Spurring Motivation to Learn (Jan Tobochnik, Kalamazoo)

Jan Tobochnik,
Dow Distinguished Professor in the Natural Sciences
Department of Physics, Kalamazoo College

In a typical flipped classroom students are expected to watch lectures online and then class time is spent in active learning. The Physics Department at Kalamazoo College has come to the conclusion that lectures, online or in person, have very limited value for most students. Thompson’s review also mentions this. Almost all true learning comes with active direct engagement with the material. We maximize this in our introductory physics sequence by using almost all class time giving quizzes and having students work in groups on physics problems involving paper and pencil calculations, short laboratory exercises, and computer simulations. While students are working on these activities they are continually questioned by the instructors and undergraduate teaching assistants. Students have reading and problems due for each class. Each quiz is concerned with a specific learning objective and is graded either mastery or striving. There is no partial credit. Students who don’t master the learning objective can redo it with an oral exam or redo it on the final exam which is individualized for each student. Using nationally normed pre and post testing we know our approach is working, though there is plenty of room for improvement. 

Our goal is that students change their way of thinking. Our focus is on conceptual thinking and problem solving. Our secondary goal is for students to have a positive experience in our classroom. We recognize that that these two goals are not independent. Most of our students in introductory physics are there because their major requires it or because it is required for medical school or 3/2 engineering. Few come in with an intrinsic interest in the subject, particularly in the topics that can be treated at an introductory level. Thus, our main struggle is to motivate students to do the reading and homework in an intentional way so that they can get the most out of class. Many students, particularly pre-med students, are motivated by the desire to get a good grade. However, this kind of motivation does not work for many students (particularly for those with poor math or logical reasoning skills), and for all students is usually insufficient to achieve the most out of our course. Students frequently work out ways to pass our quizzes without developing the intellectual skills that we are working on. Thus, over the years our approach has evolved. 

Much of our success probably comes from one simple fact. Students are forced to spend more time doing physics. In traditional physics classrooms students sit back and listen to lectures and perform routine cook book laboratory exercises. Both of these activities are very ineffective for true learning. Our current task is to improve the in-class activities (including promoting positive motivation) and the assessment done by the quizzes.

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