued reform and work to maintain successes when reforms are successful. Assessments that have been developed through research methods are helpful.
• Document and share successes and instructional materials. Organizing the concepts and writing about the results provides a focus and critical analysis of goals, methods, and outcomes that can lead to incremental improvements and lasting changes to departmental culture, particularly if the resulting publications are valued in the faculty rewards system.
Recommendation B5. Departmental leadership should provide and participate in professional development opportunities for faculty.
Ideas and methods for improving undergraduate education are being refined continuously. In just the same way that scientific research requires continual renewal, faculty and staff members must be exposed to new ideas in order to implement incremental changes to the department’s programs. Examples of professional development include the following:
• Send all new faculty members to the APS/AAPT/AAS new faculty workshops and have existing faculty members attend these or similar faculty workshops;
• Establish regular physics education seminars or colloquia (speakers are available on the APS PER speakers database; see http://aps.org/programs/education/speakers); and
• Implement professional development programs for all educators, including adjunct faculty, lecturers, lecture-demonstration staff, teaching assistants, and learning assistants, and including travel support for professional development workshops and seminars.
The National Science Digital Library project of the National Science Foundation (NSF) began as an ambitious effort to bring together and enhance electronic resources to benefit science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. From the beginning, it became obvious that larger thematic collections would provide an advantage over individual projects by assembling and evaluating related resources, providing specialized tools for searches and content management, and interacting with broader audiences. A number of “pathways” projects emerged under the second round of NSF funding, among them ComPADRE (Communities of Physics and Astronomy Digital Resources for Education) for physics and astronomy educators.
ComPADRE, like other discipline-based collections, was sponsored by leading professional societies (in this case, the American Association of Physics Teachers [AAPT], the American Physical Society [APS], and Society of Physics Students [SPS]). The combined ComPADRE collections now index more than 12,000 items from high school physics to undergraduate quantum mechanics and include portals (websites) covering introductory courses, computational physics, relativity, advanced laboratories, and statistical physics, among others. In the 2010-2011 academic year ComPADRE hosted visits from about 2 million faculty and students from colleges and universities and about 6 million high school teachers and students. Today, it has become a centralized and recommended repository for outcomes of NSF-sponsored physics educational resources, collections of materials from joint society projects like the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, and indexed databases of items with topics ranging from summer research opportunities for undergraduate students to results from physics education research groups.
The most popular of ComPADRE’s assets is its online physics tutorial/textbook that averages more than 1.8 million visits each month during the school year. Popularity aside, important niche audiences, like those seeking information on how to teach quantum mechanics, can find resources specifically vetted and indexed. An educator can locate materials specifically relevant to narrowly defined topics within physics and astronomy education and tailored to a specific course and grade level.
SOURCE: ComPADRE, available at http://www.compadre.org.
Recommendation B6. Departmental leadership should provide leadership to implement and support reforms.
The SPIN-UP report (Hilborn et al., 2003) found that sustained departmental leadership was critical to establishing and maintaining departmental improvements. Changes can be encouraged and sustained in a variety of ways, including the following:
• Encourage individual faculty and staff to use research-based assessments and techniques to adapt, reject, or adopt pedagogical changes;
• Establish a system for propagating and improving successful changes in courses and/or the curriculum;
• Encourage experimentation that includes well-defined assessment of progress;
• Provide support for faculty willing to experiment and practice new techniques and ideas, including letters of support for tenure/promotion files, discussions within the department, and explanations to administration, other faculty, and students;
• Consider and discuss with faculty the role that PER faculty might have in the department;
• Keep administration, faculty, and staff informed about the value of research-based educational improvements and the role played by discipline-based educational research in developing and validating these changes; and
• Implement regular classroom visits by colleagues to promote discussions of pedagogy among faculty members in a framework analogous to visiting laboratories or group seminars of colleagues engaged in similar research.
Key Recommendation C. Academic administrators should encourage faculty groups to seek improvement and should reward faculty and departments that are successful at implementing positive changes.
General university support for improvements in the teaching and learning of physics is essential both for departmental programs and for maintaining or improving an institution’s educational reputation. As emphasized in the previous section, leadership for and implementation of change tend to come from individuals or small groups within the faculty, but making those changes systematic and persistent is a social process in which departmental and college or university-wide administration plays an important part. Grassroots reform is unlikely to be successful in the long term if the administrative structures are not in place to nurture and support it. At the same time, top-down efforts at reform will rarely work unless they are adopted and led by the faculty doing the teaching. This requires incentives for change that include powerful motivational ideas and resources that provide incentives and support.
