Supported SiteSupported Site University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Course Reform


  • We instituted the Student Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) pedagogy in our calculus-based introductory sequence. One section was taught in this mode in the fall semester and two were taught in the spring. Two sections per semester are scheduled to be taught during the 2011-2012 academic year.
  • A physical science course for elementary education majors using the Physics for Everyday Thinking (PET) curriculum is scheduled to be taught in fall 2011.
  • The LA program continues to thrive with more students expressing interest in participating in the program with 20 students applying and 15 being chosen. (The remaining five students were hired in non-contact positions such as equipment set-up.) The LAs are used primarily to assist with cooperative group problem solving in recitations, for which we employed 14 students. An additional seven students served as Supplemental Instruction Leaders, and one student was a Numerical Methods Lab instructor. Seven students were chosen both spring and fall semester, with six of them holding different positions in the two semesters.
  • We instituted a new course, "Seminar for Physics Teaching and Learning Assistants" as the required TA training course for graduate students and undergraduate LAs in during fall semesters.
  • We continue to work with the faculty in the introductory courses to expand their use of pedagogical techniques. This work was begun with support from a National Science Foundation grant (L. McNeil, PI), and is now continued with (very modest) institutional funds.
  • We have introduced a new cohort of faculty into teaching the introductory courses using interactive pedagogy.
  • Group problem solving in recitation sections in our calculus-based courses has become the accepted norm.


  • Coordinating LA class schedules with recitation meeting times continues to be difficult despite changing recitation meeting times.
  • Difficulty in identifying faculty willing to teach SCALE-UP limits our ability to expand offerings.
  • Some of our faculty and TAs involved in intro physics teaching remain unconvinced of the value of interactive pedagogies and do not use them (or not as extensively and effectively as we would like). Due to scheduling conflicts, it was necessary to have two sections of the "Seminar for Physics Teaching and Learning Assistants" - one for graduate students and one for udergraduate students.
  • It was also necessary to offer a section of the seminar in the spring for new Undergraduante Teaching Assistants (UTA). Students had difficulty fitting the four-credit "Teaching and Learning Physics" course into their schedules - especially the fieldwork portion. More students were interested in being a UTA after the seminar was announced.
  • Implementing a SCALE-UP section on a shoestring budget is tricky at the best of times.

Sustainability/Institutional Buy-In

  • Partial funding has been obtained to begin renovation of a second 45-seat SCALE-UP room. The funds come from the Provost's office, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Center for Faculty Excellence.
  • As more of our younger faculty and new TAs become accustomed to teaching in this way (and a few more of the more established faculty adopt the newer methods), the usage of interactive pedagogy can be expected to increase.
  • After Bob Beichner's colloquium, many faculty became interested in the idea of SCALE-UP and some are now considering implementing a studio-style format to their upper-level courses.

Lessons Learned

  • Persuading faculty and grad students that it is worthwhile to take the effort to teach in a way other than how they were taught is very difficult in the absence of a perceived crisis.
  • Sometimes you CAN "teach an old dog new tricks." Some of our most senior faculty members have come to see the value of techniques such as clickers once they began to use them. Good support and continued gentle pressure to persevere in the face of initially-disappointing results has been effective with those who genuinely want to do the best job they can.



Calculus-based Introductory Physics

  • We have implemented SCALE-UP in some of the sections taught each semester. The response has been quite positive, with students who enrolled in the mechanics SCALE-UP section in the fall largely choosing the E&M SCALE-UP section in the spring. We expect the popularity of the sections to continue to grow. The mechanics section for Fall 2011 is already full, although most of the incoming freshmen have not yet registered. The E&M section for the fall is also full. By using common exams for the SCALE-UP and "traditional" sections as well as by use of standardized assessments (FCI and CSEM) we were able to ascertain that the students in the SCALE-UP section were at least as successful as those in the "traditional" ones. The scores on the assessments showed no statistically-significant difference. We hope that as we improve our SCALE-UP teaching with further experience, we will see an improvement in student learning compared to the "traditional" sections.
  • We continued our weekly course meetings with all the instructors and TAs for the course, led by our PER specialist, but have split them in two. The faculty members teaching the course meet without the TAs earlier in the week to discuss general course coordination and choose recitation problems for the following week. The TAs and LAs then receive the problems before their meeting so the meeting time is spent on going over the problems and discussing any issues which may have arisen. Faculty are invited but not expected to attend.
  • We increased the use of the materials we have compiled for interactive lecture demonstrations and peer instruction ("clicker questions") for all courses, and instructors (especially new ones) are using them.
  • We have augmented our bank of problems for group work (in recitations) that we have used and found to be effective.
  • We are exploring ways to use a traditionally-configured space to implement a SCALE-UP type course (since no optimally-configured room is available without renovation funds), and plan to prepare materials for such a course over the next year.

Algebra-based Introductory Physics

  • A shortage of available personnel has forced us to increase the class size to the detriment of interactive engagement.
  • All instructors now use clickers, though some of the older faculty members do so rather reluctantly and not very effectively.
  • One of our faculty members is continuing to develop "recitation-like" activities to be implemented on-line for this course (which does not have a recitation).