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Student buy-in, grading and flexibility in a non-major physics course


  • Matthew Gliboff, he/him, Associate Teaching Professor, Physical Sciences, University of Washington, Bothell campus




Project Description

I’ve set out to empower students through clear learning outcomes and linked assessments with clear expectations. The course should cultivate, through its structure, activities and grading, a culture of reflection, assessment, and revision. I build student democratic engagement in the course by considering my role as faculty to be a learning facilitator more than a lecturing expert. I view myself as creating the environment, providing the structure, resources, assessments, and incentives as more valuable than how much physics I can spew out of my mouth in two hours.

Project Question

How do you cultivate student buy-in for a non-major course? While small changes can be impactful, what does it look like to take a large service course and rebuild it from the ground up with an eye on high-impact practices and evidence-based pedagogy? Every aspect of the course, from in-class flow and structure to grading is examined with an eye on interdisciplinary learning goals, student centered flexibility and democratic discussion, while keeping instructor workload and grading under control.


The BPHYS 11x sequence is taken by students who are not going to be physics or engineering majors. Key learning goals involve problem solving skills, teamwork, and written and verbal communication. These classes are taught as hybrids, meeting in-person once each week in sections of 72 students. Peer facilitators, undergraduate students who have recently completed the class and are enrolled in pedagogy training courses, also help with the in-person and online components.


In the online portion of the course, students can use a range of resources, video, written, simulations, etc. to prepare for the class day. In-class time is a small group activity made of conceptual and quantitative problems with students presenting their work to the class to facilitate the key learning goals above. Students submit artifacts of their work in flexible formats and the class is structured for students to be able to work through the activity at their own pace. Structured flexibility boosts student sense of ownership, buy-in and outcomes for underrepresented students. I also use specifications grading, which replaces points and averaging with category requirements and benchmark expectations for both assignments and final GPA.


A report on demographics and grades in the 11x course showed that there was no gap in grade outcome between male and female identifying students, something which is historically rare in physics. Student evaluations for BPHYS 11x trend upwards as students become accustomed to active learning through the three-course sequence. Students positively mention the range of class resources available, including peers and human resources. Students also connect time spent actively solving problems to their continued learning. Student assessment of learning gains confirm that students identify gains associated with each component of the course with group work and practice problems having the highest return. In terms of skills gained, students report that problem solving and reflective learning skills are the most improved through the three course sequence.

In the words of a student: “I think the class was pretty intellectually stimulating because I really enjoyed figuring out the in class assignments with my group because by figuring things out on our own, I feel I learned more like that and actually understood things. I like how I can go at my own pace. I am very busy so doing the homework and quiz piece by piece was helpful. Also the ability to correct quizzes is amazing. With weekly quizzes it is hard to often absorb all the material instantly, so this gives us a chance to show what we ultimately learned by the end of the quarter.”


The key is that students connect their learning gains to practices which are prominent and to which instructors devote the most time. Improving student buy-in on group work and interaction is closely linked to being the primary activity in the classroom. In-class collaboration should include positive social interdependence: giving and receiving help; exchanging resources, information and feedback; challenging and encouraging each other; and jointly reflecting. Online parts of the course are built around a message board where students can answer questions and get instructor or peer facilitator endorsements with a goal of community building and multidirectional productive communication to cultivate buy in on online work. Online parts include discussion of norming and explicit learning goals around group work in the course design and assessment.

Grading should convey to the students what is valued. High-stakes assignments do more to incentivize dishonesty and memorization, rather than perseverance in problem solving and long-term learning skills. Getting a 4.0 requires getting a high grade in every assignment, balanced through the opportunities for revision. The lack of partial credit on low-stakes assignments also shows that incomplete participation in pre-class and in-class activities is not worth the student’s time or mine. Specifications grading provides for democratic discussion on meaningful parts of the course, allowing students to build parts of the syllabus and norms collaboratively.

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