Some dialogue (and FAQ) about the tutorials and clicker questions in Phys 1120
Tutorials and "peer instruction" (clicker questions, or "Concept Tests" in class) are a very important part of Phys 1120, but also a
rather unfamiliar way of learning for a lot of students. During the
time that we've used them (more than the last 3 years), I've gotten a lot
of positive feedback about them. It's clear that the majority of
students are getting a lot out of these methods (for which I'm grateful!) But many students still wonder - what's the deal with them, why do we use Tutorials, why do we spend class time on peer discussion and voting? Here are a few brief comments, which might help you understand why they're so beneficial for so many students. If you want to chat more, please feel free to contact me. I'm going to focus more on the Tutorials here (which are often more difficult for some students to get used to) and will let you think about how most of these ideas carry over to the ConcepTests in class.
This page is long - just look at the "bold" headings, and read about what's bothering (or interesting you)!
Tutorials are based on decades of Physics Education Research: They originally came from a physics education research group at U. Washington, who have spent years interviewing students in their Phys 1110 and 1120 courses, learning about common student learning difficulties and how to help "tackle" them. These Tutorials were then constructed, studied, and revised over many years (almost every week's Tutorial is the result of roughly a third of a PhD student's thesis!)
One goal is for you to do as well on "post" questions as our physics graduate TA's do on "pre" questions, and we exceed that goal regularly. So, they really work. In Phys 1110, our learning gains on nationally normalized "post-tests" are typically 2-3 times higher than similar courses at comparable universities which do not use Tutorials. (including the occasional 1110 or 1120 here at CU that hasn't used them, which was the case when we first started) In fact, there is almost NO school in the country posting higher normalized learning gains on conceptual questions than we are (including Harvard!) In Phys 1120, where the material (and post-tests!) are tougher, we are doing about double the national averages.
Tutorials emphasize concepts and sense-making: As you've surely noticed, we care a lot about problem solving and math skills in the course, but we care even more that this physics make sense to you! CAPA tends to emphasize the former somewhat, Tutorial (and Concept Tests) perhaps the latter. But they also tie together! Look again at the CAPA sets, you'll find many places where working through the Tutorials makes those problem easier and/or more relevant. And look at what we care about on the exams - there are a lot of questions (including multiple choice!) which are more about making sense of the physics, and being able to extract key ideas and apply them in somewhat unfamiliar ways. That's the Tutorial emphasis, and that's what physics and engineering is is ultimately all about. It's FAR MORE about explanation and reasoning than it is about computing numbers or manipulating symbols (despite whatever alternative impression you may have - talk to any working scientist if you're still skeptical :-)
Tutorials emphasize discussion and scientific behaviour: When employers are surveyed regarding what skills they want college graduates to bring into their workplace, the top TEN involve skills in communication, teamwork, and reasoning... Tutorials mimic the scientific process MUCH more than lectures do. There is no more "lecturing" or "CAPA" once you graduate and start doing science or engineering (or business, or law, or...) but there WILL be small group activities where you puzzle over problems, argue and discuss, try to figure out what's going on... These are learned skills, everyone gets better at them as they practice. If you're in a passive or quiet group, fire up your partners (or, if you prefer, switch groups) Ask questions, look for puzzles, go beyond the questions being asked by us. Try to make sense of this material, this is a great opportunity, take advantage of it. Having the TA and LA around for support just adds to the benefits- their job is to facilitate YOUR conversations.
Learning comes from YOU, it is not something "transferred into you".This is true of all higher level learning, not just physics. Some people get through high school with a sense that learning is about hearing (or reading) something, memorizing it, and repeating it back. That "it" might include an algorithm or method for solving problems (so, that would mean we tell you how to solve a kind of problem, and then you go do it). But I'm afraid that's only true of the very lowest levels of human learning! That approach will rapidly start to fail to suffice at CU (and definitely beyond!) Tutorials are designed to get you involved, it's up to you to figure out the material, convince your neighbors, work out the reasons rather than just the answers...
The best way to learn is to teach. This is perhaps the most powerful benefit of Tutorials (and concept Tests)! Solving the Tutorials on your own would be nowhere NEAR as valuable as coming to class, listening to other people's ideas, evaluating them, and helping them to see how you are thinking about it. There is lots of published research demonstrating this. There are often many different ways to think about a given question, and the more you think about connecting them the deeper your own understanding is. I don't know of a better way to learn than to try to teaching something (and not surprisingly, the people with the HIGHEST normalized learning gains in this course are our TA's and LA's!)
Some frequently asked questions about Tutorials I've gotten in the past:
- Why won't the TA's just tell me the answer?
This is a response to our use of "Socratic dialogue" in tutorials.
