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Kenneth J. Ragan

Department of Physics, Faculty of Science

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

On the first day, I like to ask four things: what is your background in physics, summarize your feelings on taking this course, what does physics mean to you, and what can I do to help make the course go better? In the second class, I take the best answers and give a PowerPoint summary, which the students generally enjoy because there are always some particularly eloquent answers.

In terms of structuring the course and the lectures, I like to put in a lot of demos. The two courses that I teach are on mechanics, and there are many demos you can do, such as whirling a ball around your head, throwing things up in the air, dropping things, using dart guns, and spinning chairs.

I also use clickers, which is an electronic way to poll students on multiple choice questions. As soon as you ask a clicker question, there’s a different focus in the classroom. I also try to use the clickers in a slightly more complicated way, which is to ask the students a quiz question, not give them the answer, allow them to discuss it in groups, and then have them come back and answer the same question. That is moving towards peer instruction, and it turns out to be quite effective. A typical lecture will have eight to ten clicker questions.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

The course grade is always based on assignments, labs, and two exams. The weekly assignments are done with an online system called CAPA that allows me to take a problem that has numeric input and randomize the given numbers differently for every student. I encourage students to use the discussion boards on WebCT to share their approaches for how to do the problems. Effectively, what they’re doing is teaching each other. The amazing part is that every year, a core group of students emerges who clearly understand the course and are very happy to spend a lot of time answering posts on the discussion board.

There are also four to six labs, depending on the course. Even if some students may have done similar labs at the high school level, I still think it’s good for them to start to know how to massage data, take measurements, understand how an average works, see how measurements get better as you take more of them, etc.

The real make or break parts of the course are the midterm and final. Both have conceptual questions and problems. Several years ago, I started to put short answer conceptual problems where, in principle, no calculations are necessary. Each one can be answered in two phrases as long as those are the right phrases and you understand the physics—but absolutely no calculations are necessary. It turns out that this is actually a better indicator of a student’s understanding of the material than the ability to do problems.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

What I’d like them to carry away from the intro courses is the ability to problem solve by looking at a problem and the world from a physicist’s point of view. That is, that they can take some seemingly complex thing, break it down and find the critical elements.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

With the intro course that’s for physicists and engineers, I try to bring in research that catches my eye and is at least vaguely related to what we’re doing in class. For instance we talk about friction, and there are people who have built research careers on trying to understand friction at an atomic level, so I will bring that in. I try to do the same in my 101 class, but time can be a bit of an issue.

In both intro classes, I also talk about my own research. I will spend 10 minutes in my first lecture saying, “You may think that I’m here only to teach, but in fact, I have a research career and this is my research.” You try to alert them to the fact that research exists and that it’s not just a sideline – it’s a major focus!

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

Presumably, you are teaching material that you are passionate about, and you should not be afraid to show that. Students respect somebody who is very enthusiastic. I think a lot of students come into my class thinking physics is going be dry and boring, but they learn to respect, and maybe even appreciate, the enthusiasm and the insights they can get from somebody who knows the material. You have to show them why they should care about this material.

In the classroom, I think that you can continuously reinvigorate students, but intuition plays a huge role in that, and it needs to be developed in a young faculty member. Take an experimental approach to find what works for you, and don’t be afraid to play around. You should be pushing in every direction, exploring what is good for you, what you feel comfortable with. You have to be comfortable with what you are doing.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

The single most important thing a student can do is come to class. Some students are working in an electronic world, but it’s not the same as being there and participating. Participation means being engaged, having done your readings, being a partner in a classroom and doing all your assignments. With freshmen students, their inclination is to think that they are not allowed to ask questions because they are in a 600-person classroom, so I try to encourage questions. And if they are not picking my brain, then they’re giving up on one of the huge advantages of our system of schooling, which is to be with someone who is an expert on the material. That is the great advantage over someone who is taking an online course.

Why do you teach?

Originally, because part of the job of being a professor is to teach—to train the next generation. But you grow into teaching. With these large freshmen classes, I just found that they are incredibly fun and rewarding. You have a whole bunch of students that come in thinking, “Physics, no thanks,” and you get this chance to show them that there is physics all around you in the world, and maybe they can learn to see a little bit of that. It has become very rewarding to teach these large classes and have students come back years later and say, “You know, it was a great class,” or to even see some decide to switch into physics because they enjoyed your course.

Email Address: 
ken.ragan@mcgill.ca
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