This is a general course in Physics (7 ECTS points) for first year students in Engineering. Enrollment is about 500. This is a second semester course—in the first semester, they have advanced mathematics courses.
The course is taught in 2 blocks of 5 weeks. There are 2 x 2 hours of lectures with 2 hours of exercises in small groups guided by a teaching assistant. There is a final exam in week 15.
There is a non-compulsory test in week 6 (mimicking the real exam). Participation level is high, but the results have historically been disappointing (see figure below for 2008). A large number of students simply do not prepare for the test and have an attitude of “wait and see.” The actual study starts in the weeks before the real exam, which is in week 15.
The exercises that are taught once a week require some preparation from the students. However, due to a lack of incentive, the majority of the students fail to do so and the teaching assistants feel that these exercise classes are not very efficient.
Exercises are extremely important for understanding physics. Going to exercise classes without preparation is a waste of time. This year we introduced MasteringPhysics as a way of getting the students to prepare for exercise classes.
(see distribution in figure, marks from 0 to 10)
I give the students a 30-minute test (mostly conceptual questions) as preparation for the exercise classes. I estimate the time using the statistics from MasteringPhysics. This seems to match the average time spent by my students remarkably well. The test is open until the end of the semester, but activity is recorded only for 1 week.
The test is compulsory and evaluated. Since the students are learning while they are tested, I do not evaluate the results (points earned), but the time spent on the test. Students above the median get a bonus, the others not. Students are allowed to make mistakes while they are learning. The main objective is to have them look at the material before they go to classes. In week 6, students that underperform receive an email advising them to change their study habits.
I explain to the students that they should evolve from painfully searching for the solution in week 1 to fluently building the solution at the end of the semester. However, some students seem to think they perform well, although they systematically use all the “hints.”
I do have to stress regularly that it is not the “points earned” that is important but the “time spent.”
To my surprise, the students accepted this without much protest; they even admit that they need this kind of stimulus.
The following figure shows the time spent on MasteringPhysics per week as a function of week number. Students are divided in 4 groups, depending on their marks on the final exam (very bad/bad/good/very good).
All data is normalized by the time spent by the “very good” group, which is set to 100. A very strong correlation between the end mark and the time spent on MP is seen, although I do not know which is cause and which is result. Maybe the good students (who do not need it) are the more disciplined to do the tests.
During the 10 years that I have taught this course, I have never tried anything that caused me so little trouble to set the students to work. In the future, if permitted by the faculty, I intend to increase the number of tests from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.
- This is a very easy and efficient way to activate the students during the academic year.
- The “average time spent” indication in the database is remarkably precise.
- There is a very strong correlation between the marks at the final exam and the activity on MasteringPhysics.
- Students do not oppose and admit they even need this stimulus.
- Students worry about the cost. For Belgian (or possibly European) universities, a “lump sum” contract with the faculty would be worth considering.