red Supported Site University of Colorado at Boulder: Course Reform


  • Major reforms involving the use of trained Learning Assistants, research-based curricular materials, and Peer Instruction are now implemented in the large Calculus-based introductory physics sequence (Physics I, II, and now III)
  • Tutorials (originally from the University of Washington) in calculus-based introductory physics are developed and implemented at CU and continue to be held every term now.
  • Research-based pre-post testing (both conceptual and attitudes and beliefs) is run in all the calculus-based introductory courses every term.
  • Several non-majors courses were supported with LAs, and there was a shift to conceptual development and use of peer instruction in three courses (Physics of Everyday Life; Physics of Sound and Music, and Physics of Energy and the Environment).
  • Teacher notebook materials for implementing Tutorials (developed at the University of Washington) has been updated and maintained.
  • The Colorado Learning Assistant Course was offered both semesters.
  • A graduate program, non-credit seminar, Preparing Future Physicists (PFP), supports graduate student and postdoctoral interest in education. The program ran roughly 10 times over the 2006-2007 year.


  • Faculty buy-in to activities is not always automatic; some faculty do not understand why one would want to implement peer instruction or Tutorials (though most "play the game"). A workshop for faculty is planned for summer 2007.
  • It is still expensive (in terms of both time and dollars) for us to work with LAs in all our courses – with more support, we could run more reformed classes using LAs.
  • Institutionalizing specialized courses (Teaching and Learning Physics and Education Physics for Elementary Teachers) is moving forward but very slowly due to administrative hurdles (e.g., buy-in and recognition that these are legitimate physics courses).

Sustainability/Institutional Buy-In

  • When approaching a course for the first time, the default practice that a faculty will use in course appears to be those influenced by PER and the PhysTEC program (using LAs to facilitate Peer Instruction and Tutorials).
  • We have obtained financial, departmental and institutional support for some LAs for next year, and have expanded our physical space for Tutorials to accommodate all students in the calculus based introductory physics courses.
  • Through a private donation and administrative (Provost and A&S and Education Deans) support, LAs will be supported for the coming three years in at least three courses each semester.
  • 13 faculty have participated in 6 course transformations over the past 6 semesters.
  • A third semester of Teaching and Learning Physics was run successfully by a new instructor.

Lessons Learned

  • It is possible to transform large scale physics courses to align them with the best-practices of PER and education.
  • We post significant learning gains and support expert-like attitudes and beliefs about physics.
  • Coupling these course transformations with the effort to recruit and prepare future teachers is critical in the Colorado model.
  • Transformed educational programs cost more (time, money and intellectual effort) than traditional (less effective) educational practices. Generally these extra costs are supported either on a transient (grant funded) or volunteer (faculty) basis – neither model is particularly sustainable. Finding additional resources to support the extra costs of effective educational programs is essential and the subject of current efforts (and research).

Introductory Physics for Life Science Majors, Algebra Based

  • Labs were reformatted and rewritten to include more inquiry. Many University of Washington Tutorial materials have been incorporated. Clickers and Peer Instruction are now used regularly in lecture.

Introductory Physics, Calculus-based

  • Tutorials have been implemented and run for 5 semesters, using Learning Assistants (many supported by PhysTEC), including weekly staffed training sessions (supported in many cases by the TIR who worked in parallel with the lead faculty member). This course also makes use of clickers and peer instruction (to varying degrees) in lecture, computer-based homework systems, and a staffed help room. Pre-post assessment has been given every term (see data below) Materials are available online at our website.
  • All faculty (which includes 2 PER faculty, and 7 traditional physics research faculty) involved in the two-semester introductory calculus-based physics sequence for the past 2 years have chosen to participate in Peer Instruction methods of lecturing (using electronic personal response systems), as well as using Tutorials supported by LAs, in lieu of more traditional recitations. This is a dramatic change from previous years, when only PER faculty (or a small number of faculty especially sympathetic to PER) would consider such changes in their courses.
  • A detailed teacher notebook with materials for implementing Tutorials has been updated and maintained.
  • Pre-post conceptual testing (FMCE in mechanics, BEMA in electricity and magnetism, QMCS in modern physics) has been given every term in the relevant introductory courses. (Some results are summarized in section 7 below)
  • BEMA (electricity and magnetism) survey has been given to upper division physics majors after taking junior-level E&M for 6 terms; we have evidence that the Tutorial experience freshman year has lasting, significant impact longitudinally. (Results summarized in section 7 below)

Physics of Sound and Music, Physics of Energy and the Environment, and Physics of Everyday Life

  • These courses have been reformed and run with clickers, peer instruction, and regular help sessions staffed by trained Learning Assistants; informal pre-post content surveys have been used. Many reformed materials (but not the use of LAs) have been transferred to other faculty teaching the course. Materials are available online at our website or by request.

Modern Physics for Engineers

  • Course has been reformed and run 4 times with clickers, peer instruction, regular help sessions staffed by trained Learning Assistants; research-based pre-post content surveys have been used. Many reformed materials have been transferred to other faculty teaching the course. Materials are available by request.
  • Modern Physics for Physics Majors (Physics III) will be reformed starting Fall 2007, with many of the materials described above. LAs have been hired to support these reforms.

Teaching and Learning Physics

  • This course is an upper division/graduate course, offered once per year by PhysTEC/PER faculty. It has been taken by our TIRs, many Learning Assistants, graduate students in physics (both in the PER research group and outside), along with students from engineering and Education. Its development is ongoing, and it couples closely with other PhysTEC activities, particularly the Learning Assistant model and Tutorial implementation.
  • A course proposal was written to establish Teaching and Learning Physics as a regular offering instead of a special topics course.
  • A course proposal was written for TAG teachers who want to learn more about PER and perform PER research in their classrooms, which parallels the Teaching and Learning Physics course.

The Colorado Learning Assistant Course

  • The course is offered both fall and spring semesters and has increased in enrollment from ~20 students per semester to 35-40 students per semester. The course has been modified to reflect the larger enrollments and the changing population (most first-semester LAs have now taken a transformed course in at least one department).

Preparing Future Physicists

  • A graduate program, non-credit seminar supports graduate student and postdoctoral interest in education. The seminar met approximately 10 times during the 2006-2007 academic year. Program training included preparation in teaching, community partnership, and the role of education in university settings. In addition to explicitly introducing graduate students to the world of high school teaching (through TIR seminars), these sessions established education as a valued and staple activity of physicists.
  • More Information

Physics for Elementary Teachers

  • PET (Physics of Everyday Thinking, formerly Physics for Elementary Teachers) has been run for several years. Our enrollments are still small (~8-10 students) largely because we have not formally received approval for the course to count for the core natural sciences credit. In Fall 2007 we anticipate getting approval for the course to count for natural sciences core credit. All materials have been developed to make the case.
  • We have implemented a clicker study spanning beyond the Physics department (results to be presented in upcoming publications)
  • Pre-post attitudes and believes about learning science (CLASS) have been given every term in almost all physics courses.