Setting the tone from the top does not suggest that the leader give detailed prescriptions for change, but instead communicate the urgency for change and the broad directions. However, the results of research in physics education and other work in cognitive sciences, as discussed elsewhere in this report, provide ample evidence that improvement is both urgently needed, and also possible, in undergraduate physics education. Leadership needs to create an environment that nurtures, recognizes, and institutionalizes change.
Recommendation C1. Administrators should set the tone at the top.
Important first steps are to
• Empower and fund the physics department to perform an in-depth self-assessment based on the contents of this report, commit to carefully reviewing those findings, and work to implement the changes that this assessment might motivate.
• Declare publicly and consistently to other administrators and faculty within and beyond the walls of the college or university why changes are needed and how they will improve student learning and in turn the quality of the college or university.
• Emphasize that undergraduate student learning is part of the core academic mission and devote adequate resources to educational models shown by research to improve student outcomes, even if these models are not the least expensive available. Also assume an appropriate share of responsibility for the improvement of K-12 science and mathematics education, for example, by supporting disciplinary faculty in the preparation of high school teachers or the science and mathematics education of elementary school teachers.
• Finally, provide campus recognition for faculty and programs that have demonstrated an evidence-based approach to undergraduate teaching and learning. Recognition should identify and value the individuals and organizational structures that have made these improvements—especially those that implement changes that address paradigm shifts within the academic culture.
Recommendation C2. Administrators should establish a teaching and learning group or unit to advise and support faculty engaged in pedagogical improvements.
Dedicated organizational units can advise and assist faculty with pedagogical improvements, techniques, and structures. These organizational structures (often called Centers for Teaching and Learning) can also provide interdepartmental opportunities such as education-oriented colloquia for faculty to learn about and discuss pedagogy and educational change. One strategy that some institutions have found to be successful is to establish “teaching and learning seminars” to provide a mechanism for regular discussion groups about educational change.
Recommendation C3. Administrators should provide incentive funding to faculty who wish to implement evidence-based pedagogical improvements.
• Offer financial resources to faculty who wish to implement evidence-based improvements and couple those grants with assistance in seeking external funding and outreach to other colleagues.
• Reward a faculty member’s obtaining external grants for educational activities in the same way as that faculty member is rewarded for obtaining funding for research.
Recommendation C4. Administrators should support faculty who conduct discipline-based education research and the establishment of faculty lines and/or interdisciplinary units to help develop the growth of education research in university science, technology, engineering, and mathematics departments.
As with all scholarly endeavors, engagement in PER, and discipline-based education research in general, can benefit a university by attracting top scholars who lend prestige to the institution and secure external research funds. These activities can also invigorate educational efforts on campus: A PER group can support a department’s efforts to adopt new approaches by providing initial impetus, helping to fine-tune the implementation, and helping to assess the outcomes. It can similarly support local community colleges and K-12 schools. Administrators must work with the relevant departments and discipline-based educational research faculty to determine the best way to integrate them into the institution. A common route is a direct appointment in the relevant academic department, or a joint appointment involving both the relevant academic department and an education department, center, or institute focused on education research. (See Box 4.3 for
Where Does Physics Education Research Belong?
While most physics education researchers are faculty in physics departments, some debate continues about whether this is the proper home for physics education research (PER). The issues surrounding the optimal conditions for promoting the quality of scholarship and the likelihood that findings have an impact on teaching are complex. There remain robust institu-
tional and societal impediments to establishing PER, and discipline-based education research in general, as sustainable fields.
In several respects the prevailing culture is built into the institutional structures of research-oriented institutions of higher education in which research and teaching are distinct categories of criteria for promotion and tenure. To the extent that education research has a home in most universities, it is almost always entirely located within schools of education, institutionally sequestered from the disciplines, and focused on pre-college education. The situation hinders PER specialists who are in colleges of education and may have specific research interests that only tangentially connect to those of their colleagues. PER specialists in a physics department may lack colleagues who share their expertise in education. A lack of a “critical mass” in a research group may limit its ability to build a national and international reputation.
