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Getting Rid Of Students July 3, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

In a random response to a post a few days ago, Richard pointed me to a book, “Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences”, with the following summary:

This book documents the tragic exit of great talents from the natural sciences that results when overdriven undergraduates lose sight of the fun and sense of wonder that are at the heart of the most successful scientific careers.


Both groups of students voiced serious criticism of the deliberately competitive, grade on a curve, “overwhelm them and weed them out” approach that is widely used in teaching freshman and sophomore courses in SME-track curricula, particularly calculus, physics and organic chemistry.

And then in today’s New York Times there was an editorial with a similar theme:

The United States could easily fall from its privileged perch in the global economy unless it does something about the horrendous state of science education at both the public school and university levels. That means finding ways to enliven a dry and dispiriting style of science instruction that leads as many as half of the country’s aspiring scientists to quit the field before they leave college.

Me? Guilty!! For the past 6 years I’ve taught various versions of the introductory physics survey course. It covers 100’s years of physics in one year. We rarely spend more than a lecture on a single topic; there is little time for fun. And if we want to make room for something like that we usually have to squeeze out some other topic. Whoosh!

It gets worse. At the UW we are lucky enough to have a large contingent of students from excellent high schools. This means they have seen almost all of the material previously! Snore!

I have been lucky enough to teach the honors course for the past two years. They really know the material – so we get to do some advanced topics like Special Relativity (the year 1905!), but, really, we are just tinkering at the edges. A number of my students wondered why we had to start with this old stuff (implication: boooring!), and why not start with quantum mechanics. Or perhaps something about nano-tubes, or particle physics that is currently at the cutting edge. Well, yeah, that would be cool. But…

Even with the current system there are a number of problems. For example, many of the students who have had a decent high school course can’t solve a multi-step problem. Or it turns out their understanding of the physics concepts extends no further than the formula they have learned. And there is the old Professor’s mantra: You have to learn to walk before you run, sonny! Finally, there are a finite number of professors to teach these courses. The ideal situation would be to have enough courses to tailor the material to the student’s ability. But we need more professors in the department to do that (Hint! Hint!). Finally, many of our students come to us from other departments – their major requirements include our physics courses. If we are to radically change our curricula we have to mesh with all those other departments.

Enough complaints! It is probably very difficult to change the material we teach, but how about making what we do teach more interesting? After all, all physics from 100 years ago or more can’t be boring, right? Well, right. It takes energy and time, however. At UW we have a one-hour-per week tutorial that is based on the annoying-to-many-students Socratic method (however, it has been shown to improve comprehension). At the very least it is engaging: the students don’t sit and listen to me talk for an hour. Second, we have a 3 hour lab component to the course. You could imagine all sorts of exciting and cool things you could do. Sadly, we don’t (indeed, our lab receives the proportion number of student complains for the overall course). We are doing our best to improve it, but I think it really has to be knocked off the rails and re-imagined from scratch. Finally, there are many new lecture techniques – interactive techniques – that are slowly adopting to try to improve the lectures themselves. So, here at UW, there is plenty we can continue to work on to improve the course and the student experience.

But, let’s return, for a second, to the material covered. In next year’s honors course we are going to try an experiment, departing from a standard book and try Thomas Moore’s Six Ideas That Shape Physics series. This is a radical departure from the standard chronological order of teaching (1-dimensional motion, Newton’s law, energy, etc.) to something arranged around some basic conservation principles – which is more akin to how we learn how to think about physics in the upper division courses. We can do this experiment in the honors class because it is small (~100 people as compared to about ~1000 in the rest). Hey, if it is a success we’ll figure out how to address all those other problems and hopefully physics will become more interesting for the student.

But it will always still be hard work. This is school, afterall…



1. brian - July 4, 2006

You know, I am person with a bachelors degree in physics and I am always puzzled by this. (And I am sorry in advance, because this only vaguely touches on what you wanted to focus on–the academic part.)

I know plenty of fellow graduates, including myself, who would love to have job somewhat related to their field of study, but otherwise cannot or are denied the opportunity.

I understand that some areas of physics, particularly in research, absolutely require ph.d, but there has to be something for people who either could not get into grad school or choose not to spend another 7 years in an academic setting. And if such positions don’t exist, then why are you trying to get more people into this field?

