Delivering first year Physics assignments with limited resources ⎯ An Australian three-centre study

Jurgen Schulte

Abstract


Finding the right mix between first year Physics face-to-face tutorial classes and student self guided study with assessable components has been subject to numerous studies over the past decades. The right mix is usually measured by the immediate outcome of a student’s performance, i.e., the ultimate bottom line in the final exam. For effective teaching of first year physics students, small tutorial classes are very much desired by students and lecturers alike. Currently, physics majors have the unique privilege of having small tutorial classes. This is because of the number of students enrolled in science degrees, and in particular in physics, has been consistently low for many years. The number of teaching and tutorial staff too has declined in many physics departments throughout Australia; a consequence of budgetary constraints following a supply and market adjustment and a changing economic environment. Fortunately, for physics majors class sizes are not a constraining factor for quality face-to-face tutorials and continuous assignments. The situation is somewhat different for non-physics majors who require a good physics foundation only during their first semester at university. Their background is diverse (biology; chemistry; civil-, computer-, electrical engineering; etc.) and class sizes in this study range from 120 up to 450 students, i.e., 60 to 150 students per lecturer. As a means to practice and test conceptual understanding of the topic as well as problem solving skills, regular assignments serve as benchmark for teachers and students alike. With 60 to 150 students per lecturer and a bare minimum approach for continuous assignments, say per semester five assignments with five problems each, a marker (which in Australia is usually the lecturer) is looking at 1,500 to 3,750 problems to mark; or a total of over eleven thousand problems for the big classes if the task of marking is not shared. In order to have sufficient time for face-to-face tutorial classes, some physics departments in Australia have joined the general international trend to move the task of delivering assignment, practice and tutorial problems and their marking and evaluation to an on-line system, either in-house developed or delivered by a third party.

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