Some dialogue (and FAQ) about the tutorials and clicker questions in Phys 1120

Tutorials and "peer instruction" (clicker questions, or "Concept Tests" in class) are a very important part of Phys 1120, but also a rather unfamiliar way of learning for a lot of students. During the time that we've used them (more than the last 3 years), I've gotten a lot of positive feedback about them. It's clear that the majority of students are getting a lot out of these methods (for which I'm grateful!) But many students still wonder - what's the deal with them, why do we use Tutorials, why do we spend class time on peer discussion and voting? Here are a few brief comments, which might help you understand why they're so beneficial for so many students. If you want to chat more, please feel free to contact me. I'm going to focus more on the Tutorials here (which are often more difficult for some students to get used to) and will let you think about how most of these ideas carry over to the ConcepTests in class.

This page is long - just look at the "bold" headings, and read about what's bothering (or interesting you)!

Tutorials are based on decades of Physics Education Research: They originally came from a physics education research group at U. Washington, who have spent years interviewing students in their Phys 1110 and 1120 courses, learning about common student learning difficulties and how to help "tackle" them. These Tutorials were then constructed, studied, and revised over many years (almost every week's Tutorial is the result of roughly a third of a PhD student's thesis!)

One goal is for you to do as well on "post" questions as our physics graduate TA's do on "pre" questions, and we exceed that goal regularly. So, they really work. In Phys 1110, our learning gains on nationally normalized "post-tests" are typically 2-3 times higher than similar courses at comparable universities which do not use Tutorials. (including the occasional 1110 or 1120 here at CU that hasn't used them, which was the case when we first started) In fact, there is almost NO school in the country posting higher normalized learning gains on conceptual questions than we are (including Harvard!) In Phys 1120, where the material (and post-tests!) are tougher, we are doing about double the national averages.

Tutorials emphasize concepts and sense-making: As you've surely noticed, we care a lot about problem solving and math skills in the course, but we care even more that this physics make sense to you! CAPA tends to emphasize the former somewhat, Tutorial (and Concept Tests) perhaps the latter. But they also tie together! Look again at the CAPA sets, you'll find many places where working through the Tutorials makes those problem easier and/or more relevant. And look at what we care about on the exams - there are a lot of questions (including multiple choice!) which are more about making sense of the physics, and being able to extract key ideas and apply them in somewhat unfamiliar ways. That's the Tutorial emphasis, and that's what physics and engineering is is ultimately all about. It's FAR MORE about explanation and reasoning than it is about computing numbers or manipulating symbols (despite whatever alternative impression you may have - talk to any working scientist if you're still skeptical :-)

Tutorials emphasize discussion and scientific behaviour: When employers are surveyed regarding what skills they want college graduates to bring into their workplace, the top TEN involve skills in communication, teamwork, and reasoning... Tutorials mimic the scientific process MUCH more than lectures do. There is no more "lecturing" or "CAPA" once you graduate and start doing science or engineering (or business, or law, or...) but there WILL be small group activities where you puzzle over problems, argue and discuss, try to figure out what's going on... These are learned skills, everyone gets better at them as they practice. If you're in a passive or quiet group, fire up your partners (or, if you prefer, switch groups) Ask questions, look for puzzles, go beyond the questions being asked by us. Try to make sense of this material, this is a great opportunity, take advantage of it. Having the TA and LA around for support just adds to the benefits- their job is to facilitate YOUR conversations.

Learning comes from YOU, it is not something "transferred into you".This is true of all higher level learning, not just physics. Some people get through high school with a sense that learning is about hearing (or reading) something, memorizing it, and repeating it back. That "it" might include an algorithm or method for solving problems (so, that would mean we tell you how to solve a kind of problem, and then you go do it). But I'm afraid that's only true of the very lowest levels of human learning! That approach will rapidly start to fail to suffice at CU (and definitely beyond!) Tutorials are designed to get you involved, it's up to you to figure out the material, convince your neighbors, work out the reasons rather than just the answers...

The best way to learn is to teach. This is perhaps the most powerful benefit of Tutorials (and concept Tests)! Solving the Tutorials on your own would be nowhere NEAR as valuable as coming to class, listening to other people's ideas, evaluating them, and helping them to see how you are thinking about it. There is lots of published research demonstrating this. There are often many different ways to think about a given question, and the more you think about connecting them the deeper your own understanding is. I don't know of a better way to learn than to try to teaching something (and not surprisingly, the people with the HIGHEST normalized learning gains in this course are our TA's and LA's!)

Some frequently asked questions about Tutorials I've gotten in the past:

Physics 1120 home page.