TAPD mini-modules week 4: But, are students really learning?

This semester, we’ve carved out time from the Teaching Assistants’ normal duties—a half-hour per week—to use for professional development activities. This post series tracks our weekly goals and activities.


“We’re going to derive this, but I need your help with it.”

This was my lead-in to the set of clicker questions we used to derive the kinematics equations. Instead of lecturing about these equations, this year I designed a series of clicker questions of increasing sophistication to involve students in the derivation. From my perspective, students were actively engaged in the process, following along, discussing, and clicking in on the steps. But, are students really learning from this?

This week, we’ll spend a little bit of time getting our hands dirty in a piece of the physics education canon and discussing how we can be rigorous about deciding if our instruction is working. TAs will think about how students might experience the Force Concept Inventory, and we’ll take a look at the famous “Hake plot” from his seminal study. The goals are to gain some insight about the students we have in this course, and to see an inside view of the tools instructors might use to evaluate their courses.

Mini-module outline:

  1. (5 min) Set-up question for module: How do you decide if your instruction is working?
  2. (15 min) TAs take a look at the FCI. In groups, they will be directed to a specific pocket of questions with the task of predicting how students fared on them.
  3. (5 min) Group discussion: Which question was most difficult for students? Reveal of our class scores.
  4. (5 min) Putting our course in context, comparing to a compilation of FCI pre-scores from different courses across the department.
  5. (5 min) Putting our course in a wider context, and discussing how the FCI is used as a research tool. The Hake plot.

Post-meeting update:

  • TAs quickly short-circuited the set-up question by saying “you test them.” This was okay though, as we quickly jumped into looking at and discussing the FCI.
  • The TAs’ discussion about the FCI questions and how students might respond to them was lively and productive.
  • The Hake plot and the wider context of Physics Education Research (PER) could have been better connected to the rest; I’m not sure the full context was clear.

Next time: I would have full distributions for each FCI question, rather than just the percent correct—several people asked about this, and it would have been helpful for interpreting what students were thinking. I would think a bit more about how to introduce normalized gain and the Hake plot. Although I thought about having more content here (i.e., more info from the Hake paper), I would not add more in this 0.5h; the FCI discussions were good, and having a bit of a teaser of PER was likely enough.

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