It's true that your TA and LA are not teaching in a conventional
way, but don't be deceived. There is more learning going on in
tutorial sections than ever happened when the TA stood by the
blackboard and solved problems in front of people. (By a long shot!) What they're doing requires a lot
of skill, and they are working hard at their teaching. (They don't just
come into tutorial and wing it!!) Their questions are not random, or
useless, despite how it may occasionally feel. When they ask "well
what do YOU think", as often happens at first, they are not blowing you
off - they want (and NEED) to know. Remember, the whole point is for YOU to discover the answer. Being told
an answer can help if it's a fact, but it does no good if it's a
concept. In many cases, it's not so much just about the answer,
it's about the process of discovery . (A specific example: the
"uniform charged rod" vs "point charge" exercise in the first tutorial -
the point was not for you to memorize which one makes a larger force,
it was for you to figure out for yourself WHY that's true, so that when
we talk about, say, finding the field from more interesting and realistic
charge distributions later on you'll have a sense for what contributes, and
why. And, when we go beyond electricity, to e.g. magnetism, you'll be able
to generalize the result to distributions of current much more
easily) We do lots of different things in this
class - you have a text which does just "give you straight answers",
you have lectures which are a mix of answers, and some discussion...
but ultimately, you still get lots of that sharp feedback. (Same, even
more so, with CAPA!) So the bulk of this class is indeed
designed to give you "straight answers".
But tutorial is different, and intentionally so. This is the
opportunity for you to stretch. To figure out something new, and
useful, for yourself. To decide "how do I know if I'm right, besides asking some authority?" This is something you absolutely need to learn
- more even than learning Maxwell's Equations! It's not easy, and we're
trying to provide a "scaffold" here to get you started. You have your
peers to talk to, an LA and TA to help, and of course all the other
resources of the course. But take advantage of these 50 minutes to
figure things out for yourself, without just being told answers.
- But I DO already know this stuff, why do I have to do it this way ?
Every week, our TA's and LA's (who "already know this stuff" quite well) do the Tutorials a few days before you do. We spend about an hour and a half, rather than 50 minutes, because we start arguing, puzzling, thinking about other ways to think about it, wondering what sorts of ideas might be "out there" that you will bring in to the Tutorials. It's a blast, and every week, we walk away realizing that we understand this stuff much better than we did before! Our LA's have (mostly) just been through this course themselves, some of them just last term. They really appreciate how much more there inevitably is to learn, even (especially!) about the most basic and important ideas, which is really what the Tutorials zoom in on. If you feel you are already the master of this material, take advantage of this chance to teach your fellow group-mates, and see how much you get out of that! Even I get tripped up every now and then on a Tutorial question, where I realize that although it may look simple, it turns out it was after something very deep, or rich.
On a similar point - some students feel that Tutorials are occasionally too "repetitive". And yes, sometimes they do come at an idea several times, but it's never busy work - if the question looks the same as a previous one, think about it some more. Something is different, there's something interesting, challenging, or subtle at play here - discover it!
- If we don't already know it, how can we learn from a Tutorial?
It is true that the tutorials sometimes contain material which is not
exactly familiar. (This may happen more often later in the term) Tutorials are designed to push a little - to give
you something that you are equipped to answer but have not necessarily
seen before. For example, we had you thinking about flux before we had
formally done Gauss' law in lecture. Having discovered and made sense
of the result, e.g. what "d(Area)" might mean, the lecture that
came next likely meant that much more to you.
Real learning is not about memorization or template matching (i.e. "plug and chug") You really DO have the
knowledge, and the skills, when you walk in the door. The questions are meant to push you a little, to help you
discover knowledge rather than simply be presented it. This is,
ultimately, what you need to go on in this, and more advanced classes,
to do research, to design, to do just about anything in science and
(One last thing on this - if you are REALLY struggling in the tutorials,
you might find it worth your while to spend a little time preparing for
them. After the pretest, you know what material we'll be covering -
take a look at it in advance, it might allow for the tutorial to be
that much more productive, and well worth the small extra time in
advance if it means getting through the tutorials with more confidence
and ease. )
And on a similar point - some students feel that Tutorials are occasionally too "vague". Indeed, when this happens it's usually intentional :-) Science is vague, nobody tells ME what questions to research, we spend as much time in my research group trying to figure out what question we're trying to answer as we do answering them! This is an essential part of science, and one of the "hidden" learning goals of the Tutorials.
- I hate working in groups, this isn't my "learning style".
