I have recently started research on a new physics project alongside Dr. Thoms, the Undergraduate Director of the Physics and Astronomy Department at GSU. The project explores how students in the 2211k and 2212k classes (the introduction calculus-based physics classes) have changed their attitudes towards the lab section of the class.
After the Summer 2014 semester, newly written and designed experiments were used in the labs in the hopes of improving how students learned the concepts and ideas taught in the lecture. Before, the students felt that the labs were too long and rushed, so there was not enough time to think through WHY they were doing a certain procedure. Instead, the goal seemed to be sole completion of the lab. The new labs were made to be more inquiry based and to allow students to confirm the concepts at hand by creating their own experiments. For example, the new lab will ask you to create a scenario with a ramp and a cart in which the cart initially has a negative velocity and has a final positive velocity all the while having a negative acceleration. The student would then experiment with the cart until they meet the criteria said above. After, they would write out the process in which they discovered how an object can go through such a motion.
In doing this, they are able to see the concepts taught in lecture confirmed by their own hands and brains instead of simply having it shown to them. Now, the students do not need to believe and trust in the concepts being taught to them. They can instead prove it on their own. In theory, it all sounds so much better than the old fashioned experiments in which the students simply have a checklist of procedures to complete. Dr. Thoms and I want to know if this theory is sound and whether it actually is having a beneficial effect on the students. There are a few problems we have ran into though.
We are comparing the responses of students in their post-lab surveys in which a Likert Scale system was used. This is the “strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, disagree, neutral” response arrangement. The students answered inquiries such as “The lab portion of the course helped me learn physics concepts.” and “The lab portion of the course corresponded well with the rest of the course.” We have responses all the way back to Spring 2014 in order to compare the old and new labs. The goal is to find whether or not there was a significant improvement or digression in the attitudes of the students towards the labs. Even if there is no change in their perspectives it may be significant because that would show that perhaps the changes in the lab were unwarranted and did not help.
Something that came to mind is that these students’ responses are independent of each other, meaning that students of the old lab do not have the new lab to compare their experiences with and vice versa. This could cause problems in the interpretation of the data because then we have to question if the students are responding to the lab or to their overall attitude with physics.
Another wall that needs to be worked around is the free response questions. In the survey, the students were asked questions like “What was the most useful part of the lab portion of the course?” When there are hundreds of written responses to this, it is difficult to interpret them in a fruitful way because there is so much variation. Our tentative solution is to allow the categories to form themselves. If there are a lot of students who says something along the lines of “The hands-on aspect of the lab was the most useful portion of the course.” then a “hands-on” category will be created. After analyzing all the responses, a sort of rubric will be created that says “If the student responds in THIS way, then put their statements into THIS category.” In order for the rubric to actually be of real use, meaning that the results it shows are significant, then it needs to be replicable. Others should be able to take it and categorize the statements just as I have. That stage has not been reached yet, but when it is, I will know that the free-responses are ready to be analyzed.
The whole purpose of this is to figure out why the new labs are better or worse than the old labs. If we can find out why, then we learn a little more on HOW to teach students to think instead of teaching them WHAT to think. This is why we aren’t analyzing things like grades in the labs. We want to know how the students feel about the lab portion of the course. The application for the results of the lab move far beyond just GSU though. If Dr. Thoms and I find something significant in our studies, then there will be real evidence about how these new changes in physics labs, which are happening even on the high school level, effects the students.