Progress in PER depends on interdisciplinarity. It depends first on the participation of physicists in physics departments, who represent the core community and possess a deep, nuanced understanding of physics content. It also draws on methods and frameworks developed in other fields, historically primarily cognitive psychology and, more recently, an expanded range of scholarship—the “learning sciences” concerned with knowledge, reasoning, learning, and development.
Thus, intellectually and institutionally, PER is a hybrid crossing the discipline of physics with research on learning and instruction. Intellectually, this hybridization has allowed for significant progress, introducing new ways of thinking about how undergraduate physics education can be organized, implemented, and advanced. Institutionally, however, it presents challenges.
As the statement on PER by the APS1 emphasizes, the continued involvement of physicists in physics departments is essential for making further progress in PER. Faculty with the necessary understanding of the subject matter, with the motivation to investigate it and with access to students studying it, are naturally located in physics departments. The significant influence of PER on physics teaching can be attributed to the fact that many of the findings, approaches, and materials have been developed by physicists working in physics departments, addressing problems important to physics faculty, and using methods familiar (or immediately graspable) by researchers in more traditional fields. Affirming and strengthening this tradition, while expanding our notion of what PER is, where it is done, and who does it, is critical for fostering the further development of fundamental insights into learning and for promoting future impact on students.
At the same time, the larger community and research universities in particular must support PER that has connections to related work conducted outside of physics departments. A number of universities have begun programs in the learning sciences. Faculty in these programs, while having homes in their respective discipline departments, enjoy enhanced opportunities for collaboration and community among scholars from various intellectual traditions that inform research on knowledge, learning, and instruction—including education, psychology, cognitive science, computer science, sociology, anthropology, and, recently, neuroscience.
The question, Where does PER belong? does not have a single answer. Much like biological physics, the diversity of research programs suggests a range of departmental contexts is necessary for fostering high-quality, influential work. Although researchers are not always directly tied to specific course improvements, effectiveness in implementing changes will typically benefit from close interactions with other physics faculty and physics instruction.
1 APS (American Physical Society), APS Statement on Research in Physics Education, available at http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/199908/statements.cfm, 1999.
a discussion of the issues surrounding PER appointments.) However, it is crucial that when such faculty are appointed, they should be rewarded for their scholarly activities in educational research as well as their contributions to the university’s teaching mission.
The potential is great: research universities are natural laboratories for research on learning and teaching. The committee does not suggest that there is one model that will fit all institutions, but it is time to move past ad hoc solutions. PER and, more generally, discipline-based education research need systemic support to flourish at the university.
Recommendation C5. Administrators should include, for all faculty who teach, education research and development among the factors considered in reward structures, not just for those faculty who conduct discipline-based education research.
Reward structures should
• Recognize that major course improvements, assessment, and educational publications require creativity and systematic effort and should be considered a part of the record of achievement along with excellent teaching, research, and service.
• Recognize further that for discipline-based educational researchers, a simple division of activities into teaching, research, and service cannot always be made. An excellent treatment of how to consider the broad inclusion of scholarship of teaching is given by Boyer (1990).
Thus, institutional guidelines should acknowledge these issues and include multiple measures for all components of a faculty member’s productivity. While this recommendation is not unique to physics, it is an important part of what is needed to set the appropriate tone that will allow substantive improvements in undergraduate physics education.
Key Recommendation D. Funding agencies should support positive change at all levels and should support fundamental educational research, development, adoption, and dissemination.
Funding agencies play a critical role in supporting research, development, and dissemination of innovations in undergraduate physics education. They also set an authoritative tone for the improvement of educational practice, including new
emphasis for research physicists on the professional importance of effective educational practice. Current support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Education, and private foundations, while limited, provides an important incentive for faculty and administrators to improve the learning environment in colleges and universities in the United States.
NSF’s significant funding for undergraduate physics education (Henderson et al., 2012) has provided leadership through the design of its solicitations, selection of awards, and promotion of discipline-based research, research-based assessments, and innovations in undergraduate education. NSF’s Broader Impacts criterion in award selection has opened an opportunity to address education issues as a component of all funded scientific research projects, but its potential to promote the adoption of research-based educational improvements has not been fully realized.
Availability of adequate funding is also essential in light of Recommendation C4, which calls for faculty appointments. For these faculty to be successful they would need to have adequate funding from both local and national sources to support their research as well as to support work of other faculty who are making changes to their undergraduate courses as recommended.
Recommendation D1. Agencies should support a balanced portfolio that includes dissemination of good practices and both applied and foundational education research.
