red Supported Site University of Arizona: Course Reform


  • We developed a library of conceptual questions to be used in introductory physics courses, with responses collected and displayed via an electronic Personal Response System.
  • We revised the laboratories that accompanied the introductory calculus-based physics courses to require more student exploration and collaborative work.
  • Normalized gain scores on the Force Concept Inventory and Conceptual Survey of Electricity & Magnetism averaged 41% for the courses that utilized these materials, compared to 19% for courses that didn’t use the materials.


  • Many other faculty members in the department felt threatened by the fact that we focused on the calculus-based introductory course sequence for physics majors. This choice was made because this is the sequence taken by prospective physics teachers.
  • Once non-PhysTEC faculty members were assigned to teach in this course sequence, the PhysTEC-developed materials were no longer used.

Sustainability/Institutional Buy-In

  • Currently, there is limited departmental support for using PhysTEC-developed materials. They are currently not being used in the introductory course sequences for physics majors or engineers. They may be utilized in the planned re-design of the introductory courses for life-science majors.

Lessons Learned

  • Starting with reform of the introductory course sequence for physics majors was too much of a threat to faculty in the department. It would have been better to start with the sequences for non-physics majors, as those courses are viewed as less important to the department’s reputation.
  • It is critical to have strong departmental leadership to set expectations for the use of reformed teaching techniques. Midway through the project, when the department chair stepped down, faculty members were unwilling to continue use of the materials, and the new chair was not willing to establish this as an expectation.

Calculus-based Introductory Physics

  • A team of physics faculty members and our first two TIRs developed a library of conceptual questions designed to be used during the lectures, similar to Concept Tests by Eric Mazur. Our questions are typically in sets of 2-4 questions that get progressively more difficult. They can be used with an electronic response system.
  • A team of physics faculty members, our first two TIRs, and a physics graduate student revised the laboratories that accompany the courses, to make them more inquiry oriented. The detailed instructions were replaced with short context-rich descriptions of a problem; students were asked to determine their own procedure for data collection and analysis, with the guidance of a graduate teaching assistant.
  • To assess the effectiveness of these reforms, we administered the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) and the Conceptual Survey of Electricity & Magnetism (CSEM) in two of the courses in the sequence. Results from those administrations are shown in Part III: Project Assessment.

Central Ideas in Physical Science--Physical Science Teaching Methods Course

  • In response to students’ weak understanding of central concepts in both physics and chemistry, the instructors of this course (UAz PhysTEC PI and Chemistry Education faculty member) revised it to focus on developing students’ understanding of central ideas in the content areas. The syllabus (see Appendix 4) for the course reflects this focus.
  • Students explore teaching methods in the context of doing activities (e.g., labs, simulations, tutorials) as students, to bolster their own understanding of the related concepts. Post-activity discussions focus on the appropriateness of the various methods.