And here is where I think you miss the point, you seem to be more concerned with getting people interested in your field rather than keeping the ones that are interested. I believe that was the main point about the second quote. The problems the students have are the way that grades are dished out.

I have to seriously agree now that I look back. The students who leaving are realizing something that I was too stubborn not to see. And that is that you cannot have a professional career in physics unless you get mostly A’s in your classes. Otherwise, why are you working so hard?

And even if you were planing to switch your profession, to something like law, which I know quite a few do. Guess what?, you still need mostly A’s to get into a good law school. So tell me, why would I want to major in physics rather than history where the grades have the perception of being easier to get?

What it boils down to, if you look at all the popular majors, many have connections to careers in their respective fields. I know that many people will say that college is purely for the educational value, but that’s bullshit. People want to be successful in their lives, they want to have careers they’re proud of, and if you want more students in your field you have to give them ways to achieve this. I cannot in good faith tell people who ask about my major that physics will take them there, unless I know they can otherwise get the A’s they need in an insanely competitive field.

2. a cornellian - July 5, 2006

I am curently an undergrad (starting senior year) at cornell (majoring in physics and math) and i’m going to say that I rather liked my experiance so far. I do not think the suggestions of starting with QM and other new and seemingly more interesting physics is a good idea. The reason is that, atleast in my case, i felt that the lower level courses (our honors intro sequence is 3 semestter mehchics/special realtivity-e&m-waves, thermo and optics) did teach us the physics, but much more importantly gave us mathematicla maturity (i’m making this wording up mostly, what i mean is that we can now look at a problem in QM and go “gee, this math is really ugly…but wait a second, this looks like something we did in e&m, can we use the same math tricks here?”)

I am also against these interactive class things. Atleast for me I learn very will by listening and absorbing. The classes where we did use those i felt they were distracting and a waste of class time. Take for example the ask a question-show distrobution of responces-discus-try again method. This is all well and good, but isn’t this why we are assigned problem sets and the reason study groups exist? (last semester the nights before mechanics and QM were due about half the class was working in the same building).

However brian does seem to make a good point. How many people who get physics degrees end up in physics? It seems the number of people who make it out as professors is drasticly smaller than the number who go in as students. If we don’t increase the number of people who come out, what will increaseing the number of people who go in do?

If the question here is infact not about physics major and is instead about science eduaction in the elementary school then that is a whole different basket.

Sorry this is rambling.

3. alaska - July 5, 2006

I used that book and I found it too verbose. I hope your future students won’t have to suffer through it.

4. Nate Bottman - July 5, 2006

This isn’t a very good response, but — personally, I learn best in a traditional lecture setting, possibly with a small amount question-answer interaction with the professor, and I am most interested and enthused when a decently rigorous text is used. I’m sad to see more and more classes, especially the introductory ones, in which this lecture-based style is not offered. I wonder if this is because of an insurgence of non-INTJ personality types in the sciences? Just a guess.

5. gordonwatts - July 5, 2006


6. Nate Bottman - July 5, 2006

Oh — as in, the Myers-Briggs Type. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a personality test, based off of the beliefs of Jung. INTJ stands for Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Judging; it’s considered to be the classic “scientist” type. Keirsey would have called an INTJ a “rational”.

7. Frank Sheldon - July 6, 2006

A friend and me had much fun reading “Motion Mountain – The Adventure of Physics”, a physics text that can be
downloaded for free at its website. One still needs a usual
physics book for the exams, but a book like this, focussed
on the interesting sides of physics, helped keeping us
motivated. Real fun.

8. Jennifer Fallis - July 6, 2006

One physics PhD student’s opinion:

I think in the end, no matter what teaching method is used, the most important aspect is whether or not the person teaching the course is excited about the material. I have had classes in the traditional lecture setting that were incredibly stimulating and classes that tried more innovative methods that fell really flat, I have become fantastically interested in a topic I had previously thought boring and turned off topics I had had an interest in all because the professor did or did not seem to care about the material or the students.

Part of the problem is the number of professors who teach because the have to not because it is something they want to do. I understand that universities want to hire top-notch researchers but if universities are worried about the quality of learning they should put more emphasis on the quality of teaching.