Physics education research remains critical to advancing our understanding of the learning processes necessary for advances in undergraduate physics education. This research should continue to be supported by NSF Directorates of Math and Physical Sciences (MPS) as well as Education and Human Resources (EHR). The Divisions of Physics (PHY) and Materials Research (DMR) play an important role in supporting and promoting these efforts in conjunction with EHR, as this research impacts the future generations of scientists, engineers, and others involved in science-based business activities.
As in all areas of research, adequate funding is an ongoing concern for PER. However, the challenges facing physics education research, and discipline-based education research (DBER) in general, go beyond the total level of support available. A recent study of PER funding indicates that about 75 percent of the direct or indirect support for PER over the period 2006-2010 came from NSF, primarily through programs in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (Henderson et al., 2011). Some of these programs fund basic research in science teaching and learning. However, many have the primary goal of supporting improvements in educational practice, rather than basic research. The projects funded by these
programs often contain research components, but the research tends to be tightly linked to the assessment of particular classroom innovations. Moreover, in contrast to some programs that support traditional research in physics, grants funded through these programs are almost always awarded on a project-by-project basis, and no renewal mechanisms are available to support productive research programs over an extended period of time.
The current funding opportunities thus constrain PER by focusing on applied projects that can show classroom impact over short time scales. Sustained effort over long time periods is needed to establish that the results of educational innovations are robust and replicable beyond their original setting and to ensure that these innovations spread. Likewise, sustained effort is required to develop the sorts of deep insights into fundamental issues of learning that have the potential for significant impact in the long term. Thus, funding programs are needed that are adequate in size to support large multi-institutional collaborations where appropriate, flexible enough in scope to support both “classroom ready” projects and foundational research, and designed to allow productive programs to survive over long time scales.
Recommendation D2. Agencies should educate principal investigators in all areas of physics research about how physics education research (PER) methods and PER-based materials can help them build a relevant educational component for their research projects so that they have a broader impact on the formal or informal education of broad and diverse populations of learners.
NSF’s Broader Impacts criterion for evaluating proposals provides a unique opportunity to influence how researchers work to improve undergraduate physics education. NSF should consider more direct ways of educating potential principal investigators about research-based educational advances that could support better the broader impacts of their projects.
Recommendation D3. Agencies should support development, validation, and implementation of new assessment instruments and provide standards for their interpretation.
Improvement of education is impossible without relevant assessments. Assessment drives innovation by identifying where and what type of change is needed and by allowing progress to be monitored. Assessment informs students about what is required (and can guide their study if used formatively) and allows instructors to determine how their students are progressing. Current widely used assessments, such as the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), the Conceptual Survey of Electro-Magnetism (CSEM), and
the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey, are examples of instruments that inform faculty of student learning and provide evidence to help departments evaluate the impact of instruction.2 However, no user-friendly assessments exist to gauge progress toward the many other desired outcomes, such as problem solving, sense making, learning to learn, self-reliance, and facility in disciplinary practices (e.g., argumentation and experimental design).
Recommendation D4. Agencies should promote dissemination strategies and research on such strategies that more effectively help faculty and departments incorporate the results of education research into their courses.
A high priority for funding agencies should be to support the development of more effective methods for spreading and sustaining existing and emerging innovations. Although some limited research findings can inform sustained adoption of programs, much remains to be understood. Electronic distribution of educational resources and ideas offers new opportunities and challenges. Funding agencies should support experimentation with novel methods of dissemination and adoption and sustaining good practices. As an example, they might encourage collaboration between education researchers and open educational resource organizations such as the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources.3 National and regional workshops, such as the Workshop for New Physics and Astronomy Faculty (see Chapter 2 and Henderson, 2008), are also key and should be supported and possibly expanded to include senior faculty and instructors at all levels of undergraduate education. In all cases, an increased awareness of the role that academic departments play in sustaining successful innovations should arise.
Recommendation D5. Agencies should support research into the impact of instructional improvements on students from groups underrepresented in physics and the impact on capable students who choose not to pursue physics.
Considerably more needs to be known about the differential impact of educational practices in physics on groups that are underrepresented in physics. Likewise, little physics-specific knowledge exists about why students who are capable of completing study in physics choose to leave the field. Research on these issues can improve our understanding and help guide implementation of alternative practices based on this research.
Key Recommendation E. Physics (and other) education researchers should focus some of their efforts on critical areas, including improving fundamental understanding of learning and instruction and developing and disseminating improved assessment tools and instructional methods and materials.
