Ideas for Next Fall

This week wraps up another academic year and I’m already mulling over some ideas for doing things differently in calculus-based physics next fall. This post is just a brain dump of those ideas. As always, feedback is welcome.

Okay. My students have totally bought into standards based grading. I struggle with my standards and whether or not they’re rigorous enough. I rather think they’re okay, but I also struggle with workflow issues. This semester, I piloted LaTeX (using Overleaf) in my second semester (e&m) course and most of the students say they love it; others haven’t said one way or the other. The biggest benefit is that students can create problem solutions as PDF documents. This, together with a wonderful piece of software called PDF Expert (available for both OS X and iOS), makes for a fantastically efficient workflow for making corrections and returning them to students very quickly. I’ve also recently been deeply influenced by an unusual homework policy I found in a graduate course on gravitational waves taught by Kip Thorne. Instead of assigning problems, students get to selects the ones they find interesting or instructional. Yes, these are graduate students but I think I can make this work in my own courses.

So here’s what I’m thinking about implementing in my courses next academic year. Instead of having a list of standards, I will simply say that students should be able to work representative problems for each broad topic area (perhaps that means a single chapter, perhaps that means a small group of three or four chapters). For each topic area, I will present a list of appropriate problems from the book. From the list, students can choose the problems (haven’t worked out how many that means) they find the most challenging or interesting or instructional, write up their solutions in LaTeX, and submit them for assessment. I can have non-computational problems, computational problems, and experiment problems on the list and specify that one of each must be attempted. I think I would also impose the restriction that once a student has chosen and begun a particular problem, a he/she may not drop it for one that is considered easier. I hope this would encourage motivation to stick with a problem until it is solved. This may even motivate the student to do some research. In case you’re wondering, yes, this approach also allows me to “force” certain problems into students’ minds and I think that’s okay. Students would collect complete proficency-rated solutions into a portfolio presented to me at the end of the semester with copies of all their work from the course. They have something tangible to show and to take with them to show other students and other faculty.

What do you think about this approach? Is it rigorous enough? Is it harmful in any way? Comments and feedback are welcome!