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[Phys-L] Re: Goals of the Introductory Course

The question is whether you CAN assess both concepts and problem solving
skills with problems--NOT whether problem sets taken from the back of the
book suffice. I have talked previously about the fact that the level of
conceptual understanding required to do well on the FCI is more
sophisticated than most teachers realize (since we tend to be so familiar
with this material), and therefore it NOT at all surprising that any course
that does not have a specific goal of attaining a DEEP understanding of
Newtonian principles will fail to show great results with the FCI.
Certainly courses built around almost any common text book will fail in this
regard simply because such courses spend at most two weeks on the topic.
However, such a level of understanding MAY NOT be the goal in many courses.
Bottom line--the FCI assesses what it assesses and may not be an appropriate
tool for many.

The real key to using problem solving to assess both conceptual and problem
solving knowledge is the analysis done by the instructor. It is not
sufficient to simply look for correct answers. To be sure, a student may go
off in the wrong direction on a problem due to lack of conceptual
understanding, but still demonstrate basic problem solving skills.
Carefully reading of exams can spot this. Again, questions need to be
structured (and students need plenty of experience with such) to avoid the
algorithmic problem solving strategies that many students (think back, we
too) want to use.

We have to keep coming back to course goals. Conceptually based courses
that spend half a semester on Newton's laws will have different goals and
different expectations than problem solving courses that cover half a text
book in a semester. Whether either or both of these style courses serve the
student well depends largely on the nature of the students and the goals of
the instructor. Trying to fit all courses, all physics courses, into the
same hole (often done by incessantly quoting FCI results) is not
particularly useful. Thinking that there should be 'standard' problem
solving tests for all to use is likewise 'wrong thinking', IMO. Part of the
'professionalism' of teaching is to hone your own materials, your own tests
and quizzes, to match your goals and your course content and style.

Rick [Who uses the FCI in pre/post fashion with his Calculus level
class--getting normalized gains around .6 each year--just to prove that a
'semi-lecture' course CAN accomplish such--FWIW]

Richard W. Tarara
Professor of Physics
Saint Mary's College
Notre Dame, Indiana
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----- Original Message -----
From: "John Clement" <clement@HAL-PC.ORG>
Sent: Wednesday, March 23, 2005 3:58 PM
Subject: Re: Goals of the Introductory Course

Well if it were nonsense then why were teachers so surprised when they
their students couldn't pass the FCI? If it were easy to construct a
problem solving test that assesses conceptual understanding as well as the
FCI, then why hasn't one been published by now? The sort of work required
to create a good test is actually quite large. Just look at what was
necessary to create the FCI or FMCE.

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