My Learning Outcomes and Motivations

In this post, I will present my physics course learning outcomes and motivations. But first, some background information.

My institution requires all course syllabi to include course learning outcomes and implicitly assumes that students will actually read them. My experience is that students couldn’t care less about them, but that’s a different issue. Indeed, I feel learning outcomes are important but now that I have learned about standards based grading, I am beginning to question the utility of these formal learning outcomes and whether they should be replaced by standards. I’ve no idea how to address that now so I’ll leave it for another day. Another issue is that some of these outcomes are likely to change soon as a result of increased cooperation between the North Carolina Community College System and the University of North Carolina system in an attempt to make the process of transferring courses less complex for students. For the purposes of this post, I will not mention my astronomy courses because their outcomes are rather similar in scope to the physics outcomes.

So, without any further ado, here are my physics course learning outcomes as of today.

PHY251 and PHY252 (intro calculus-based physics based on Matter & Interactions):

  1. Apply a small set of fundamental physical principles (the momentum principle, the energy principle, the angular momentum principle, and the fundamental assumption of statistical mechanics) to a wide variety of physical systems emphasizing, but not necessarily restricted to, the dynamical, thermodynamic, and electromagnetic behavior of matter and fields. There are far too many such systems to individually enumerate here and they may even vary from semester to semester.
  2. Use these principles to explain a wide variety of physical phenomena, both as a macroscopic level and at a microscopic level. There are far too many such phenomena to individually enumerate here and they may even vary from semester to semester.
  3. Create computational models of physical systems with VPython. The models must be based on physically valid assumptions, approximations, idealizations, proficient measurements in SI units as needed), and fundamental physical principles.
  4. Design, execute, evaluate, and document experiments and demonstrations that generate testable predictions to be compared against observations. If necessary, this process is repeated until agreement with observations is achieved.
  5. Become a scholar and self-directed learner, which includes fostering a healthy intellectual curiosity in this discipline, fostering the ability to determine one’s own learning needs, and being able to organize one’s own learning.
  6. Use the Paul/Elder model of critical thinking to learn how to think deeply about science and its inner workings as applied to this course. This includes using the elements of reason and intellectual standards as tools for achieving the learning outcomes.

Okay, so that’s that. Now, I want to discuss my overall motivations. I am thinking of my own personal and professional motivations for doing what I do, and the way I do it, in the classroom. 

  1. I want my students to be better prepared than I was as an undergraduate. 
  2. I want them to see underlying connections that were never obvious to me among physics concepts. 
  3. I want them to see mathematical connections that were never obvious to me. 
  4. I want them to see as much crossover from their mathematics courses as possible in their physics courses and I want the mathematics to mean something. 
  5. I want my students to ask questions I never asked. 
  6. I want to raise the bar in introductory calculus-based physics by introducing topics that are normally not introduced but are accessible from within a reformed framework (see next paragraph). 
  7. I want my students to be better prepared for their next courses than your students, and your includes anyone else teaching physics. Please don’t see that as arrogance; I don’t intend to be arrogant.

I have something as an instructor that I didn’t have when I was an undergraduate, or even when I was a graduate student. I have a framework that explicitly shows me how to reach these goals. This framework is the model of critical thinking developed by Richard Paul and Linda Elder. It’s all presented at the Foundation for Critical Thinking website. This model includes many aspects of current PER findings, but is much broader. I really feel it can be applied to any discipline and not just to physics. Indeed, this is the goal of the Foundation. Last summer I attended the 32nd International Conference on Critical Thinking and Educational Reform. Paul, Elder, and associate Gerald Nosich gave me what I had been searching for for decades, namely a broad and internally consistent framework for implementing critical thinking. They even went so far as to explicitly model how this framework is used in the classroom. My institution is in the process of incorporating this same framework into its fabric, and that’s promising. It means we can all speak the same language now. As for physics (and astronomy too for that matter), I now know what to tell my students regarding how to learn physics, how to make use of resources, and how to become student scholars. In a nutshell, I can now tell them how to learn to learn. That’s a powerful thought…learning how to learn. No one ever told me that. Most professors told me that physics is learned from doing problems. I call shenanigans on that. It didn’t work for me, and I dare say it didn’t work for most students before or after me. It only appeared to work because those other students knew how to learn; they were better prepared than I was. On the other hand, they could have had prior familiarity with some of the material, but I have no way of knowing that.

 Returning to my motivations for a while, I understand how one might think that I am setting high goals for my own students as a result of my own perceived deficiencies. I have pondered this at length, and have concluded (for the moment) that my student goals are achievable and my motivations are genuine. It seems to me that the most important and most reassuring thought is that the critical thinking framework is the key ingredient. It’s the glue that holds everything together.. 

I think I’ll end this post now because I’m beginning to obsess about what I’ve said. As the beginning of the semester approaches, I will address issues such as what it means to be the instructor, what it means to be the student, and the value (as I see it) of seated courses given the plethora of online material out there for independent learning. All of this has been deeply influenced by the Paul/Elder framework.

 In my next post, however, I will share an emotional letter of apology to the vector cross product, to whom I have said some very nasty things and must clear my conscience.