World Wide Web Technology As a New Teaching And Learning Environment

International Journal of Modern Physics C, Vol 8, No.1 (1997) 19-39

GREGOR M. NOVAK, Dept. of Physics, IUPUI,

402 N. Blackford St., Indianapolis, IN 46202-3273;;

EVELYN T. PATTERSON, Dept. of Physics, United States Air Force Academy

HQ USAFA/DFP, Suite 2A6, U.S. Air Force Academy, CO 80840-6254,

Since the introduction in 1993 of the World Wide Web and the associated multimedia technologies numerous projects are underway introducing the new tool into introductory physics teaching. This paper will describe two such undertakings: The Cockpit Physics project at the United States Air Force Academy and the WebPhysics project at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis.

In more than one sense the World Wide Web represents the third phase of digital electronic teaching and learning technology. The digital electronic information age opened with the advent of the microprocessor-based personal computer in the late 1970's. The next phase came with the introduction of multimedia objects such as digital images, digital video and sound. The third phase, the World Wide Web has become the vehicle for rapid dissemination of multimedia learning resources. The web technology also provides for instantaneous interactivity, essentially eliminating the traditional space and time barriers.

The web technology is likely to have a significant impact in many areas:

Web sites can serve as communication hubs for student-teacher, student-student and teacher-teacher interactions. By providing web-based instructional material teachers can structure the out-of-the-classroom time so the students can use it more productively. Web sites can provide a virtual setting for collaborative peer instruction which has proven so effective in the classroom. All the instructor must do is provide links between the classroom work and the web work. Web sites can also be used by teachers from geographically separated institutions to collaborate on instructional material development and educational research. The authors of this paper jointly developed several lessons in this manner.

Instructional resource materials can be provided on the web, with JavaScript providing the interactivity.

Possibilities include:

a. An easily maintained and updatable set of links to the huge amount of up-to-date information.

b. Self-contained interactive tutorials and review materials with individualized feedback provided by JavaScript embedded in the document. A web server may be useful here but is not necessary because the JavaScripted documents contain their own logic.

c. Virtual labs to extend or complement the hands-on classroom experience.

d. Independent web project assignments, with the web resources providing an alternative to the traditional library materials.

Pre-classroom assignments such as lab previews and lecture previews can be accessed via a web site.

The web environment can support stand-alone instructional material as demonstrated by the United States Air Force Academy Cockpit Physics project.

During the past two years a vast amount of instructional material has appeared on the web and the list is growing daily (1) This paper will describe two related endeavors: The Cockpit Physics project at the United States Air Force Academy and the WebPhysics project at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Both of these projects attempt to redesign the introductory physics course offering from the ground up with the web component built in from the beginning.

Cockpit Physics


Cockpit Physics. is a curriculum development effort underway in the Department of Physics at the Air Force Academy. The product of the first stage of the effort is a complete one semester course in introductory physics, consisting of 32 HTML-based interactive, multimedia lessons in which Air Force relevant themes provide the motivation to learn the underlying physics. The present size of the lessons set is about 380 MB, consisting of thousands of small resource modules and HTML text files. The course has a substantial hands-on component, including standard table-top laboratory exercises. The delivery of the material, however, is entirely HTML-based.

Each lesson begins with a currently relevant Air Force application, possibly brought in via the WWW as it happens. Students are guided to construct the underlying physics. They then repeatedly apply this physics knowledge to more complex events, always maintaining Air Force relevance.

The course is highly interactive, with student activities ranging from reading text and answering questions to performing real, hands-on experiments. Students always work in teams, with the web pages of the lessons serving to coordinate the activities. The project is, in part, an exploration into how to provide effective, individualized, interactive instruction using the technology which will be a part of every student's daily experience.