Physics education researchers must continue to engage in foundational and applied research, develop new research-based pedagogies and resources, and spearhead their effective dissemination and adoption. This section concentrates on recommendations for applied research and dissemination that are likely to have the most significant near-term impact on undergraduate physics education.
The committee views as especially important aligning the development and interpretation of assessment instruments with the community’s goals for developing 21st-century skills like problem solving, reasoning, and learning to learn. This alignment will enable the development of curricula and learning tools that enhance these skills. Finally, these improvements must be undertaken with an eye to improving recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups and prospective high school teachers.
Recommendation E1. Researchers should develop instruments to include all components of expert physics learning, including physics reasoning, problem solving, experimental practices, effective study habits and attitudes, and other capabilities important for a good education.
Targeted assessment instruments are an important driver of scientifically based course change. Easily implemented multiple-choice tests can drive a series of changes and new developments, first by surprising even the relatively “in touch” instructors with the extent of student difficulties and then by providing motivation and standards for new pedagogies and instructional material that address these difficulties. Thus, the research community needs to make assessment tools easier for faculty to find and use and provide guidance in interpreting results. Priority should be given to the development of tools to assess valued student skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and experimental design. Existing instruments that focus on conceptual understanding were built on a research base established through detailed, in-depth investigations of the nature of this understanding and how it develops. Similar fundamental research is needed to inform the development of easily accessible assessment tools in other areas of student learning.
Recommendation E2. Researchers should develop and disseminate homework and exam problems that require and assess desirable skills.
Most homework problems available to physics instructors and students are “plug and chug” problems (Harper et al., 2007) featured in popular textbooks. These types of problems encourage poor student attitudes toward learning science (Adams et al., 2006). Alternative problem types have been developed that are shown to help improve student learning. Thus, efforts to develop and disseminate high-quality alternative problems are needed. Ideally these problems would be available and assignable through learning management systems as well as other means.
Recommendation E3. Researchers should study what makes effective teaching assistants and learning assistants and provide guidance for those preparing and training them.
Graduate and undergraduate students assist with instruction in many colleges and universities. Some research has investigated how to best prepare and train these students in a way that benefits them personally and professionally and also results in good instruction, but much additional research is needed in this area.
Recommendation E4. Researchers should apply physics education research more extensively to upper division courses.
Much of PER to date has been done on introductory-level physics courses. More recently, some researchers have been applying these ideas productively to upper-level courses. (See, for example, Thompson et al., 2011; Ambrose, 2004; Chasteen et al., 2011; and Baily et al., 2013.) The initial results from this work suggest that similar models for curriculum development are fruitful in these courses and should be encouraged. Work to re-envision and update the content of the upper division physics courses is also needed.
Recommendation E5. Researchers should continue and expand research on the impact of research-based instructional improvements on underrepresented groups and on students who are capable but now drop out of physics.
This important issue was discussed under Recommendation D5 to funding agencies.
Recommendation E6. Researchers should continue research efforts that develop a foundational knowledge base for physics education.
While research and development are needed to address the immediate issues in undergraduate physics education, the PER community must also build for the future through fundamental research on learning processes and knowledge structures. Much of this is likely to involve collaboration between physics education researchers, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists.
Recommendation E7. Researchers should work collaboratively with federal research agencies to identify additional sources of support for research and dissemination of results.
The PER community should work with federal agencies, especially NSF, to identify new and existing mechanisms for supporting discipline-based research. The PER community should establish better ties with the Department of Education and other potential funding sources to raise awareness of existing programs and provide information about discipline-based education research that could influence the design of future funding programs.
Key Recommendation F. Professional societies should emphasize the importance of education research and play a major role in the dissemination of its results, recognizing those who successfully improve instruction.
Professional societies play an increasingly important role as catalysts for change in undergraduate education. In physics, three organizations have invested significantly in improving undergraduate education: the American Physical Society (APS); the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT); and the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Professional societies have several avenues for promoting progress: convening conferences, workshops, and meetings; producing peer-reviewed journals and more generic publications like newsletters, websites, magazines, blogs, and other “general” audience formats; awarding prizes and honors to recognize and support the actions of individuals or groups; and providing general advocacy from an informed viewpoint.
