Tuesday, June 07, 2011

M&I Curriculum Not As Effective For Intro Mechanics

OK, so now we are getting a bit of a conflicting results, even though they are for different subject areas.

I reported earlier of a study of students taking classical E&M using two different curricula: standard curriculum and the Matter & Interaction (M&I) curriculum. The effectiveness of these two curriculum were testing using Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment (BEMA), and students undergoing the M&I curriculum performed better in the assessment.

Now comes a similar study, but this time, on intro, calculus-based mechanics course. Again, the students either took the traditional curriculum, or the M&I curriculum, and the assessment was done using the well-known Force Concept Inventory (FCI). Surprisingly, those students taking the traditional curriculum performed better after the FCI assessment. This, of course, is an opposite result that we got earlier with BEMA and E&M courses.

The authors offered the following explanation for possible reasons that the M&I students didn't perform better on the FCI assesement:

The relatively poor performance of M&I students on the FCI might appear surprising given the sophistication of some of the mechanics problems addressed in the M&I course, for example, planetary motion, ball-and-spring models of solids, multi-particle systems, etc. From a physicist’s perspective, M&I students should be able to successfully solve the sorts of problems appearing on the FCI; yet, apparently they were unable to extend what they had learned, for example, in the context of the momentum principle, to questions on the FCI. Two interrelated factors are operating here: first, the context of learning; and second, the role of practice within that context. In general, students, especially at the introductory level in physics, are sufficiently challenged to learn what they have to learn and tend not be very successful in gen eralizing their skills to novel situations with which they have had little practice [27, 28].

We believe that the differences in instruction, how much and how long students learn about particular mechanics concepts, had a direct effect on their performance on the FCI. The relative fraction of homework questions and lecture topics covering FCI force and motion concepts provides a connection to the time students’ devoted to learning particular concepts and the depth to which concepts are covered in their respective courses (i.e., time-on-task). It is well-accepted that increased time-on-task will generally improve learning gains on the topics for which more time is devoted [29, 30]. While an accurate measure of student time-on-task requires interviewing individual students, our results suggest that students of the traditional curriculum devoted more time to learning FCI force and motion concepts than students of M&I.

As we have shown, traditional students had much greater practice in the sorts of problems the FCI presents and their relative performance shows the importance of that practice. It is possible that additional exposure to FCI force and motion concepts would improve M&I students’ performance on the FCI. However, making changes to the curriculum in this manner requires instructors to reflect on the learning goals for their course. The M&I curriculum was not designed to improve performance on the FCI. As mentioned previously, the M&I curriculum includes significant changes to the content of the intro ductory course, not just pedagogy, and the goals of its content might not align with those of the traditional curriculum. The amount of time in a semester is finite and including additional practice on FCI force and motion concepts might require the instructor to leave out other M&I topics (e.g., elementary statistical mechanics) and/or tools (i.e., computation).

So one of the reasons given here is that the traditional curriculum students tend to spend more time tackling the same type of problems that FCI would ask, so these students would be seeing more familiar questions than the M&I students. So does that mean that one might hazard a guess that the BEMA test might also ask questions that M&I students are more familiar with than standard curriculum students? I skimmed through this paper, and I didn't see any discussion on the earlier result, which is surprising since the two studies came almost out of the same group.


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