The Cockpit Physics project at the US Air Force Academy was initiated when Dr. Novak was a visiting professor at the Academy for the year beginning in June of 1994. One of the primary goals of the project was to develop and implement a scheme which brought together a wide variety of curriculum materials and resources that had been developed by department faculty over a number of years. The project was also to incorporate the next phase of technology, so that it would be forward-looking while still including the "best of the best" of the materials developed over time. Thirdly, the project was to incorporate as many Air Force applications of introductory physics as possible. Finally, the original intent of the project was to test a mode of instruction patterned closely after "Studio Physics" developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute under the direction of Dr. Jack Wilson (2) In the Studio Physics model, classes meet for 2 hour sessions which are divided into 3 blocks of time. During the first 20-30 minutes, homework problems are reviewed. During the next hour or so, students work in teams of 2 on computer-based activities. In the final block of time, the instructor gives a "mini-lecture" on the key points to be covered in the next class. At Rensselaer, marked gains in student attitude were reported in the Studio Physics sections, and the hope was that Air Force Academy cadets might be similarly inspired and excited by a physics course offered in such a way. In retrospect, after having actually implemented Cockpit Physics in the classroom, we realize that it is the web-based nature of the course, not the classroom implementation, that is of fundamental significance.

The Department of Physics at the Air Force Academy began to develop curriculum materials which are Air Force relevant; multimedia in nature; easy to create, update and modify; and able to embrace and incorporate both the old "standard" activities and any innovations developed. Furthermore, the development team decided that each lesson should have the same pedagogical structure, and a modified learning cycle (3) , based on the work of University of California physicist Robert Karplus, was adopted as the standard.

All of the lessons were written by or under the direction of the physics faculty (military, permanent civilian, and visiting) at the Academy. Those not written directly by faculty were written by physics major cadets who worked closely with a faculty member. While the bulk of the lesson creation occurred between January and August of 1995, changes, additions, and new applications of the material are continually being included.

A few selected Cockpit Physics lessons were tested in the fall 1995 semester, but the first full-scale implementation of the course came in the spring 1996 semester, when four test sections of Cockpit Physics were offered. During the fall 1996 semester, two sections of Cockpit Physics are underway. The current focus of development effort is to recast the course so that it can be offered in a semester-long series of (more traditional) 50 minute periods, rather than a smaller number of 2 hour periods.


In its present format, the Cockpit Physics course uses a high-tech classroom, shown schematically in the figure.

The Cockpit Physics classroom, consists of 12 student stations, one instructor file server workstation, and a web server workstation, all connected together as a small intranet.

The current Cockpit Physics classroom contains a small intranet consisting of twelve student Windows 95 workstations, one Windows NT file server and a Macintosh web server running WebStar. Communication between workstations is via TCP/IP protocol. The student stations run web browsers which access files delivered by the file server. Student responses are submitted to the Mac web server, where they are processed by a logic engine that analyzes the student responses and provides individualized student feedback. The logic engine draws on a database of multiple choice questions which is currently in HyperCard format for ease of prototyping; communication between HyperCard and the web server is via apple events. A room status display for use by the instructor is continually updated on the Mac screen and its design and use are described in detail below.

During approximately hour-long interactive sessions with the workstations, students work in teams of two and are guided along a branching path which allows them to explore different facets of the day's subject at their own pace. The HTML-based lessons include simple illustrations and applications of the assigned reading, interactive simulations in which the students may vary parameters in an equation under study to experience the resulting effects, lab activities in which data are automatically collected and displayed by the computer, and numerous simple hands-on activities. The HTML documents contain frequent text areas for student input, both as free form text and as answers to multiple choice questions. The figure below shows a typical excerpt from one of the lesson pages. Note the sparseness of text, multimedia format of information, text area for student input, and availability of a hint via a mouse-click on the "hint" question mark image. All student responses are recorded for immediate and future use by the instructor. All of this student activity and interaction is closely monitored by the instructor, who clarifies points, answers questions not covered in the computer lesson, and provides supplemental material.

Important Pedagogical Features of Cockpit Physics.

A number of features make the web-based "Cockpit Physics" lessons part of a unique, new opportunity for improved teaching and learning. Let us consider the following:

Relevance and connection to the "real world:" Web-based lessons can provide links to real world applications of the lesson material. In Cockpit Physics, one of the lessons centered on the Global Positioning System satellites asks students to accept a mission in which they are responsible for transferring a satellite from low earth orbit into GPS orbit, using a technique known as the Hohmann transfer. After they accomplish this, they are encouraged to explore a link to a NASA homepage which describes the exact same maneuver and its actual use by NASA in interplanetary space exploration.

