Montana State University
TitleRecitation Instructor and Help Center Director for Physics Classes Request Date2012-11-30
RequestorRichard Smith Phone406.994.6152
Campuses Bozeman Billings Havre Great Falls FSTS Extension MAES
Cross Depts All departments that require College Physics or Engineering Physics for their majors.
Proposed Dates Start: Fall 2013 End:  
Physics will hire an Instructor to lead voluntary recitation sections for College Physics and Engineering Physics. The individual will also serve as Director of the Physics Learning Center (PLC). The voluntary recitation sessions will be closely coordinated with the respective lecture sections of each course, utilizing problem solving strategies that have been shown, both at MSU and the University of Wisconsin, to be quite effective in improving student learning, thus decreasing DFW rates and decreasing time to graduation. The Director will oversee all operations in the PLC and lead weekly training sessions for all GTAs serving in the PLC.
The goal of this initiative is to improve learning for all students in introductory physics courses. By providing an experienced Instructor for recitation sections we will improve student comprehension of critical knowledge and problem solving skills (L.1), decrease DFW rates, increase retention rates and shorten time to graduation (L.2).
Funding Type: One-Time Only Funding Base (3-yr Recurring) Funding
  FY13 FY14 FY15 Base ($) OTO Startup ($)   FTE;
Salaries       50000      1.0 
Benefits       16345       
Materials & Supplies            
Contracted Services            
Other Operations            
TOTAL 66345    1.0 
Please comment, if necessary, regarding cost and requirements.

     We have in mind several individuals who could serve as recitation instructors, although our first clear choice is an MSU M.S. graduate who worked with Prof. Greg Francis in the area of Physics Education Research. This individual developed and is currently directing a student help program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, similar to what is proposed here. We believe that we could recruit this person to return to MSU. The only cost would be for salary and benefits. All recitations would be scheduled in existing classrooms. The Physics Learning Center currently operates in EPS 230 using graduate students (GTAs) who serve 2 hours/week as a part of their overall GTA assignment, and so would not add to the cost of this program.The GTAs would be required to attend the weekly training sessions discussed in the proposal.

Describe the Proposal

     We propose to create voluntary recitation sessions for each of the four introductory physics classes (PHSX205,207, 220, 222).  These sessions would each meet twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, for each of the four classes. The sessions would be very structured, with example problems that are similar to the homework, each worked out in detail at the board with ample discussion.  Students would also be taught problem-solving skills, including proportional reasoning and free-body diagrams, which constitute common stumbling blocks.  These sessions would be entirely optional, but we would encourage the students who are struggling to make time for the help. Additional help is available in the Physics Learning Center (PLC), open from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. five days a week, staffed by trained GTAs. The recitation instructor would also serve as Director of the PLC, and would meet each week with the GTA staff to discuss lecture material and homework assignments for that week.

Describe the broader impacts and benefits of this proposal

     We have over 2100 students (2129 in CY2012) each year taking the four introductory physics courses: College Physics PHSX205/PHSX207 and Engineering Physics PHSX220/240/PHSX222/242. The 205/207 courses are the algebra-based Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetic field theory sequence, respectively, intended for students majoring in the life sciences, architecture, HHD, and engineering technology. The 220/222 courses, along with the Honors sections, are the calculus-based parallel sequence intended for engineers and majors in the physical sciences. In the 205/207 sequence we use a guided-inquiry approach when teaching these classes.  The students are required in the tutorial portion of the class to develop the most important concepts of physics from the ground up.  We have carefully measured and documented the success enjoyed through this teaching method.  Perhaps the most convincing measure of success was reported at the 1998 Summer Meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and published in the November 1998 issue of The Physics Teacher.  We invited students from the course to return after three years to take the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) Exam developed by David Hestenes, et al.  We had given the test on the first day of class, and then again as part of the final exam.  Our students achieved an improvement of 55% of possible gain on the final exam (pretest score: 39%; posttest score: 62%).  This improvement is considered quite high for a lecture-based course.  Actually, this gain is considered high for any kind of course.  The students who returned three years later to again take the exam earned a score of 60%.  This indicates that the students are retaining the conceptual gains they have acquired during the course.

     In light of this success, it is especially troubling to us that we have a drop-out rate of nearly 25% in these classes.  We are looking for ways to help these weaker students make the conceptual connections required to succeed in the course.  We asked the students currently taking the classes to provide suggestions.  We then polled the classes, using clicker questions, to determine which suggestions had universal support.  When the students were asked, “Do you feel it would be helpful if more and a greater variety of example problems were solved in detail on the board in an extra recitation/help session?” nearly 80% responded in the affirmative.  The students feel a need for this extra resource.

     A much less coordinated effort has been made towards improving student learning in the engineering physics courses. That is, while individual faculty teaching these courses are generally informed by the Physics Education Research (PER) taking place in the department and around the country, there is considerable room for improvement in implementing the in-class techniques and technology that could help students be more successful learners. The proposed hire of a recitation Instructor with PER experience would serve to strengthen the connection  among the instructors of all of these introductory courses, easing the transition for senior or less experienced faculty to new technologies and techniques that have been shown to be effective in helping students be more successful. Furthermore, providing evening help sessions would better prepare these future engineers in the practice of problem-solving skills, a suggestions that appears regularly in student evaluations of these courses.

     For both the college physics and engineering physics sequences, having this coordination among instructors for all classes will, we believe, increase the number of students successfully passing the courses in their first attempt. This decrease in the DFW rate means students will be moving more efficiently towards graduation. They will also feel more satisfied with their accomplishments, and consequently will be more likely to return in future semesters, increasing the retention rate and ultimately the number of MSU graduates. The proposed hiring of a recitation instructor/PLC coordinator will thus have significant overall impact in achieving the goals of the MSU strategic plan, particularly the Learning objectives L.1 and L.2.

Implementation Plan

     Since we have already identified some likely candidates to serve as the designated Recitation Instructor/PLC Director, we are quite confident that an individual can be hired in time to begin the recitation sessions in Fall semester 2013. Instruction for GTAs serving in the PLC would begin during the graduate student orientation week, Fall 2013, and continue during the semester on a weekly basis. The recitation Instructor would meet with all instructors for the designated lecture courses on a weekly or as needed basis to encourage the learning and adoption of in-class strategies to improve student learning.

Assessment Plan

     We will evaluate the success of the project by comparing DFW rates for Fall 2013 with those for previous semesters. We will also track matriculation and repeat enrollments for individual students to measure retention and student success in these courses. Written comments in student evaluations will also be used to inform the instructors of student attitudes about their own performance.

If assessed objectives are not met in the timeframe outlined what is the plan to sunset this proposal?

The very nature of the Physics Education Research community means that perceived successful strategies, both those implemented at MSU and others discussed in the PER literature, will be studied and implemented where appropriate as we go along, so improvements are almost automatic. In fact, if improving instructional strategies as informed by current PER research does not lead to improved student performance then all is lost.

Department Head: Richard Smith (
Dean/Director: Paula Lutz (
Executive/VP: Martha Potvin (