Pekka Koskinen, university lecturer and vice head of the Department of Physics, is clearly pleased. The Department of Physics at the University of Jyväskylä has developed a new teaching model for introductory courses, and on the strength of its success Koskinen and his colleagues are now confident enough to recommend it for use throughout the university.
The model has already proved its merit as a substitute for traditional lectures: it has improved learning outcomes, increased the pass rate for courses, and seems to be equally well received by teachers and students alike.
It is a learning model based on “high-quality” use of time, which involves advance familiarisation with the subject under study as well as discussions and interactions. These goals are simply unattainable through largescale lectures, and the Department of Physics set about pursuing them through other means some years ago.
According to Koskinen, in many respects the new model contains the same elements as the “flipped learning” approach that has already become widespread in universities and which places strong emphasis on peer-to-peer teaching.
The physics department’s model also has something more, however.
“The model is not vague–it’s a practical prescription for teaching and is easy to use. It takes a bit of courage to adopt it, but the model is also suitable for teachers with limited experience of new teaching methods”, says Koskinen.
He is also convinced that the model can help students prepare for their entry into working life.
“It helps them learn how to discuss, argue, solve problems and ask for help if needed”, Koskinen says. “I am confident about what students will have learned five years from now”.
A weekly instructor session to tackle key questions
The new learning model is used in all four of the introductory courses taught at the department: mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism and the study of electricity. On each of these courses, the four stages of the model are followed weekly: self-study, a group lesson, problem-solving, and an instructor session.
Students accumulate points for their course grade in each stage.
In the first stage, students independently study the concepts covered in the course with the aid of a textbook and video material. At the end of the stage, they take a small test through an internet platform.
In the second stage, students meet in small groups, without the instructor present, to work on problems related to the concepts of the course that have been uploaded to the platform. The platform gives points for correct answers and gives immediate feedback on performance.
In the third stage, the students work on exercises either together or separately. These exercises are also available on the platform and must be completed by the deadline. Students can ask the instructor or assistant for help if needed.
Finally, there is an instructor session once a week.
“The session with the instructor lasts one hour. This time constraint spurs the group to discuss amongst themselves and clarify and summarise the things they want to raise with the instructor in the session. As an instructor, I have found this to be a really meaningful way to interact with students”, says Koskinen. “We have had some great discussions, which is out of the question at lectures”.
Aiming for the top
In the hall of the physics department on a Monday afternoon, a small group of first-year physics students – Henna Kokkonen, Philson Aden, Emmi Rajala, Samuli Aalto and Eetu Räsänen – are working on assignments for their electromagnetics course.
In their experience, the method followed in the introductory courses is good: in a small group it’s easier to ask instructors questions, and the coursework must be done evenly throughout the week, not just on the couple of nights before a test.
“It’s easier to aim for top grades if you work steadily, all the time”, says Aden.
“Things stay in the memory better this way”, Aalto adds.
When students are asked to provide feedback on the teaching provided at the department, one observation comes up again and again: groupwork enables students to get to know each other well, and often to form friendships.
“That’s really important for students’ wellbeing”, Koskinen points out.
Using technology wisely
In Koskinen’s view, the model makes appropriate use of technology. Things can be learned in advance from videos, and exercises are done and returned online.
The Department of Physics at the University of Jyväskylä is a fitting place to change how teaching is done. The new model was introduced at the department by Koskinen and three other introductory course instructors, Jussi Toppari, Jan Sarén and Taneli Kalvas. The instructors have already given some thought to branding the model.
“Our small and nimble department has been able to make bold advances, which is not the case in some other places”, Koskinen notes. “I presented our department’s teaching methods at a physicists’ conference in Boston recently. Many were enthusiastic about the model, but also said that because of the high tuition fees in the United States they wouldn’t dare attempt such radical reforms”.
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