DIT's novel problem-solving approach to physics is great fun, say students

Reproduced from The Irish Times Education & Living, April 23rd 2002

COLLEGE PROFILE: Students in DIT are involved in a revolutionary new learning system, which has transformed the teaching of physics. Anne Byrne reports:

In room 154, on the first floor of DIT Kevin Street, Dublin, first-year physics students are wrestling with Operation Enduring Hypocrisy.

They have been presented with a problem: the physics of firing a gun, with a technical fault, from the top of a hill so that it will hit an enemy tank advancing across the plain.

The nine students have been divided into two groups. Their equipment is surprisingly basic: flipcharts, calculators, coloured markers and a small trolley full of textbooks. Not a computer in sight.

Good-humoured arguments, false trails, much squiggling on the flipchart, some laughter, lots of equations, much discussion and banter, and some perspiration, fill the two hours. Both groups successfully blast the tank in the allotted time.

It may not be particularly politically correct (although no soldiers or civilians were harmed in this exercise), but this type of classroom-based session of problem-based learning (PBL) is certainly fun.

Over the year, the students have tackled a wide variety of problems including the workings of defibrillators, photocopiers, projectors, gambling machines and a car crash. The nine science students (FT222) are wildly enthusiastic, saying they wish all of their subjects were taught this way.

They all intend to take physics in the second year of their degree, although only three sat it at Leaving Cert.

The first-year course consists of two problem-based physics sessions each week and a couple of lab sessions, but no formal physics lectures. One student volunteers that he did lecture-based physics in DIT Bolton Street last year (first-year engineering) and found it extremely boring. "I learned more in the first six weeks here than I did in the whole of last year," he says.

The only downside to problem-based learning, according to the students, is that if you miss a class, there's really no way of catching up. This has translated into something of a plus for lecturers, who say attendance has been exemplary.

Science has been attracting fewer students at third-level. Numbers on DIT's science degree FT222 have dropped dramatically in the past few years, perhaps because it offers chemistry, physics and maths but not biology. Even when students opt to study the sciences, there can be difficulties with retention (FT225 is already reduced to 25 of its initial 34 students).

Whatever about retaining students, retaining their interest can be difficult. Dr Cathal Flynn has just given a physics lecture a group of six students (there should have been 25 present but it's early morning, soon after Easter). He is an experienced lecturer, having spent five years in NUI Galway, before joining DIT this year. In an attempt to make the class interesting, he speculated on why Jupiter is necessary for life on earth.

The response at the end of the class: "Is that on the exam paper?" The contrast between conventional lectures and PBL is enormous he says. The PBL classes, which were introduced last September on a pilot basis, are the results of a collaboration between three physics lecturers, Drs Brian Bowe, Cathal Flynn, Robert Howard and assistant head of department Dr Siobhan Daly.

Bowe, the main driving force behind its introduction, says PBL is used in a couple of colleges in Ireland but it has not been used with a physics class before. It is very popular in medical faculties in Canada and the US.

MAASTRICT University in Holland is a PBL university. Bowe has a certificate in third-level teaching and learning with DIT's Teaching and Learning Centre and plans to do a diploma next year.

PBL requires a lot of work and planning, especially at the implementation stage. Lecturers must learn to become facilitators, encouraging the students to ask the right questions rather than handing them solutions.

There is also the problem of compiling a bank of appropriate problems.

The DIT students assess themselves at the end of each session, giving themselves marks out of 10, and writing a short explanation for that mark.

Marking criteria include actions, peer tutoring, working towards understanding, assisting group focus and working towards group understanding. Each group, in each session, has a student chairperson (everyone gets a chance to take the chair), for whom the assessment criteria are slightly different.

Tutors also mark the students. Then the self-assessed mark and the tutor mark are averaged. These assessments account for up 40 per cent of marks while the final exam accounts for the remainder.

One criticism of PBL is that the course cannot cover as much material as a conventional lecture-based course. Flynn replies that if a student thoroughly understood the nuances and concepts of a first-year physics course, then he or she would be a candidate for a PhD. PBL provides students with a method of attacking course material, he says.

The first-year PBL students and their peer class (FT225), taking the same subjects as well as computing, took the same physics exam in January. The PBL average class mark was 73 per cent, while the other class scored in the low 40s.

However, the two groups will not sit the same final exam this summer. Bowe justifies this: "The PBL students have been trained to tackle problems so their exam should be problem-based rather than asking for a regurgitation of material they may have learnt by rote." The PBL exam will be open-book, and is likely to cause considerable envy from other students struggling to remember formulae.

An interactive website supports the programme. It includes quizzes to allow students to test their knowledge. While first and most of second-year physics can be taught using PBL, some third- and fourth-year courses will not lend themselves to the technique, says Daly. But an "active learning policy" will be pursued.

At present, the lab work for the first-year students is not integrated with the PBL coursework but that will be remedied next year. The four lecturers will work on suitable practicals and the students will return to DIT Kevin Street in August to try out the practicals (they will be paid a small sum for their efforts).

The money to pay the students, and to set up the PBL course, has been obtained through a series of internal grants. Part of the grant funding (which is competitive) is dependent on dissemination of best practice. To this end, DIT Kevin Street and the Royal Irish Academy have organised a conference on May 2nd, on teaching physics to first-year students at third level.

The programme will be assessed vis-à-vis more formal teaching, with students interviewed orally regarding their attitudes to learning, and motivation, as well as their knowledge of physics. An external assessor has been appointed to review the programme.

The students have already judged PBL: "It's not so boring. It's fun. It's easier to learn."

© The Irish Times