Educational innovations and advances are often unfamiliar to, and even distrusted by, the physics research community and the teaching community at large. Professional societies can provide a forum and an implicit or explicit endorsement of such improvements.
Recommendation F1. Professional societies should publicize the results and endorse the importance of educational developments.
Improving physics education requires a much more active approach than “if you build it, they will come.” Bringing effectual innovations successfully and sustainably into classroom settings is perhaps the greatest challenge facing undergraduate physics education. Professional societies bring together physics professionals, many of whom teach, in an environment in which they are receptive to new ideas. Highlighting educational developments and tools is an essential component in realizing widespread usage. In addition to the New Faculty Workshop, examples include dedicated columns in electronic and print newsletters or magazines, regular articles on educational innovations and associated research results, and opinion pieces solicited from noted physicists on their use of these materials.
Recommendation F2. Professional societies should collect, review, and make available Web-based resources for individual faculty.
To encourage dissemination of innovations, professional societies need to build on the example of ComPADRE (see Box 4.2) and collect, review, and make available Web-based materials informed by education research. Providing a community-based structure to vet physics-specific materials and ideas furthers society goals and provides services that broad science organizations (e.g., all of STEM) are unable to fulfill in one-size-fits-all organizational structures.
Recommendation F3. Professional societies should convene community leaders and practitioners on a regular basis to discuss and share implementation of better practices.
Regular gatherings of departmental leaders and faculty are needed to discuss our changing understanding of undergraduate physics education and to help faculty understand how to effectively implement improvements. These efforts should include department chairs and directors of undergraduate education, new faculty, and faculty who are working to improve courses or components of a physics curriculum. Gatherings should include direct engagement with new learning techniques to model good learning practice, as well as interactive discussions on implementation, assessment, and retention.
Recommendation F4. Professional societies should publish physics education research in the general physics journals (e.g., Physical Review Letters and Reviews
of Modern Physics) and review in society journals other types of teaching and learning applications in addition to textbooks.
Peer-reviewed publication venues to disseminate knowledge are necessary for recognizing the significance of physics education research among academic physicists. Beyond the traditional publications, such as Physical Review Special Topics—Physics Education Research and the American Journal of Physics, appropriate education research articles should be published in journals, such as Physical Review Letters and Reviews of Modern Physics, that are read by the community at large, as well as in “magazine-style” publications like The Physics Teacher and Physics Today, where several important articles have appeared. Encouraging publication of articles in these widely respected research journals and popular publications both legitimizes the results among a broader community and shows that publishable scholarship is what academic physicists do. These venues also offer a broader dissemination of research-based pedagogies among the international community.
Recommendation F5. Professional societies should expand at meetings the presence of sessions on educational innovations and practices.
National, topical, and regional physics meetings should host and highlight sessions that feature innovations in pedagogy, understanding and assessing student learning and tools available to explore and document theses issues. APS division, topical group, and section meetings should offer sessions during their annual meetings on these topics. APS and AAPT should link and strongly promote meetings, when possible, to allow crossover between constituencies and help faculty who are primarily engaged in research to understand how pedagogy affects their effectiveness in advancing the next generation of scientists. Societies should make education-related sessions available electronically to enhance dissemination.
Recommendation F6. Professional societies should help guide student expectations and improve students’ understanding of pedagogical improvements.
While faculty and departments are primary agents in implementing change, students are the direct consumers of these changes. SPS and other physics student groups can and should play important roles in advocacy, feedback, and encouraging curricular changes. Since pedagogical changes will often be looked on with trepidation by students who have obtained good grades under traditional instruction, enlisting students and student organizations can help allay fears and actively engage them in implementing improvements.
These recommendations represent the committee’s consensus on adaptable solutions for problems that face undergraduate physics education. They also represent a set of actions that can be taken to work toward a better understanding of these problems and solutions for the future. In developing these recommendations, the committee acted as scientists. It looked carefully at current practices in undergraduate physics education, noting a number of concerns and sources for optimism.
As the physics community works to improve undergraduate physics education, it needs to be aware that the job will never be finished. A statement frequently attributed to Melba Phillips makes the point well: “The trouble with problems in physics education is that they don’t stay solved.” In making this assertion, Dr. Phillips was noting that students, faculty, society, and physics are all changing continuously. While instructional methods found to be effective today must be applied, the community must also be aware of changes that will necessitate further modifications tomorrow. In this way physics teaching can be kept up-to-date just as the fundamentals of physics are kept up-to-date.
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