red Supported Site Western Michigan University: Course Reform


  • In the introductory physics sequence, created or adapted techniques to promote student inquiry such as white board and small group work. Also, developed ellicit-confront-resolve laboratories and improved coherence between lecture and lab.
  • Improved student performance on nationally standardized tests of conceptual understanding in the introductory calculus-based courses by a factor of THREE compared to student gain in unreformed courses.
  • Developed a revised secondary education major and minor program that provides training in teaching using active engagement.
  • Developed a Learning Assistant program that has proven successful with instructors and upper-level secondary education students.
  • Instituted an Inquiry Project in Science Methods Course. This project requires candidates to develop, conduct and report on an inquiry lab project.
  • WMU has attained national recognition for these course reforms from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).


  • Traditionally trained instructors need at least several semesters before they can comfortably manage learning in their classrooms using active engagement strategies. Peer-to-peer mentoring for new instructors helps.
  • All TA lab instructors need to be educated and motivated to use inquiry-based approaches.

Sustainability/ Institutional Buy-In

  • Considerable discussion and consultation with affected programs in engineering and other sciences occurred to alert these departments and to secure their support for the proposed curricular changes.
  • With lab courses taught exclusively by TA’s, we recognize that a program of TA training is essential. We would like to offer a special course for TA’s to introduce them to active inquiry and relevant classroom management techniques. Lack of institutional support prevents us from offering such a course; instead we offer a few hours of orientation to our program.
  • Currently all new faculty use active engagement strategies, which bodes well for sustainability.

Lesson learned

  • Writing new labs with extensive teaching notes does not ensure that all sections of a lab get taught using active engagement techniques.
  • Changes to the introductory courses to promote active inquiry are accepted by new faculty and by most (but not all) of the faculty members who have tried to implement them. Active Inquiry courses will endure at WMU as long as faculty are assigned to these courses accept this methodology.

Both semesters of introductory calculus-based physics course (University Physics, I and II))

  • Attention has been focused on student conceptual understanding and problem solving ability, as discussed in the PER literature.
  • Specific innovations include:
    • Small group white board discussions and problem solving activities
    • Use of ranking questions to focus attention on conceptual understanding.
    • Development of conceptual questions for use on exams and homework
    • Interactive lecture demonstrations
    • Reading questions to monitor student reading of text
    • Emphasis on conceptual issues in instruction and testing, avoidance of plug-and-chug type problems in the significant exams.
    • Use of learning assistants
  • The Force Concept Inventory scores indicate that the nine-semester average of student gain in conceptual understanding in the reform course was 0.43, whereas in the non-reform course, taught concurrently, it was 0.19.
  • The Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism results indicate that the eight-semester average of student gain in conceptual understanding in the reform course was 0.40 whereas in the non-reform course, taught concurrently three times, it was 0.17.

Introductory Calculus-based Physics Lab Redesign

The laboratory sections are taught as separate courses. The labs were designed to be student activities that provide data, usually in quantitative form, for the purpose of developing experience with the process of scientific inquiry. Elements of this process include:

  • Developing a coherent conceptual picture of the behavior of selected physical systems.
  • Learning to express this behavior in mathematical form.
  • Generalizing particular instances of a phenomenon to formulate a hypothesis.
  • Critically evaluating alternative hypotheses.

Most of the labs work on an elicit-confront-resolve approach. They were student tested prior to use and have been modified several times since. Several TIR’s contributed to the development by attending lab sessions and carefully observing student difficulties and student-TA interactions. Our lab manual is available by request.

An Upper level Physics course - Waves and Optics

  • Specific innovations include:
    • Small group white board discussions and problem solving activities
    • Lab work preceding lecture work in physical optics
    • A Waves Concept Survey developed especially for this course. This survey emphasizes basic concepts such as wave speed, the relationship between frequency and wavelength, superposition and wave intensity. A copy of this is available upon request.

Physics teaching methods

  • We created Teaching and Learning Physics, a new course for future physics teachers, which will be taught for the first time in the fall of 2008. Its content will emphasize research-based pedagogy within a laboratory setting.
  • This is designed for Undergraduate Secondary Education Majors or Minors in Physics and practicing high school teachers working on their master’s degree.
  • Details including syllabus and texts can be obtained upon request.

The Degree program

  • The Department of Physics is changing the degree program for future science teachers in order to maximize the exposure of future teachers to methods of active inquiry and to the processes of scientific discovery.