9. Alexandra - July 6, 2006

I am a second year student whom began with aspirations of following a physics degree. I entered college, went to my physics class and by the end of the semester i got out of the department. I had taken 3 years of physics in high school and was greatly motivated by my physics teacher. But I get into my intro class and the lectures are boring, the material is what i had covered 3 years ago and half of the class was asleep or reading the newspaper. Our TA was not that great either, he tried but mostly talked to the board.
Now, I re-entered the science field as a nuclear engineer major because of my calc TA. The classroom setting is about 25 students, class is 4 times a week, she follows the main instructor notes but also makes up her own examples for us and stays a bit longer if we have questions from the homework every time. She awoke the math and science passion in me again. Because after that whole physics class torture, I never wanted to touch the math or physical field again. From her teaching style i regained my confidence and interest in the physical sciences and math.
Then again, its sad sometimes how the “knowledge” of a student is measured in just 4 exams. How some students would have testing anxiety or other problems and all they have are 4 chances to prove that they are not stupid even if they have studied countless hours and know the material better than others. And the sad part is that a great number of students do have problems such as depression, anxiety or testing problems. Some are afraid to get help or don’t know how to explain it or whom to go to. After all, undergrad is just about getting all A’s right? That’s what we are told, not encouraged to try better, but to drop the course if we did bad in 2 exams or go to another field. That’s where our scientist of the future are going, they are all-transforming into criminology or political science majors. The ones who are too stubborn will stay for a bit longer, until the see the light and switch again to another area.

10. koantum - July 7, 2006

Hi Gordon, your post inspired me to say something about my attempts to teach quantum mechanics. It’s at this URL: http://koantum.wordpress.com/2006/07/07/quantum-mechanics-explained/

11. Life as a Physicist » Clickity Click! Part 1 - July 8, 2006

[…] A while I posted about driving science students out of, well, science. There was a lot of feedback there – read it if you have a chance and are interested in that sort of thing (I’m still mulling it over). […]

12. Simfish - July 12, 2006

However Nate, you learn best in a traditional lecture setting because you’re the one answering all of the questions and getting the 1-1 interaction with the professor. =P On the other hand, the vast majority of students, especially in traditional lecture courses, do not get such 1-1 interaction, and do not gain much benefit from lectures. Indeed, they might just gain as much from watching MIT OCW videos. The lecture format just doesn’t allow a lot of people to really ask questions. A forum IMO, would be a better place. We do have class forums of course, but a lot of students apparently aren’t so encouraged to ask questions on them. Of course, one of the ideas is to have a common forum that all of the classes can use, as well as forums that make typing out math equations a whole lot easier [maybe even easier than LaTeX, considering that most undergrads don’t even want to learn LaTeX].

13. Simfish - July 12, 2006

Honestly though, the problem is hardly the university’s own problem. Much of the problem also lies within American high schools. Almost never do students get the opportunity to learn physics early on, to get more than one year of high school physics. Meanwhile, students in other countries, China, Singapore, etc… often get physics instruction starting in middle school, with many years of such instruction. And this contributes to the problem – seeing that intro physics courses have to cover so much content in so little time, leaving little time to really think over the material, and to truly appreciate it.

Physics may be one of those subjects where an extended amount of time really really helps.

14. Simfish - July 12, 2006

Speaking of which, since Wikipedia is working so well, why not try some sort of a similar sort of system with education? The main problem with that of course – is that there aren’t a lot of intelligent people who really can understand the material well enough to teach A LOT of students. And as you get to the upper levels – it’s going to be harder to find such people.

Uhh, that is the model behind group interaction. Which as we all know, people like me hate. =P

15. andy.s - July 12, 2006

About that one-on-one Socratic thing at UW. Is that what the Quiz section in the catalog refers to? I’m wondering if I should sign up for that: I’m not a full time student – I’m a programmer but I decided to take some Physics courses at UW for the hell of it.

It sounds like fun, actually. As an undergrad, I had a prof who like to spring these questions on you out of nowhere. You had to think fast on your feet.

Also, for Simfish: Check out Wikiversity. It sounds like what you’re thinking about.

16. Nate Bottman - July 15, 2006

Personally, I couldn’t stand the quiz section — I always felt like the TAs were trying to craftily get me to understand the intuition, which disconcerted me. I would have been better off with a supplementary text, say, in place of the tutorials.

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