Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Adaptation and implementation of Tutorials in Introductory Physics

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We have successfully adapted and implemented Tutorials in Introductory Physics1, by Lillian McDermott, Peter Shaffer and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington, in the recitation sections of General Physics, the large introductory calculus-based physics course taught at the University of Cincinnati. The goal of this adaptation is to improve the performance of the science, math and engineering students taking introductory calculus-based physics courses, which have been a barrier for many science and engineering students at the University of Cincinnati. The students in the courses come from a diverse background and include at risk students. They often have difficulty in understanding basic physics concepts which leads to their inability to solve multi step problems using these concepts. We decided to adapt and implement Tutorials in Introductory Physics because they are an exemplary set of inquiry-based instructional materials that help students develop important physics concepts and reasoning skills.

In order to assess the effectiveness of the materials in our General Physics course, the tutorials were pilot tested from 1998 - 2000 in the four recitation sections associated with my lecture class. This was out of a total of nineteen recitation sections associated with four lecture classes in the course. The students in the tutorial sections were similar in background and ability with the students in the other sections We compared the performance of the students in the four recitation sections that used the tutorials with the students in the other fifteen sections that did not use the tutorials. The students from all sections took the same block examinations at the same time. In our comparisons, we found that the tutorial students consistently scored several percents points higher than the non-tutorial students on the conceptual exam questions and also on the quantitative exam problems. The tutorial students also had a lower failure/withdrawal rate than the non-tutorial students.

Based on the results of our pilot study, we decided to implement the tutorials in all of the recitation sections for all sequences of our General Physics courses. To enable us to perform this extensive adaptation and implementation of the tutorials, we submitted and received an undergraduate Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) grant from the National Science Foundation, NSF grant #DUE-0126919, for hiring an additional faculty member whose primary responsibility would be to administer and coordinate the tutorials. In 2002 we began the full implementation of tutorials in all nineteen recitation sections of the largest of the four sequences of our General Physics course. The recitation sections are all taught by graduate student teaching assistants (TA’s). This presented a challenge in providing effective training for the ten to fifteen TA’s who would teach tutorials during the General Physics course sequence. We modeled our TA training on the training done at the University of Washington. The TA’s are required to meet for a training session each week, during which the TA’s take the same tutorial pretest as the General Physics students and work through the same tutorial worksheets. We also have the TA’s examine student pretests and discuss common student misconceptions and appropriate Socratic dialog questions for each tutorial.

We are still in the preliminary stages of performing a complete evaluation of our implementation of the tutorials. However, we have assessed the effectiveness of the tutorials on the students’ conceptual understanding in mechanics by administering the Force Concept Inventory2 (FCI) as a pre and posttest to the tutorial students and the students in the sequences not using tutorials. The students in my lecture classes, who all used tutorials in their recitations, had average normalized gains, defined as the ratio of the actual gain to the maximum possible gain = (posttest % – pretest %)/(100% - pretest %), of 46% in 2002, 52% in 2003 and 57% in 2004. This can be compared with gains of 18% for the sequence in 2002 that did not use tutorials and 24% for the honors student sequence in 2002 that also did not use tutorials. Richard Hake has published a survey of FCI results3 from over 6500 students and found that the traditional courses had an average gain of 0.23 ± 0.04 (std. dev.) and interactive-engagement courses had an average gain of 0.48 ± 0.14 (std. dev.) Our results agree with his results, with the non tutorial sequences having gains consistent with the typical traditional lecture class, but the tutorial classes having gains consistent with the interactive-engagement classes. We have also been collecting extensive data on the pretest tutorial questions provided by the University of Washington and posttest exam questions. This will permit us to study our students’ gains on the topics covered by the tutorials and to compare our students’ gains with those at the University of Washington and at other universities implementing the tutorials.

Kathy Koenig, a doctoral student in physics education at the University of Cincinnati, has been studying the role of the TA training in increasing student conceptual understanding. Her preliminary results indicate that the manner in which the TA’s interact with the tutorial student groups is one of the important factors in student gains in conceptual understanding.

We would like to acknowledge the advice and assistance of Lillian McDermott, Peter Shaffer, Paula Heron and the other members of the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington in our adaptation and implementation of the tutorials.


1 L.C. McDermott, P.S. Shaffer, and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington, Tutorials in Introductory Physics, (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River; Preliminary Edition 1998, First Edition, 2002).

2 D. Hestenes, M. Well, M. and G. Swackhamer, “Force Concept Inventory,” Phys. Teach., 30, 141 -151, (1992).

3 R. R. Hake, “Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses,” Am. J. Phys. 66, 64-74 (1998).