About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Syllabus and the Exam

We'll be holding the first long exam of the modern physics course I'm teaching this coming Monday. To help our students prepare, we hand out, at the beginning of the term, a detailed, day-by-day syllabus. The syllabus contains the following information: for every meeting, we list (1) the sections in Young and Freedman to be read before coming to class, (2) a list of things that the student should be able to do after that meeting, (3) a list of suggested exercises and problems. 

An example from our syllabus:


Give an operational definition of an event and describe how coordinates are assigned to an event.

Define the spacetime  interval and differentiate it from the Euclidean notion of distance.

Use coordinates to calculate the spacetime interval using the records of an inertial frame.

Use invariance of the interval to relate spacetime separations in one inertial frame to spacetime separations in another inertial frame.

Events and Measurements

Invariance of the Interval

Read Sections 4 to 5 of Spacetime Physics
Exercises from Spacetime Physics: 1, 2, 3

The left-hand corner gives the meeting number, the middle gives the list of behavioral objectives, and the last column gives the major concepts to be covered during the meeting. The entry just below is the list of behavioral objectives gives the reading assignment (to be read before coming to class!), and suggested problems for solution.

Aside from the syllabus, we also hand out a "long problem set". The long problem set is a collection of 45 item-multiple choice questions, sorted by meeting number. We tell our students that after the discussion in class, they should be able to solve the items in the long problem set that correspond to the class meeting. Although we hope that our students try the questions immediately after the discussion (so that they won't be left behind), we collect the answers on a weekly basis so that if they do cram, they cram more often. For example, if, during the week, we've finished meetings 20, 21, 22, at the end of the week we collect the items that fall under those meeting numbers. 

When we make exam questions, we do it on a per-meeting basis, to make sure that the material is well-sampled. We also try to make sure that the exams reflect the objectives. The syllabus, if faithfully followed, lets students know what to expect from us. As a bonus, it makes the question construction process easier.

When I first joined the course group, the syllabus wasn't like this. The topics were grouped by hour(s), and there were entries in which the topics were grouped together for three hours or more. I suggested reworking the syllabus into hourly segments because I wanted my students to read before coming to class (since I used Eric Mazur's Peer Instruction; see also Eric Mazur's website), and I wanted to make the reading assignment manageable. The older syllabus had no reading assignments and suggested exercises; this, I think, made it harder for students to prepare for class. 

I was lucky that I had the course group leader as an accomplice. With his help, we were able to push forward a reformed syllabus. The ideas behind the detailed syllabus I owe to my thesis adviser; he was in turn, influenced by colleagues in the College of Education (Professor Adriano, in particular). 

On reflection, what dismays me is having to redo the syllabus all over again. Long before I was an instructor, my thesis adviser was involved with the construction of the same syllabus. The changes they introduced then got lost-- because the instructors who replaced them were unaware of why the syllabus was designed that way. I suspect the effort is Sisyphean; whatever changes we make today will probably be undone by an ignorant someone a few years down the line. But I persist, because the effort is worth it.


Helen Mary Labao said...

hi mike! this is actually one of the things i liked best about Physics, the day by day syllabus style. It helped me follow the lessons (I did have the habit of checking on Tipler regularly, then.)

Mike said...

You probably had physics around the time my thesis adviser was teaching introductory physics. I checked the syllabi of 71,72 and 73; I noticed that the day-by-day style was lost as the instructors in the course group changed. For example, if you look at the 72 syllabus today, you will find no trace of the day-by-day schedule. 71 has recently readopted the day-by-day style, but their syllabus still needs to be revised.