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[14 December 2010 - this post initially appeared truncated - sorry if it confused you. The full thing is now below]

One of my talks last week concerned a piece of work I’d done with my second year experimental physics class this year. Before going to Melbourne, I gave the talk a trial run at the University of Waikato’s ‘celebrating teaching’ day. It provoked a few comments then, and a few more in Melbourne, so I thought I’d give a summary of it here.

I’ve been teaching experimental physics more or less for the whole time I’ve been at the university (my divine punishment for navigating my own undergraduate studies on the basis of finding the path with the least amount of practical work in it). I’ve noticed that few students do any planning before the lab. Some will turn up at the lab without even knowing what experiment they will be trying to do. So this year I’ve tried to turn this around.

The great thing about the theory of tertiary education is that it says that when there is a problem, the solution is often easy. And that is to pay attention to what you are assessing. “If you want to change student learning …. change the assessment” ( G. Brown, J. Bull and M. Pendlebury. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education.   Routledge, London, New York (1997). )  The issue was, I think, that I was never actually getting the students to plan anything. They learn that they can get good marks without doing any preparation beforehand, because the instructions for the lab are pretty well provided to them.

So this year I’ve forced them to prepare for a couple of experiments, by removing the instructions. Instead, I gave them the task they had to do, and  let them get on with working out how it should be done, using what equipment, etc. Since we use some moderately complicated lab equipment, I chose to ‘pair-up’ experiments – one week to introduce them to the equipment, the next to give them an experiment to do (without instructions) that used that equipment. That way, learning to drive the equipment did not become a distraction.

For the most part (around three quarters) students overcame initial hesitations (horror?) and tackled this very well. Most enjoyed it, and thought the approach was beneficial. However, the other quarter really didn’t like it. Appraisal forms, a focus group, and casual conversations in the lab with the students tell me this.

I gave my talk and there was a fair bit of discussion afterwards. The audience (mostly filled with secondary teachers and tertiary teachers with a strong interest in education) thought that the way that these experiments were assessed needed very careful thought to get the most out of the students. Was I assessing the ‘planning’ task itself (and how?), the end results of the planning, or something else. I thought I was assessing ‘planning’, as well as how well the student carried out and documented  the experiment after the planning, but possibly it was not transparent enough to some of the students.  That’s worth working on for next year. 

Also, was I concerned that students might get their experiment ‘planned’ by someone else? E.g. consult another student in the group that had done this experiment in a previous week. Personally, this doesn’t bother me – in fact, I would encourage such consultation as it shows students are taking the task seriously. If a student finds it easier to learn from other students rather than from me, I have no problem with that. If the end result is that he or she learns (and I mean ’learn’ not ‘parrot’) what I wish them to learn (which is more than just facts) then I have no problem with whatever route they take.

I was encouraged by a final comment by a lecturer who had done a similar thing with a large first-year class (in contrast to my small second-year class) and found very similar results – generally successful and well-liked by students, but with a significant minority that had strong views the other way.