I work as a learning assistant for Physics 140, the introduction to mechanics course, and I often encounter students who feel that the subject is too difficult and uninviting. While it is true that the concepts in physics are challenging and can be hard to understand the first time, students shouldn’t feel that they are not able to learn and build their understanding. In my opinion, everyone at the University of Michigan should feel they are able and qualified to take introductory physics. To get a better understanding of how to make this happen, I talked to one of the current Physics 140 professors, Tim McKay.
I first asked McKay what he thought the reason could be that many people view the introductory physics course to be less approachable than other introductory level courses at the University. Many people know what physics is, or at least think they know what physics is, but McKay pointed out sometimes the course has missed opportunities to frame what they are teaching and why it is important to learn the material. He brought up an introductory course that physics could learn from: Introduction to Linguistics. This is a topic that very few students would have studied before entering college, and they probably have little to no preconceived notions about the subject coming in.
“A clear goal of all the faculty is both to give you a sense of the landscape of that discipline and to help you understand why that discipline is really cool, valuable and important,” McKay said in reference to Introduction to Linguistics.
This approach to an introductory course more often leads to someone finding a passion they may not have known about previously. This often does not happen with foundational science courses. Most people who are taking the course already know they want to major in that subject or are there for a requirement of some sort.
There are physics courses that offer an opportunity for students who are not intending to major in the sciences, such as Everyday Physics. However, these courses are not on the path toward a major. While these courses are a great way for students to be exposed to sciences, they do not offer the opportunity to easily continue in the physics curriculum. I discussed these courses with McKay, and he pointed out that these different levels of introduction to a subject often do not exist in non-STEM fields.
“We have said that the same entry point should not serve both people who are seeking to major in the field and those who are not,” McKay said. “If you look at most of the social sciences and humanities disciplines, that is not the case. They do not draw that distinction.”
I believe that physics, and many other science departments, should take this into consideration. I am not saying that courses like Everyday Physics must be eliminated, but I think more can be done to make Physics 140 less about fulfilling a requirement for engineering majors and more about giving a true introduction that many different types of people would find rewarding.
Making this shift is a complicated problem and one without a direct solution. One issue is that sometimes students are not clear on what they should have learned, and it can be difficult to evaluate their own progress. It can feel discouraging when you cannot see specific improvements in your abilities.
“After you take your first poetry class, you are not writing like Anne Sexton, but your writing doesn’t feel like a total failure either,” McKay said. “Whereas if you are trying to solve a physics problem and get it wrong, it can feel like you failed.”
Focusing on a student’s progress and what they have learned will ultimately lead to more people enjoying their introductory physics course and not finishing the class feeling like they gained nothing. As McKay pointed out, it is easier to see progress in something such as writing rather than your ability to solve a physics problem. One way to help students see their progress is to establish more clear learning goals: statements about what a student should be able to do and what kind of problems they should be able to solve. If the foundational science courses set up these learning goals successfully, there would be no need for grades as they exist now. The way in which grades are viewed currently is a way to rank people with respect to each other, and do not always reflect what a student has actually learned. McKay addressed that grades make sense in non-introductory courses where the material is specialized and the people taking the courses are all studying in the same field. However, ranking people when they are first encountering a subject is not appropriate.
Rather than using grades to compare students to each other, the introductory courses could report a student’s progress toward a learning goal. Information about how much knowledge each student started with and how far they improved in each area could be recorded instead of a grade that compares students with each other.
There is much being done to incorporate some of these changes into courses here at the University of Michigan. The Foundational Course Initiative, which McKay participates in, seeks to improve these large introductory courses. They are taking on projects that involve many people and help form teaching methods at the University.
“The social collaboration and the technology that is allowing us to reach every student have created an opportunity to make education at scale something new; a 21st (-century) version of it, rather than the industrialized 20th-century model,” McKay said.
It is our responsibility to help make this new model of education the best it can be for future students. The time for change in these courses is now. While these changes are taking place, it is important to remember that showing students why what they are learning is important and focusing on how students’ progress towards understanding will lead to more interest in the topics covered in the course. Educators must place importance on the journey of obtaining knowledge rather than the final grade received after a test. In doing this, all students at the University could feel welcomed in introductory science courses and able to explore scientific knowledge.
Robert Dalka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.