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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

February 27, 2020

From: Beth McMurtrie

Subject: How a Physics Department Became One of the Country’s Largest Producers of Majors

This week:

  • I describe how one department reconfigured its undergraduate degree program.
  • I share some stories and studies about teaching you may have missed.
  • I point you to some recent books about teaching.

You Reformed Your Gateway Course: Now What?

Physics professors at California State University at Long Beach have had remarkable success in turning out physics majors. The university is the largest producer of undergraduate physics degrees among master’s- and bachelor’s-granting institutions in the United States. It’s also above the national average in student diversity. About half of its 60 or so majors in 2019 were Latinx, one-third were female, and one-fifth were women of color.

But that wasn’t always the case. In 2008 it had just three majors, all white men. So what changed? The answer, says Galen Pickett, a physics professor, is pretty much everything. Over the past decade or so, the department of physics and astronomy has rethought course content, curricular supports outside the classroom, and how it teaches undergrads. It also added a B.A. for students who want to teach at the secondary level or go directly into the work force.

“We didn’t design this for a diversity project,” Pickett says. “We were just scrambling for students and thinking, How would we want to be taught?”

Pickett reached out to me after reading about how some colleges are revamping their gateway courses, those introductory classes that are required for certain majors but often come with high failure rates, particularly for underrepresented students.

Restructuring those foundational courses, Pickett says, is just the first step. Departments need to rethink the entire experience if they want to improve outcomes, particularly in STEM. “Most of the focus is on how to make intro courses better,” he says. “But we really need to look at how one class feeds into the next.”

Pickett, who has taught at Long Beach since 2004, says his department began by changing how introductory courses are taught, with the goal of providing insight into how physicists think and work.

In any given year, he estimates, about 10 percent of Long Beach students who say they want to be engineers would be better suited to physics. His job, in part, is to appeal to those students who are taking the required introductory courses. Physicists, he explains to first-year students, believe that three or four ideas explain everything. “If you like to think about big ideas and reasoning to specifics, that kind of creative work,” he tells them, “then physics might be for you.”

The department has also worked to dismantle the notion that good physicists are naturally brilliant, often working alone on their discoveries. He admits to thinking that way when he was a student. “As an undergraduate at MIT I did not want anyone to get the idea that there is not a problem I could not do by myself,” he recalls. “I’d sit in my dorm room with books and paper, and keep working and working. Then I’d erase my mistakes and turn in a perfectly clean sheet of paper with the answer worked out.”

Yet real-life physics is a team effort, and a messy one at that. To develop that mind-set in students, the department takes a team approach to learning. Introductory courses are based on research, to give students an idea of what physicists actually do. And in several courses students are organized into “micro-learning communities” in which each person has a specific role. The director creates the plan of attack and makes sure everything gets done. The investigator analyzes the problem. The executive synthesizes the work of the investigator. And the skeptic is responsible for quality control.

The department also turned tutoring into a team sport. It created a peer-tutoring system in which students are trained through a three-credit course in physics pedagogy. And professors reimagined the tutoring center so that it is a regular part of the undergraduate experience, like going to the gym. “The normalizing effect,” Pickett says, “is that everyone is going to have a problem, and eventually everyone is going to be the one with the key insight.”

Those changes have given more students confidence that they can do physics, says Pickett. The peer tutors, for example, look like them and have done well in the given course. So why couldn’t they?

To draw more students, the department also created a new major: the B.A. in physics. It’s less onerous than the B.S. but better suited to people who like physics but aren’t interested in going on to earn a Ph.D. The B.A. also makes it easier to double-major, to give students an edge in the job market. It now accounts for about half of the department’s majors.

The department succeeded in making substantive changes, Pickett says, for a few reasons. For one, it was able to work closely with the department of science education, just down the hall. That helped professors rethink their teaching and course design. Professors also looked for support and ideas off campus. The American Physical Society, for example, helped the department create programming for students who want to become secondary-school teachers and for minority students who want to earn a doctorate.

These days, Pickett says, the department is wrestling with its own success: He now has upper-division classes with 40 students instead of seven. “We probably should have thought more about getting a reward structure set up before we started,” he says. “But there is an intrinsic set of rewards that is greater. I am now changing people’s lives, giving them opportunities they didn’t have, and quantitatively changing the way my profession looks across the country. That’s pretty powerful motivation.”

Has your department overhauled a major in a way that has attracted more students and increased diversity? If so, drop me a line, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • A new study of student evaluations of teaching by Justin Esarey and Natalie Valdes, a professor and a research fellow at Wake Forest University, finds that even when controlling for bias, those tools are an imprecise measure of teaching quality.
  • In this commentary piece Robert Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston, argues that when faculty members step out of their areas of specialty, they become better teachers and writers.
  • Purdue University is considering whether to require undergraduates to pass a civics test.

New Books on Teaching

Our colleague Ruth Hammond, who is retiring this week, compiled her final list of books about higher education. Here’s what she wrote about three focused on teaching and learning:

Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, by Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney. Explores the new academic discipline of digital learning, with several case studies on how advances in learning science have changed colleges.

Teaching by Heart: One Professor’s Journey to Inspire, by Thomas J. DeLong. Examines the role of leadership and empathy in teaching, and deconstructs the processes of preparing for and conducting classes, and creating covenants and connecting with students.

The Art of World Learning: Community Engagement for a Sustainable Planet, by Richard Slimbach. Reimagines study-abroad experiences in the context of global threats like climate change, income inequality, and imperiled minority cultures and languages.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

Beth McMurtrie is a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where she writes about the future of learning and technology’s influence on teaching. In addition to her reported stories, she helps write the weekly Teaching newsletter about what works in and around the classroom. Email her at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie.