Skip to Content

Compressed-format compared to regular-format in a first-year university physics course

Jason Harlow, David Harrison and Eli Honig compared student performance in two sessions of a large first-year university physics course, one with a normal 12-week term and the other with a compressed 6-week term. Student performance was measured by the normalized gain on the Force Concept Inventory. They found that the gains for the regular-format course are better than the gains for the compressed-format course, and while the differences in gains are small they are statistically significant. Not accounted for are the differences in effectiveness of the different instructors in the two versions of the course.

At the University of Toronto our first year Physics course intended primarily for students in the life sciences is PHY131. We have compared the performance of PHY131 students in the regular 12-week fall term to a compressed 6-week format in the summer term; the fall version was given in 2012 and the summer version in 2013. There is also a 12-week version of this course given in the winter term, which is not part of this study. In addition, there is a separate first-year course for physics majors and specialists, and another for engineering science students; neither of these courses are part of this study.

We measured student performance using the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), a common tool for assessing students' conceptual understanding of mechanics and for assessing the effectiveness of instruction. The FCI was introduced by Hestenes, Wells, and Swackhammer in 1992, 1 and was updated in 1995, 2 and has now been given to many thousands of students at a number of institutions worldwide. A common methodology is to administer the instrument at the beginning of a course, the “Pre-Course,” and again at the end, the “Post-Course,” and look at the gain in performance. Our students were given one-half a point (0.5%) towards their final grade in the course for answering all questions on the Pre-Course FCI, regardless of what they answered. Similarly, the students are given another half point for answering all questions on the Post-Course FCI, also regardless of what they answered. Below, all FCI scores are given as a percent.

PHY131 is the first of a two-semester calculus-based sequence, and the textbook is by Knight. 3 A senior-level high-school physics course (“Grade 12 Physics”) is recommended as a pre-requisite but is not required to take this course. One of the authors (J.J.B.H.) was one of the two lecturers in the fall session, and D.M.H. was the sole lecturer in the summer session. In the fall session, the two lecturers alternate so all students are given instruction by the same lecturers. Research-based instruction is used throughout the course; clickers, Peer Instruction, 4 and Interactive Lecture Demonstrations 5 are used extensively in the classes. In the fall term, there are two 1 h classes every week, while the summer course has two 2 h classes per week in a single session. In addition, due to logistic constraints, the summer course has a total of 22 h of classes, while the fall version has 24 h of classes.

Traditional tutorials and laboratories have been combined into a single active-learning environment, which we call , 6 and were inspired by Physics Education Research tools such as McDermott's 7 and Laws' . 8 These Practicals are similar in many ways to the at the University of Calgary. 9 In the Practicals students work in teams of four on conceptually based activities using a guided-discovery model of instruction. Whenever possible the activities use a physical apparatus or a simulation. Some of the materials are based on activities from McDermott and Laws. In the fall term, there is one 2-h Practical every week, and the summer course has two 2-h Practicals each week.

Read the full article here: