Physics Program Assessment (Examples)

There are three main outcomes we assess in the physics program. These outcomes include (1) student scientific reasoning skills and problem solving skills, (2) student conceptual understanding of various physics topics from the introductory level to the advanced level, and (3) student views about physics, the learning of physics and how students view themselves as learners. You can learn more about our outcomes and how they are assessed throughout the curriculum by examining the physics curriculum map.

Force Concept Inventory

The Force Concept Inventory is a thirty question multiple-choice diagnostic that tests student understanding of various topics in mechanics. The test is administered as a pretest and as a posttest in the Physics 151 class and the Physics 211 class. Both classes cover mechanics. The pretest was given during the 1st week of class and the posttest is typically given during the last week of class.

Prior to implementing the reform-based materials, gains in the calculus-based physics class at CSU on the FCI were typically in the range of scores that Hake reports for students in traditional classes (Hake, 1997). In Fall 2004, when we began using the new materials, we observed an improvement from earlier results in the calc-based physics classes. Researchers must always be careful in interpreting results from multiple-choice diagnostics. In particular, because students at CSU often enter with weak preparation in reading, our students may struggle with the wording on the instruments. Or, because students are not asked to explain their reasoning they activate more naïve or intuitive sets of knowledge to respond to these questions. We have observed that students are often able to form robust sets of knowledge as a result of the new instructional materials we are using at CSU but have difficulty activating these sets of knowledge when confronted with certain tasks. (Student construction of isolated sets of knowledge is discussed in DiSessa, (1988), Sabella, (1999); and Redish, (2003) and Sabella and Redish (submitted to the AJP Physics Education Research Supplement.))

The following results are from the traditional and reformed classes at the University of Maryland and the City College of NY.

University of Maryland (trad. Instr. 5 courses)49%58%.18
University of Maryland (tutorial instr. 5 courses)50%67%.35
City College NY (trad. instr.)40%53%.23

City College NY (using innovative curriculum)


Results from CSU are typically better than the results from these schools in the traditional instructional environment but not as good as those of the tutorial or reformed classes. The following data show the results from the calculus introductory physics classes at CSU.

In most calculus-based courses students at CSU have gains of roughly 30%. In some instances, class gains have been as high as 45% and as low as 19%.

Attitudes and Expectations

Maryland Physics Expectations Survey
The MPEX looks at student attitudes toward physics and science. The survey consists of 34 questions and students are asked to state whether they agree/disagree with the statements on a five point Lickert scale. The questions touch on topics in six different clusters: Reality, Math, Effort, Independence, Coherence, and Concepts. The responses provided by the students are compared to the responses given by experts (scientists, physics professors, etc.)

One comparison that we can make regarding student attitudes in the introductory physics classes involves a comparison between the traditional course and the modified instruction courses from the recent years. In one algebra-based modified course student attitudes improved (53% → 55%) whereas in the traditional course attitudes veered away from the experts (54% → 38%). In the calc-based courses, using modified instruction we see attitudes remaining roughly the same or decreasing slightly (54% → 50%) and (54% → 54%).

Students nearing the end of their physics majors at CSU see a much larger percentage agreeing with experts. As an example in one year students tended to agree with the experts on 76% of the statements, indicating that as students progress through the program they develop more expert like attitudes.

Student Thinking and Reasoning

To improve student thinking and reasoning skills we offered a new class for the first time in F09. Students in this class engaged in activities that promote problem solving ability and paying attention to detail. Below are some comments from students in the class:

Student comments on the Thinking in Physics Course:

On problem solving:

  • Once we figured out the problem I learned a lot. I learned to take my time, to look at what is given, to expect the unexpected, not to give up, to draw a picture to go along with the problem, plan a strategy, and to make sure I understand the problem. I learned to develop these techniques with the other problems we did in class.

On the course in general:

  • In my science and society class we were studying population patterns in Indiana and we had to test the numbers we got to see what kind of information we could obtain. Because of my physics 1010 class I took my time to analyze the data and looked at everything that was given without jumping to conclusions or assumptions. Those skills also helped me a lot with my test taking skills. I used all the strategies I learned to answer test questions. I read the questions, took note of what was given, drew a picture to represent the problem, did not rush and did the problem. In the questions that I did not know how to answer I simply did something.
  • Physics 1010 has taught me a lot of skills and different ways of looking at problems. Since day one Physics 1010 has helped me expand the way I think. The different strategy games and puzzles, such as Kick box and Sudoku, have helped me with other classes. Throughout this course one of the main strategies I learned was to be patient when solving a problem.

Instructional Reform in Physics

The Physics Program as been involved in a number of instructional reform efforts to improve student learning physics. CSU’s Physics courses are informed by the results of Physics Education Research. CSU has had four NSF-CCLI grants since 2004 (three of which were led by CSU) to revise the introductory algebra and calculus-based sequences. These revisions include the implementation of interactive PowerPoint lectures (CSU), research based laboratories (NMSU, Buffalo State, CSUF, CSU), clicker question sequences (CSU, OSU), TIPERS (Hieggelke, Maloney, Kanim, Okuma), and prelectures (UIUC). Each of these components are based on PER. Our efforts have transferred the CSU learning environment and created an extremely active classroom where students are involved in sense making. Students at CSU who move into the teacher education program are extremely receptive to inquiry-based science and expect to use these approaches as they enter the teaching field.