Physics & Astronomy
Example 1 – Assessment of student learning for large introductory courses: the LON-
CAPA system of course management.
1. student to develop problem-solving skills related to the mathematical theories of
physics; i.e., the ability to carry out quantitative calculations related to physical
Activities in Support of Goal:
1. The Department of Physics and Astronomy provides courses in these sciences for
three categories of students: (i) those majoring in physics or astronomy; (ii) those
majoring in other sciences or technical fields such as engineering; (iii) those
majoring in subjects outside science or technology (i.e., general education or
integrative studies courses). Assessment of student learning is important for all
2. The LON-CAPA computer system, used for course management and personalized
homework assignments, was primarily developed by faculty and staff from the
Department of Physics and Astronomy at Michigan State University. This system
provides ample opportunities for assessment of student learning and effective
teaching, especially for large introductory courses (PHY 183/4 and PHY 231/2)
and integrative studies courses (ISP 205 and 209). Each student receives
personalized homework assignments generated by the LON-CAPA system.
Students may collaborate on the solutions of their assignments—indeed they are
encouraged to work together—but a student cannot simply copy the answers of
another student because the assigned questions are not identical. The instructor
obtains a detailed statistical analysis of the student’s performance on each
assignment. Because the questions are personalized, the results reflect accurately
the level of achievement in the class.
1. The LON-CAPA problems: provide data on the development of this skill. The
instructor also obtains from the LON-CAPA system a statistical analysis sorted by
the separate exercises in an assignment. This information yields an assessment of
the effectiveness of teaching for each topic in the course. When the “degree of
difficulty” parameter reveals that one or a set of problems was missed by a
significant number of students, the topic may be discussed further in class to
improve the comprehension of the students.The LON-CAPA system, which
originated at Michigan State University, has been adopted by many other colleges
and universities. It has been the subject of papers published in journals of science
education, and its development has been supported by the National Science
Foundation. This program, which defines clear student outcomes in personalized
assignments, and which provides accurate data for assessment of both student
learning and effective teaching is an essential tool for our large-enrollment
introductory courses in physics and astronomy.
Example 2 – Assessment of student learning and effective teaching for students who
are majoring in physics and astronomy: the FCI and CSEM exams.
2. Undergraduate students who are majoring in physics and astronomy must
comprehend the qualitative concepts of physics as well as the quantitative theories
of physics. Research on physics education has shown that some students do not
fully grasp the essential ideas of physics from their introductory courses, and
consequently are not sufficiently prepared for the more advanced courses that
they would take as juniors and seniors.
1. Force Concept Inventory (FCI) exam: To assess the student learning and effective
teaching of basic concepts, for students who are majoring in physics and
astronomy, the Department of Physics and Astronomy has begun to use the Force
Concept Inventory (FCI) exam for mechanics and the Concept Survey of
Electromagnetism (CSEM) exam for electricity and magnetism.Students in PHY
321 (Classical Mechanics) are given the FCI exam. These students are
sophomores or juniors. PHY 321 is an intermediate-level course on mechanics,
with a heavy emphasis on the mathematics of calculus and differential equations.
The purpose of the FCI exam is to assess the students’ comprehension of basic
concepts of mechanics and hence their readiness to proceed to the intermediate-
level course. We have found that most physics majors can answer all the FCI
questions correctly. However, some students will miss a few of the FCI questions;
and a few students will fail the exam, with a significant number of incorrect
answers. To intervene on behalf of the students who have not grasped the
concepts from introductory physics, one instructor has required students to write a
detailed explanation of each missed question—explaining which law of
mechanics applies to the question and its meaning. The FCI exam is widely used
to assess student learning and effective teaching on the concepts of mechanics.
2. The CSEM exam is similarly given to students at the beginning of PHY 471
(Electricity and Magnetism 1).