Physics Professors Earn Grant to Study Non-Traditional Teaching Methods

Beth Thacker and Kelvin Cheng received $809,700 from the National Institutes of Health to research teaching practices.

The Challenge Grant will allow Cheng and Thacker (middle) find the most effective ways to teach introductory physics.

The Challenge Grant will allow Cheng and Thacker (middle) find the most effective ways to teach introductory physics.

Two professors at the Department of Physics received $809,700 in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to analyze different teaching methods of introductory physics and determine which methods work best for student understanding of the material.

Beth Thacker, an associate professor of physics, and Kelvin Cheng, a professor of physics, received the two-year Challenge Grant from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Their award is one of 19 to researchers in 12 states.

Is a Hands-On Approach Really Better?

Cheng and Thacker will compare a course taught completely by hands-on, lab-based instruction to the standard textbook-lecture-and-lab course, and test newly developed course materials designed to enhance student understanding. They will compare student learning outcomes from teaching assistants who have received teacher training to those who have not and compare courses taught with lecture-lab synergy to those without integrated lecture-lab instruction.

Also, they will assess both the algebra-based and calculus-based introductory physics courses.

“This funding is to make a large-scale assessment of these different types of instructional methods,” Cheng said. “It is interesting that this has not been done before on a large scale. I’m hoping this will involve the whole department in a collaborative effort.”

Teaching the Teachers

Thacker said many instructors tend to teach the way they were taught and are hesitant to adopt new curricula and teaching methods, even though physics education research is beginning to indicate a number of non-traditional methods may be more successful at increasing students’ understanding.

“Very few large universities have researched teaching methods to see which are more effective,” Thacker said. “We are going to do a systematic study of students understanding with a number different assessment tools that will allow us to compare the effectiveness of different teaching methods.”

The Challenge Grants seek to jump-start a range of research projects that will address critical gaps in the basic biomedical and behavioral sciences, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Because introductory physics is a requirement for pre-health profession undergraduates, Cheng and Thacker hope to discover the most effective way to teach physics to these students.