Physics Education Research

Assessing Introductory Physics for Life Sciences (IPLS)

In addition to developing an IPLS course at Swarthmore, my colleagues and I have assessed student learning and experiences in this course, most recently focusing on student interest, attitudes, and engagement. We have found that students in the IPLS course do not decline in their attitudes and interest toward physics (as measured by the CLASS), and those students who come into the course with the least interest in physics improve substantially. We also find that in the second semester (the only one offered as an IPLS course initially at Swarthmore), they score as well or better on the Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment (BEMA) as the same population of students enrolled in the regular second semester of physics. Finally, with HHMI postdoctoral fellow Ben Geller, undergraduates Haley Gerardi and Max Franklin, and Chandra Turpen (Univ. of Maryland), we are currently examining the specific curricular elements that elicit students’ engagement with the course.

Here is a listing of my IPLS articles.

Learning from Demonstrations

While a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, my colleagues and I examined whether lecture demonstrations are an effective way of helping students learn physics concepts. We found that preceding the demonstration by asking students to predict the outcome increased students’ understanding of the demonstration, as measured by testing students’ ability to explain the demonstration at the end of the course.

Catherine H. Crouch, Adam P. Fagen, J. Paul Callan, and Eric Mazur, “Classroom demonstrations: learning tools or entertainment?” American Journal of Physics 72, 835 (2004).

Peer Instruction

While a postdoctoral fellow, I spearheaded a project to assess the effectiveness of Peer Instruction (PI), a teaching strategy that gets students more actively engaged in the classroom by posing questions to them throughout class. We published articles with our findings that PI was very successful at increasing students’ understanding of physics both at Harvard, where Eric Mazur first developed this method, and elsewhere. I also coordinated the dissemination of materials for teaching with PI to make it easier for faculty around the country to use this method.

Catherine H. Crouch, Jessica Watkins, Adam P. Fagen, and Eric Mazur, “Peer Instruction: Engaging students one-on-one, all at once,” in Research-Based Reforms in University Physics, Edward F. Redish, editor (American Association of Physics Teachers, available online.

Gender and Interactive Engagement

We examined whether the interactive engagement methods developed by many physics education researchers around the country help ameliorate the gender gap in performance in introductory physics, both at Harvard and elsewhere. We found that teaching interactively indeed helped the female students catch up to the male students at Harvard as measured by the Force Concept Inventory. It appears that a course needs to be thoroughly interactive if the gender gap is to be ameliorated or eliminated; adding a few interactive activities to an otherwise passively taught course did not help much. These results were reported in Mercedes Lorenzo, Catherine H. Crouch, and Eric Mazur, “Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom,” American Journal of Physics 74, 118 (2006).

In my first few years at Swarthmore, I continued a collaboration on examining gender issues in introductory physics with Jessica Watkins and Eric Mazur at Harvard University. Further analysis of these same data by Jessica Watkins revealed a significant ceiling effect in the FCI scores. Jessica’s findings (reported in her dissertation, some summarized in this talk) revealed Peer Instruction was clearly beneficial for both male and female students, but in the algebra-based course, on some measures there was still a modest gender gap, while on some measured the female students achieved on par with the males. When student background (FCI pretest score) was controlled for, no gaps remained. Subsequent work by other groups such as the University of Colorado-Boulder have made it clear that the picture is complex and depends on specifics of institutional implementation.

I organized a targeted poster session on this topic at the 2008 Physics Education Research Conference, and was part of an invited session on diversity in physics education at the 2010 American Association of Physics Teachers meeting.

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