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Remedial Classes Can Level the Playing Field

& bullet; Physics 16, 153

Studies of physics classes at the university level show that changes in course structure can help bridge gaps between student groups of different races, ethnicities, or genders.


New teaching methods provide an inclusive environment without sacrificing standards.

When it comes to addressing diversity in physics, a common refrain from those opposed to change is that inclusion lowers standards. [1, 2]. Believers of this principle think that efforts aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented students studying physics—and keeping them in the field—need to place accommodations that will limit excellence in the field. Findings from a new study looking at the sources of demographic gaps in undergraduate classrooms suggest the opposite: leveling the playing field does not require lowering standards. [3]. The study finds that simple changes in course structure—not content—can eliminate grade gaps between white male students and those from underserved groups. The researchers behind the study hope that the findings will encourage teachers and institutions to rethink their teaching methods and implement changes that will make the physics classroom more equitable.

Cassandra Paul, a physics education researcher at San José State University, California, says: “Making small changes in the structure of courses can close the gap in academic grades. “It’s not the students who need to be fixed, it’s how we work for them.”

A study conducted by Paul, along with David Webb of the University of California, Davis, considered two variations of the course format. One changed the way students were taught, the other changed the way they were tested. The change in teaching style, which the two say is “thinking first,” involves rearranging the order in which the teacher presents the learning material. Typically, university lecturers take a topic-by-topic approach, which drip-feeds concepts to students while simultaneously introducing them to complex mathematics. The concepts-first approach, on the contrary, separates these two things separately. In the first 60% of the semester the teacher familiarizes the students with the concepts they need to understand, emphasizing the details of each. A semester later we finish students using that knowledge to solve problems on different topics.

The test change allowed students to retake the exam without penalty. In the unmodified version of this class, students were regularly tested on what they learned in 20-minute tests each week, with a final test at the end of the semester. In the recovery version, weekly tests were alternated every two weeks. That left a gap week between tests, where students were given the opportunity to retake the previous week’s test. Retests replace original scores. Retaking was optional and was only allowed for the two-week tests and not the final exam.

The concept-first concept was implemented by Webb in a calculus-based physics class designed for physics and engineering majors. In one semester, he taught a class to two different groups of students, with one group following the concepts-first format and the other topic-by-topic. “Everything but the road was kept the same,” Webb said. I used the same material, the same homework problems, and they had the same teacher.” The retake option was established by some teachers in four introductory physics courses for biological science majors. In all cases the students had no idea how the classes would be organized when they registered.

Paul and Webb found that students with backgrounds traditionally classified as underrepresented in physics received higher grades in modified versions of both courses. Concepts – the first change eliminated the grade gap between underrepresented minorities compared to everyone else. A grade gap existed between men and women. On the other hand, the retake option eliminated the gender gap for women but not for underrepresented minorities.

As for why some structural changes have helped some groups more than others, Webb explains that each group may face different obstacles. Support for this idea comes from previous studies that show that, on average, students who identify as female and as belonging to an ethnic minority have a higher grade point average than those who claim only one of these identities. “We suspect this [finding] “It’s just evidence that racism and sexism are different things and maybe due to different constructs in certain physics,” Webb said. “What these subjects are and how exactly they work would be interesting to know but it’s out of bounds.” [this study].”

Regarding the closing of the grade gap they see, Paul and Webb point to several possible explanations. A concepts-first approach, for example, increases student engagement with basic ideas based on the topics being studied. Likewise, the option to repeat improves comprehension by giving students a chance to learn from their mistakes, Paul said. “Both of these approaches aim to increase student engagement in an effort to improve learning for all,” he added.

“This [study] “It provides a clear example of how structure can make a difference, providing equal opportunities for classroom success,” said Andrew Heckler, who studies physics education at Ohio State University. If the team finds that this alignment can be achieved without changing the content of the course or the depth covered in it is very important, he adds. “It’s common for us in the physics community to think that improving the equation means lowering the standards. Sometimes this thought is subtle and invisible, sometimes it is obvious. In any case, it is good to be ‘controlled’ in this matter so that this [view] can be denied.”

Despite his excitement about the results, Heckler cautions against extending the results to all science classes. “This work looks at the change of two subjects in one institution,” he said. “The results need to be replicated many times in different institutions with different teachers, people, and changing curriculum before we can generalize that ‘structural change reduces inequality.'”

Paul and Webb agree that the results need to be replicated. But they and Heckler realized that some of the additional evidence already existed. For example, a recent study found much narrower achievement gaps in courses taught through “active learning” methods, where students engage in course material through discussion or problem solving, than in those taught through traditional pedagogy, where students sit and listen. coach [4]. Traditional teaching is the preferred option at many US universities, Webb said. But studies show that it is the wrong way to teach any student.

Despite this growing evidence, the view persists that the students, and not the course, are the “problem” when it comes to differences in learning outcomes. Webb thinks this attitude remains entrenched in part because change is difficult but also because physicists are still unsure of the results. He and Paul hope that this study can be a tool to create new ideas. Poor performance, especially in introductory courses, is one of the biggest reasons students—from all backgrounds—give for dropping out of science. Paul says: “We should all want to fix that.”

-Katherine Wright

Katherine Wright is Deputy Editor of the The Magazine of Physics.


  1. D. Abbott continuous.“In Securing Success in Science,” Conflicting ideas 31 (2023).
  2. H. Holden Thorp, “Inclusion does not degrade quality,” Science 377129 (2022).
  3. DJ Webb and CA Paul, “Providing Equivalence Positions in Course Structure in Introductory Physics,” Phys. Rev. Phys. Master. Res. 19020126 (2023).
  4. EJ Theobald continuous.“Active learning narrows achievement gaps for students who are underrepresented in undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” The proc. Natl. Akhad. Sci. the USA 1176476 (2020).

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