Supported SiteSupported Site Cornell University: Course Reform

Cornell's calculus-based introductory sequences for life, chemical and earth science students (Physics 2207 and 2208) and for engineering and non-honors physics students (Physics 1112 and 2213) have been using polling/peer instruction, cooperative learning sessions and several other PER-validated methods for more than a decade, and thus provide very good models for effective teaching to our UTAs. However, the third semester of our non-honors (Physics 2214) and honors (Physics 2218) introductory physics courses - covering oscillations, waves and quantum mechanics - have lagged behind our other courses. Physics 2214 is especially important for recruiting students into physics who are considering careers outside of physics research, and thus to increasing the number of physics majors.

Aside from our introductory sequences, our upper division core physics courses - in electricity and magnetism, mechanics, and modern physics - are very traditional. They present an obstacle to the "non-traditional" physics majors we hope to attract.


  • We began administering content and attitude pre- and post-tests in the introductory physics courses served by UTAs in 2008. Pre-tests results are reported to faculty in the first month of the semester as a formative evaluation tool, and learning gains are reported after final grades have been submitted.
  • A major revision of Physics 2214 was undertaken by the PI beginning in Spring 2008 and continued in Spring 2009, Spring 2010 and Fall 2010. The revised course has an expanded syllabus that now includes important topics in scientific and engineering practice, and includes a 200+ page lecture note package, 150 questions for in-lecture polling and self-study, roughly 40 new context, application and/or transferable skill rich homework problems, roughly 80 PowerPoint slide shows on physics applications, five new lecture demonstrations, one completely new lab, and one upgraded lab. After significant teething pains in the first semester, we observed significant improvements in student attitudes, overall level of effort, student exam performance, and student evaluations of the course and course materials, and overall enrollment has increased 15%. The entire course curriculum was successfully transferred by the PI to a new instructor for the Spring 2011 semester, demonstrating sustainable, instructor-independent change.
  • Based upon a suggestion from a colleague, we implemented an online anonymous feedback system using Goggle Forms, which provided excellent "real time" formative feedback useful in tweaking lectures and assignments and in catching TA grading and teaching issues.
  • To address longstanding problems with copying on homework assignments, the PI developed an online Academic Integrity IQ quiz. This quiz reviews basic features of Cornell's Code of Academic Integrity and enforcement, and then walks the student through a variety of common academic integrity violations, in each case illustrating their importance through analogies with professional science and engineering practice. According to the TAs in Physics 2214, this quiz has essentially eliminated academic integrity violations.
  • Two students in Physics 2214 in Spring 2009 decided to switch their majors to Applied Physics and Physics.
  • For his efforts in curriculum reform in introductory Physics courses and for his support of Cornell's premedical program in Doha, Qatar, the PI became the first Physics faculty member to be named a Weiss Presidential Fellow, Cornell's highest recognition for undergraduate instruction and advising.
  • TIR Alderman instituted evening "Homework Parties" in the UTA-supported courses that have been very popular with students. Some UTAs were assigned to work with TAs in providing help during these parties, and other helped during regular office hours. In Fall 2009, UTAs, on their own initiative, organized additional homework parties in the undergraduate dormitories that were well attended and staffed exclusively by Master UTAs and UTAs. The popularity of the homework parties grew during the 2010-11 academic year, and every effort will be made to encourage their continued growth. An important feature is the UTA's effort to apply PER validated instructional approaches in the homework parties, limiting cooperative groups to 3 people, and using sound questioning techniques.
  • At the suggestion of the PI, the Physics Department has implemented a wiki-based system for archiving course materials, to improve continuity from semester to semester and instructor to instructor and to provide a resource for course development.


  • The revision of Physics 2214 was undertaken with no additional senior staff support beyond the standard introductory course allocation, in part because of a shortage of senior teaching staff.
  • An important remaining question is whether our honors sequence for majors, which caters only to students with very strong physics and math backgrounds, should be reformed. We need to have a sequence that can adequately challenge these students, but we also need to ensure that Physics majors who follow our non-honors sequence 1112-2213-2214 do not feel like second-class citizens.
  • After a period of significant innovation, Physics 1112, our first course for non-honors physics majors and engineering majors, has regressed and is in need of reform. The PI will begin work on this course in Fall 2011.
  • Regular and well-managed instructional team meetings which spend significant time considering PCK for the coming week's material are an extremely important part of reformed instruction and a feature which does not generally get the attention it should. These meetings need full 'buy-in' from all the parties involved.


  • In summer 2009 a new Physics Chair, Ritchie Patterson, took over and appointed a new Director of Undergraduate Studies, Erich Mueller. These two have established an Undergraduate Curriculum Committee to set priorities and suggest resource allocations, and a Continuity Committee to discuss how to ensure that curricular innovations are sustained.

Lessons Learned

  • To make introductory course teaching more attractive to faculty, we need to move to a "no hero" model like that at the University of Illinois. When a course is to be reformed, a faculty team should be assigned to the course until the reform is complete. Rotating in a different set of faculty each term (as happened in Physics 2214) dramatically increases the burden on the faculty member responsible for the reform.
  • The first semester of any major reform will always be challenging for both the faculty and their students. Stay the course and focus on continuous improvement based upon a tight feedback loop with the students and TAs.
  • Faculty in introductory courses should focus on providing help in learning/studying skills, and not tutorial assistance with course content.


  • TIR Jim Overhiser and Program Coordinator Sam Portnoff held discussions with a focus group comprised of undergraduates who had taken introductory courses involving UTAs. The objective was to evaluate the effectiveness of the instruction in promoting understanding and appreciation for physics and in encouraging students to become physics majors. The results were discussed with Director of Undergraduate Studies Erich Mueller.
  • PI gave a presentation to Physics Faculty on evaluating teaching performance, and the role of pre/post testing as both a formative and summative evaluation tool.