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The introductory college physics class is governed by a few fundamental principles. Among them:
• Energy can be neither created nor destroyed
• Every action has an equal and opposite reaction
• The universe tends toward larger entropy
• Lecture, lab, lecture, lab, exam
Until recently, this was the basic framework of Professor Robyn Millan’s introductory course, Physics 13, the first of a three-course sequence that verses students in the laws of mechanics, thermodynamics, and kinetic theory as they are entering majors in the physical sciences and engineering. Last summer, though the laws of physics remained largely intact, Millan transformed nearly every other aspect of her class as part of the Gateway Course Redesign Initiative.
The goal of the Gateway Initiative is to enhance individualized learning and improve educational outcomes for students in introductory courses. The redesign effort enables these courses to be more like smaller, upper-division classes where students and faculty actively work together.
For her course redesign, Millan worked closely with instructional designers, a team of undergraduate Learning Fellows, and a graduate teaching assistant to re-envision Physics 13, starting with combining and remixing the standard lecture and hands-on lab components.
“Keeping these separate made it difficult for students to integrate what they were learning,” says Instructional Designer Adrienne Gauthier. “The connections between what they heard in class on Tuesday and what they did in lab on Friday were sometimes too diffuse.” Millan also recognized the perennial challenge that exists for teachers, especially in introductory courses, of helping students translate their learning into cohesive understanding that lends itself to application.
In the redesigned course, a new approach to class time weaves hands-on activities with content delivery in an integrated and dynamic sequence. Students may begin a class session working independently or in small groups to explore a central question or curiosity, then dive into a more structured investigation. Millan may follow up with a brief lecture or video presentation, hold a focused Q&A, or move to peer instruction, in which students in the class support each other as they work on practice problems in groups. Learning Fellows are on hand to help when students get stuck, and to facilitate deeper engagement in discussions and problem-based inquiries.
Benjamin Nesselrodt ’19, an Engineering Physics major who took Physics 13 early in his time at Dartmouth, is one of the course’s Learning Fellows. Learning Fellows, Dartmouth undergraduates with an interest in teaching and learning, help facilitate group problem solving sessions, lead small group dialogues, provide academic support to their peers during lectures and labs, and promote engagement with course material. The Dartmouth Learning Fellows program is built on more than a decade of research that shows that integrating undergraduate learning assistants into the classroom improves student learning.
Learning Fellows also participate in weekly teaching huddles alongside the faculty member and instructional designers to discuss how the course is progressing.
Millan explains, "The Learning Fellows became an important part of planning activities each week. They often had a different perspective, so that helped me to better understand where the students were coming from."
Nesselrodt saw his role, in part, as helping to alleviate what he sees as a “Physics phobia” among some of his fellow students. “Many people suffer unnecessarily in Physics, just as they do in Math,” he says, “I liked that the department recognized that and was taking steps to change it.” As someone who enjoys Physics, he felt he could help by being part of the effort.
With a large class, Millan acknowledges that this kind of personalized attention was a real asset for students. She explains, “With more manpower, we could facilitate group work much more effectively. I wouldn’t have been able to do that by myself with more than 30 students in the class.” But while Millan expected that adding Learning Fellows to her course would have some benefits, there were other advantages that she hadn’t anticipated.
“The students really connected with the Learning Fellows,” she says. "There were a few cases of students giving feedback to the Learning Fellows about the course that they may not have felt comfortable giving to me directly. This allowed us to adapt the course throughout the term to better address the students’ needs.”
And in the classroom, as in the physical universe, an object in motion remains in motion. For Millan, there is no turning back: “Frankly, I can’t imagine teaching the class without Learning Fellows. It wouldn’t be nearly as effective.”