Dodge, parry, plan! Life as PY 205/208 coordinator.
Physics 205 and Physics 208 are the introductory sequence of physics for engineers and many of the science majors at NCSU. There are approximately 1100 – 1400 students per semester taking these courses and their accompanying labs (PY 206 and PY 209). The mission of the coordinator is to coordinate all the pieces of these two classes.
Some fun facts and challenges in my time as coordinator.
Faculty think of homework as practice so students can integrate the physics textbook and class learning into practical use. Students think of homework as a grade to earn. We have attempted many things in our effort to get students to ask more questions of faculty and the experts within the department rather than seeking answers and worked solutions from the internet. We tried changing the time of the homework deadlines to make the deadlines closer to the end of the faculty work day. We eliminated the opportunities to use “practice with other numbers” to reduce guessing an algorithm. We utilized “Piazza” Q&A app to encourage more questions. We continue to find that the homework questions that are asked on tests are among the lowest scoring questions on the tests.
In my first semester as coordinator, I was alerted to a cheating “ring” in one of our classes. I tried to thwart the ring by rearranging some of the participants during the test. Video taping of the process indicated some students avoided moving seats! We have moved to a more robust assigned seating system for tests to help keep our test takers honest. Going online for testing in March 2020 also posed challenges. Sites like Chegg will generate a solution to a posted question within 20 minutes so our test questions could not be available to students for long. Our test strategy implemented for spring 2020 kept our Physics students out of the news for massive cheating scandals as were found at some other institutions that weren’t able to pivot as quickly. Of course, technology can pose a threat to any plan. When our server went down for our final exam, affecting all 1100 students, we made a plan to delay the start, implemented the plan, and had the students continue the test with a delay. After the exam concluded, I pieced together the various error messages and types of failures experienced by students to create some data for the IT team to help determine the root cause or causes of the failure. Our server failed, but the test monitoring companies were also not ready for the load of our class logging in all at once! Plus, the internet infrastructure in many of NC’s rural communities is not where it should be.
Moving online quickly meant taking labs online. I worked with our Teaching Assistants to get the remainder of the spring 2020 labs video taped so students could complete them at home. I also was fortunate to have a team of 4 graduate student teaching assistants work with me in summer 2020 to code up labs in WebAssign for use in summer 2020 and 2020-2021 academic year of online labs. We were able to create 16 labs for students in a very short time! I had another 6 Teaching Assistants helping plan our summer and fall courses online. One of the joys of my job is getting to work with Teaching Assistants and to enhance their skills with technology or tools. One of the disappointments is that I don’t usually get to work with any one student for very long as they are here at NCSU to do research and they are typically only on Teaching assignments when there is a gap in funding.
Students want and deserve a practice test. We had been providing between 3 and 5 old tests for students to study from, but they always wanted more. I created practice tests in Moodle to help students with their studying. Two statistics students took a hold of various data from our classes and tried to predict what helped students be successful. An interesting result came from the practice test analysis. Students who used the practice test efficiently did better on tests. Efficiently meant: entering answers into the test as they went, completing the test in a short time, and only taking the test once. Inefficient users of the practice test took the test over many days, did not answer many of the questions, or taking the test multiple times. In future semesters, we encouraged students to use the practice test like a mini test after studying rather than as a study tool. We still have 50% of the students accessing the practice tests within 6 hours of the exam rather than accessing it and practicing the prior day.