And yet, there's probably not a single person in this class who
will NOT have to work in groups for the rest of their life. Working in
groups can be frustrating, and challenging. It is also rewarding, and
productive. There is a REASON that all engineers and scientists work in
groups - you achieve more, the whole is greater than the sum of its
parts. If you think of yourself as solitary, consider this a valuable
opportunity to begin to explore how a group can help you. When the
other people are slower than you, that's not a problem - it's great.
There is no better way to learn than to teach. Take advantage of it! And, if instead your group is
way ahead of you - slow them down. Be assertive. Make sure they bring
you with them as they discover the physics. You are
free to change groups - find/make a group that fits you best. This is
how science is done, at all levels beyond the VERY beginnings - and
that's why we're doing it here too. When your group starts to
"click", it's an amazing experience.
- Maybe you could post answers?
This is closely related to the first question (why don't the TA's tell you the answers). But with a twist - can't we
get the answers AFTER we've wrestled with them on our own? But, what we said above still applies. You can, of course, always go one-on-one with
me, or your TA, and really get definite feedback if you need it.
(Please feel free to do so!) But, posting answers is very
destructive to this process, because once I post answers, most people
get the wrong message. That the ANSWER was all that mattered. That's
not what the tutorial is after - we're trying to get you to figure out
how physics is science - how can you convince yourself that something
is correct or not? You will get feedback, through the graded tutorial
homeworks. So, although I will post answers to everything else in the
class (there's TONS of direct, fast feedback. From example problems in
the text and my lecture notes, to CAPA's instant yes/no, to the concept
tests in class and posted on the web), I prefer not to do so on the
tutorials. Tutorial problems are carefully designed to be something
you CAN do, on your own, and check/make sense of them without needing
someone to say yes or no. You can convince yourself! That's why they
may sometimes look repetitive - that's not busy work, that's modeling
how you check yourself!
- I don't see how the Tutorials help with CAPA.
Indeed, CAPA is a somewhat different kind of exercise. CAPA
(which are basically end-of-chapter problems) is important, but is NOT solely representative of what "doing physics"
is. Many people have been trained (by high school) to think that CAPA
is it - if you can do those, you know your stuff. (It's what people
who give standardized tests want you to be able to do, and so we learn
that.) But this belief is too simple - the tutorial hw and concept questions are something much
deeper. It often looks easier (because there's not such math involved),
but generally it's harder, and more important. To explain your
reasoning, to use concepts to go to unfamiliar cases... That's the
good stuff, it's what physics (and science in general) is all about.
CAPA and tutorial hw count equally, but they aren't meant to
"duplicate" each other, or be "redundant" - they carry different
learning goals with them. And of course, they are still much more than
"marginally related" - CAPA takes the exact same physics concepts, but
asks you to make it mathematically rigorous. Tutorial asks you to
think about reasons, and solve more conceptually rich problems. Both
are important, both are connected (but I agree, they are different.) If
you start to look, you will find many CAPA problems are "just the same"
as a tutorial problem - at least, if you look past the surface. I do sometimes wish both CAPA and the tutorials would be a little more "real world"
focused (they use a lot of "point objects" and "infinite sheets" which
might perhaps make it feel a little tedious!) but of course you can do
the generalization - point charges are metaphors for electrons and protons,
or even a balloon sticking to the wall, and the capacitor in your
camera or flash memory really does look like an infinite sheet to a little
- I just don't think Tutorials are right for me.
What we've discovered (with a lot of data collection over the last few years) is that there is more learning going on in
tutorial sections than ever happened when the TA stood by the
blackboard and solved problems in front of people. (By a long shot!)
This is true across the board - it's true for the students who
struggle, and also the very strongest. Some of the BEST tutorial
learning gains (using these exact same materials) have occurred in
advanced honors physics classes. The results have been consistent
across different universities, in different class sizes, with very
different populations. These things work! To date, I know of NO
recitation section taught in a "conventional" way, or even a partly
conventional way (i.e. some lecturing, and some tutorial) that has
shown the documented learning gains of these student-centered
tutorials. There are inevitably some students who (especially
at first) are suspicious, who think "it's not working for me". And
yet, consistently, those students' learning gains are high too.
So have faith! It helps a lot when students go into tutorial with a
positive attitude. I care a lot about students enjoying the experience
of learning - I really think it matters. You do need to participate and help
each other. You need to be patient (when your TA/LA is busy), but
assertive (to get them to come talk to you as often as possible) Don't
expect them to give "the answer" - their job is to help YOU figure out
your own path through this material. Being asked questions instead of
hearing answers can be very frustrating at first, but when you think
about what they're asking, and try to answer them, you will discover
you understand a great deal more than you ever thought.
There's a lot here. Hope it helps a little, so that you can make
tutorials more productive (and fun) for yourself. As always, feedback is welcome!
Physics 1120 home page.