Another New Term, Another Set of Teaching Experiments

Classes for the Winter term start today, and I’m totally prepared for this. Yep. Uh-huh. Losing a bunch of prep time to snow and ice last week hasn’t thrown anything into disarray.

Anyway, for a variety of reasons, I’ve ended up departing from my plan to not do any new preps while I’m stuck being Chair, and I’ll be teaching intro E&M this term. This isn’t a completely new class, but the last time I taught it I was very much in traditional lecture mode, and this will be my first pass using more of an active learning approach. Which will mean a lot of time re-working slides and that sort of thing– lifting quite a bit of stuff from the excellent “clicker question” resources from Colorado— but having done mechanics in a more active manner, I feel obliged to expand that. Really, I feel a little guilty for being as lecture-y as I was in my quantum optics class this past fall, but I was under such a time crunch from the book that I couldn’t do anything but work off my old notes.

I’m also continuing to experiment with “standards-based grading” this term, which I used last Winter in mechanics because our visitor last year was really into PER stuff, and wanted to do it, and I’ve always found the idea intriguing. It ended up being a bit more work than the traditional method, though I didn’t find it all that bad. I’m trying to streamline things a bit– last year’s E&M class had a whopping 98 standards on their list, which is a logistical nightmare. I’ve cut that down to under 40, which I hope will be easier to manage.

I’m also trying a tiered system– that is, there are around 10 groups of content-based standards, each with a Level I, Level II, Level III set of skills. So, for example, the first topic up, electric fields, looks like this:

  • Level I
    Qualitative understanding of electric field and electric force, and their relationship
    Sketching field vectors with appropriate magnitude and direction
    Calculating force from electric field, or vice versa
  • Level II
    Calculating field at a point due to point charge
    Calculating field due to a dipole
    Sketching field vectors due to continuous charge distributions
    Identifying and using equations to calculate field from charged disk, rod, ring.
  • Level III
    Calculating field at a point due to an arrangement of multiple charged objects using superposition.
    Calculating force between a dipole and a point charge.
    Setting up integral to calculate field of continuous charge distribution

The idea is that a student who masters all the Level I standards is looking at a C-ish grade, one who gets all the Level I and Level II is in the B’s, and anyone who wants an A better be getting some of the Level III. (The exact algorithm for converting standard scores to letter grades is deliberately left vague because it’s a work in progress…) I think this strikes a reasonable balance between cutting down the complexity and keeping an ability to differentiate between different skill levels.

Whether the students will buy in or not is another issue, but then, I have tenure. And if you can’t use the protection of tenure to try new things, well, you should be in a different line of work.

The start of a new academic term, the need to massively revise lecture notes and assignments, and the giant backlog of administrative busywork that I didn’t do because I was pushing to finish the book mean that blogging will be a bit sporadic for the next few weeks at least. On the bright side, though, most of the hot topics of the last week or two in the science social media universe have been pretty depressing, and this gives me a nice excuse to skip writing about them.

Anyway, Happy New (academic) Year to all, and if you’re in the middle bit of North America, stay warm. The ice zombies can’t get you if you’re inside under a pile of blankets.

2 Replies to “Another New Term, Another Set of Teaching Experiments”

  1. Long ago in a galaxy far away I taught high school physics (in Kansas!) I developed a completely experimental curriculum and had a blast and think the students did too. The unit on thermodynamics started with the students making their own lead acid battery. At first they did not know it was a battery and had to deduce that was the purpose of the exercise. Later we derived both qualitatively and quantitatively the key aspects of thermodynamics using the students batteries. (The students were appalled at the energy inefficiency of their batteries). This was in the throes of the Arab oil embargo so the concept of efficiency struck home. Have fun!

  2. Will you get to the difference between current flows in AC and DC? Then you have calculate the current in a circuit with a capacitor an inductor and a resistor, in some arrangement.

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