Multiple Changes to TEAL Format Have No Effect on Passing Rates for Physics

Despite changes to the Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) format — including optional problem sets — last semester’s failure rate for 8.01 (Physics I) was equivalent to that of last year’s 8.01 class, according to course administrator Thomas J. Greytak ’63. Eleven percent of 8.01 students received either a D or F grade last semester. Significant changes to the course included new in-class, hands-on demonstrations in addition to existing weekly experiments and making problem sets optional.

Greytak and Dourmashkin said that the 8.01 professors felt that students would benefit more from having more undergraduate teaching assistants answering questions in the classrooms instead of grading the problem sets. The 8.01 professors also hoped that making problem sets optional would encourage students to learn on their own and reduce students’ workload from 8.01. Instead of grading the problem sets, Dourmashkin spent more time posting thorough, step-by-step solutions.

“A lot of students felt that it reduced the stress level [of the class],” said Dourmashkin.

Students had mixed responses to the non-graded problem sets. Some students agreed that not having graded problem sets did not impact their studies or felt that it helped them cope with 8.01.

“I don’t think they should assign problem sets. If you assign them, it’s mandatory. It’s better to do it for you rather than just to get it done,” said Stephanie Tsai ’13, an 8.01 student this past fall.

Yet others felt that it would have been helpful for the class if they were required to hand in the problem sets and received some feedback from the graders.

“I would rather hand in problem sets; they give more motivation and they also have a good sampling of problems we need to know,” said Kathryn Dere ’13.

Although the total failure rate was the same, there was a decrease in the number of F letter grades received between the two years: Last fall, 6 percent of students received F grades, while only 4 percent of students this fall received the grade. It was also reported that the final exam average increased by 2.6 points from the final exam average from last fall, from 54.0 to 56.6. Greytak stated, “Instructors agreed [the final] was harder. But the students did better ... than last year’s class. We were pleased.”

Students who received a D grade based on quiz and test scores and made an effort to complete the other coursework are given the option of taking the “Second Chance Program” over IAP. According to Greytak, if students pass the IAP class, a grade change will be submitted and the students will be reported as having passed 8.01.

The Second Chance Program focuses on having students do problems instead of learning new material, according to Greytak. The program is taught in a TEAL-style format, where the students work in groups of two. Students who received an F are not eligible for the Second Chance program because the program assumes that the student has enough understanding of physics to be able to solve problems.

“It was a brilliant idea because F is quite different from D,” said Peter Dourmashkin ’76, noting that those who received a D in 8.01 have a basic grasp of the concepts and put effort into the class, whereas those who received Fs placed little effort into the class.

One criticism of TEAL is that the format makes students depend on each other: Students are put into groups of ten and subgroups of three and are expected to solve problems together. Often, students are at different physics skill levels. According to Tsai, “Your performance may depend on the people in your group — it’s like luck. If you have people who know what they’re doing but don’t really want to help you, then you might as well go to lecture and recitation.”

Dere added that the size of the class made it difficult to work effectively in groups and to receive enough personalized feedback from teaching assistants.

In response to some of the complaints, both Greytak and Dourmashkin have stated that they are planning to make changes to the 8.01 program. One proposed change is “Spot Grading,” which refers to grading only one question from the problem set. This will make students hand in their problem sets but will still allow more undergraduate teaching assistants to answer questions during class rather than grading the entire problem sets. Another proposed change is to have the problem sets of each graded by teaching assistants assigned to that class so that assistants would be more capable of identifying and helping poorly performing students.