Saturday, September 29, 2007

Seven Principles

Way back in 1987 Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson developed a document called "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." It appeared in the March 1987 edition of the American Association for Higher Education bulletin. A copy of their original document is available on the web here. These ideas have had a lot of staying power, and now, twenty years later, teaching and learning conferences often have sessions which are built around these seven principles. I wanted to reflect on the seven principles from a context of what Physics Education Research (PER) tells us about good physics teaching and effective environments for learning physics.
  1. Encourages Contact Between Students and Faculty. The idea that students will be more motivated, and learn more effectively, in an environment in which they sense meaningful interaction with their teachers is not surprising. Large lecture classes without opportunities for smaller group interaction do not promote optimal learning.
  2. Develops Cooperation Among Students. One of the major trends in physics instruction in the past several decades has been the move toward collaborative learning. This has taken a number of forms - for example studio style environments in which students learn in small guided groups in laboratory rich settings, or peer instruction models in which small groups wrestle with conceptual questions posed by the professor in the lecture, are two of the most widely adopted formats.
  3. Encourages Active Learning. This principle is perhaps the most obvious, but also the principle that so much of the traditional university setting of lecture oriented courses seems to ignore. Of course active learning can take many forms - ranging from hands-on active learning in a studio style course or an experiential setting, to minds-on active learning in an interactive lecture, perhaps using technology such as an interactive response system, in which students grapple with ideas and make them their own.
  4. Gives Prompt Feedback. As teachers, I think we all know this is important, but often in practice we, amidst all of the pressures on our time, allow feedback to be not as immediate as desired. Technology, through guided tutorial systems offered by the major publishers and through course management systems may help with providing rapid feedback.\
  5. Emphasizes Time on Task. When I used to visit lots of science classrooms at the time I was teaching in an education program one thing which I reminded myself during class visitations (of practice teachers) was to watch what the students were doing, not mainly the teacher. We must promote environments in which most of the time most students are engaged in productive, active learning.
  6. Communicates High Expectations. Undergraduates enter our universities with enthusiasm, idealism and a desire to contribute. We should encourage those high ideals. Undergraduate research environments are one way (more on that in a later posting), but within each of our courses we should encourage excellence and also structure the course in a way in which student ideas have an audience. Open ended problems, in which physics is applied to real situations in communities of importance to the students, should replace many of the closed analytical problem emphasis in physics textbooks. Skills such as finding data, making reasonable approximations, and interpreting physics solutions to the non-expert should find their way more frequently into our physics courses.
  7. Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning. Stories of brilliant physicists who were not always appreciated by their teachers abound, and should teach us an important lesson. Physics is, above all, a creative enterprise. There is not one way of learning, or of solving a problem. Our departments should offer different instructional models in different courses (e.g. some studio style, some which promote individual learning in PSI models, some lecture + tutorial, etc.), and to the degree possible individual courses should offer some flexibility in how students learn and how they demonstrate that they have mastered material.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Welcome to the PER blog!

Welcome to a new blog, devoted to Physics Education Research, or PER for shorthand. I am recently retired after teaching physics at Mount Allison University for more than 30 years.  I have taught courses in introductory physics, electricity and magnetism, classical mechanics, relativity, digital and analog electronics, image processing, astronomy, astrophysics, and energy. I am on the author team for a calculus based university physics textbook from Nelson Education.  In the past I have served on the executive of the Canadian Association of Physicists Division of Physics Education and as one of the authors of the Canadian Physics Curriculum Revitalization Project.

My particular educational physics interests are in studio style collaborative learning, experiential (both service learning and more broadly), reflective writing exercises, the role of intensive research experiences in student learning, multimedia (especially student authored multimedia), outreach, and learners as teachers. That should give a pretty wide scope for the blog, and I am sure that at times I will wander into other topics too.

My teaching has been recognized by various awards including the CAP Medal for Excellence in Undergraduate Eduction, APICS Science Atlantic Science Teacher and Science Communication Awards, and a 3M STLHE National Teaching Fellowship, as well as the Paré Medal and the Tucker Award at Mount Allison.

In addition to this blog I maintain several others that may be of interest. For in depth reviews of iOS apps for science check out  It covers a number of apps of interest to those learning and teaching high school or university physics. I also blog about the Bay of Fundy region including educational and science aspects at

As well as my research interests in physics education, I have had a long research career in solar system astrophysics and planetary science.  My particular research interests are electro-optical meteor detection, meteor ablation, structure and origin of meteoroids, lab based studies and in particular laser ablation, and interactions of comets and asteroids with meteoroids. The majority of my astrophysics research publications show up on this link from NASA ADS system.

 I welcome your suggestions and comments, so please don't hesitate to email me suggestions at I am active on Twitter @PhysHelp.