By Marcus Wilson 13/12/2010 3

[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.

3 Responses to “Experimenting”

  • I had the benefit of taking the experimental physics paper at Waikato Uni twice! That was back during the time of Dr. Henderson. I can indeed confirm from my experiences that the difference between preparation and none is mighty!

    The first time around I would use the entire 3 hours to find a set of [terrible] results and would struggle to produce a meaningful report. The second time around I had spent enough time in preparation that most labs took around an hour and a half to complete, including the write up (which I had started before the lab).

    Personally, I wouldn’t worry about collaboration between students in your “forced preparation” model. If they pass the paper that way, and what they must do to pass is a fair representation of the “real world”, then they have learned/demonstrated what is important. The real world is collaboration, even for parrots!

    • Wow! Dr Henderson. I came to Waikato after he retired, and have never met him. He is a bit of a ‘folklore’ character – there are lots of stories about him, some of which no doubt have been distorted by the passage of time, but I get the impression he was an enthusiastic, pedantic, and hardworking experimenter. The story I’ve heard is that he gave a test in which he got students to measure the diameter of a steel rod with a micrometer – the catch being that he had carefully milled the rod so that it was slightly thinner in the middle than at the ends (or the other way round) – he wanted to see if students would pick this up. Is it true?

  • That certainly sounds true, but I can’t confirm it sorry. I was rather a distant student, barely engaging with other students let alone lecturers. I began to properly come into my own while I was studying my level three papers in my BSc.

    I remember struggling mightily with uncertainties and having to constantly refer to the precisely written, but impractical, guidelines ripped out of the back of my first year lab manual.

    I also remember leaving my umbrella in one of the basement rooms where we had lectures and then remembering only a week later before retrieving it from exactly where it was left!

    Wonderful memories!

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