Timely and up-to-date materials: Because the WWW is ever-changing and ever-growing, it provides a wealth of new material everyday. Current events can be incorporated into web-based lessons easily, strengthening the connection between the lesson content and the world beyond the classroom. A Cockpit Physics lesson dealing with air resistance in the context of a pilot ejecting from an airplane and using a parachute to land safely was able to include a reference to an actual F-16 pilot ejection which had occurred just the day before the lesson!

Interactive and student-centered materials: The web technology allows built-in interactivity via JavaScript embedded in the HTML documents and via submissions to and responses from a web server. Lessons can be structured so that students can proceed along a path of their choosing, at their own pace. The following figure shows an example of a "lesson map" from the Cockpit Physics course. The activities are grouped into exploration, theory, and application sections in a modified "Learning Cycle" approach. There are also assessment quiz and supplemental information sections. Students acquire an overall view of the lesson structure and content in one page and then navigate their way through the lesson as they choose.

Hidden information available on a need-to-know basis: HTML documents can include links to layered documents, each of which provides more information about a topic. In Cockpit Physics, layered hints accompany questions the students answer. The strongest students may need no hints, while other students may need multiple layers of hints in order to be able to answer the questions. Hidden information can also be used to provide greater detail, derivations, and related supplementary information so that a high level of rigor is maintained without students having to "wade" through all the details in the first pass.

Multimedia resources which appeal to all senses: Web-based lessons can readily include text, video, audio, and graphics and can launch activities utilizing other applications. Lesson content can be presented in a variety of formats, thereby lending itself to different student learning styles. In addition, the commercial "look and feel" of web-based lessons can hold the interest of students who are part of the so-called MTV generation.

Easy updating/maintenance: Due to the text-based nature of HTML, web documents can be updated with just a simple text editor. New activities can replace old ones with just "cutting and pasting" techniques. The HTML platform itself can be viewed as "glue" that can bind together activities and strategies which have proven effective in other settings and yet at the same time can offer new activities and strategies whose implementation has not previously been possible. Also, the platform itself can embrace many different pedagogies and learning schemes, so provides a flexible lesson authoring and delivery environment.

Real-time feedback to instructors and students: Real-time feedback can enhance classroom effectiveness and dramatically change the way faculty and students spend their time together. What is happening in Cockpit Physics is just a first taste of the richness of what the technology offers, and deserves further comment.

The significance of the real-time feedback potential inherent in web-based lessons should not be underestimated. While it is clear that Cockpit Physics represents just a first attempt at developing, testing, and implementing the use of these features in a real course with real students, benefits are already obvious.

The next figure shows an example of the room status screen displayed by the Mac web server in the classroom for each lesson.

This system has been designed to provide immediate feedback to the instructors and to record the information in ways that are useful both in the classroom and for later educational research. The buttons on the left hand side of the figure represent the 12 student stations in the classroom. Across the top are symbols representing each of the student response items in the particular lesson. The squares represent "text areas" into which students type responses to questions and problems posed in the HTML documents. The circles represent multiple choice quiz items; each circle represents its own quiz question. The names of these text areas and quiz items appear on the instructor's screen when the mouse is dragged over the top row of items to help keep track of items in the lesson. On the right hand side, running percentages on quiz items appear by station.

At the bottom of the screen, information organized by quiz question is displayed for the instructor. For each quiz question in the lesson, the current number of responses, number of correct responses, and percent correct is displayed. This display allows the instructor to quickly and easily assess the classes' understanding and trouble-spots as a whole and to take note of questions/concepts which need to be stressed or revisited later in the lesson.

As the students begin responding to text area and quiz input requests, the appropriate boxes and circles turn black. For example, if station #4 submits a response to the third text area in the lesson, this box turns black. This feature helps instructors to gauge the students' progress through the lesson, simply by looking at the placement and quantity of black symbols. To see how students are responding to a particular question, the instructor can click on the item in the top row, and a field containing a chronological list of station responses to this item appears. A quick glance at this field allows the instructor to see how the students are responding to this question; he or she can then engage the class in a discussion based on their answers, as appropriate.

An interesting outcome of this progress-indicator and monitor system was that students were interested in seeing the instructor's display. As soon as students realized that the instructors had easy access to real-time monitoring of each station's progress, they began coming to the front of the room to look at the display themselves, to compare their progress with that of others in the class, and to compare their quiz scores. This response was not anticipated, but the availability of this information served as an additional motivator for the students to progress through the lessons and to do well on the quizzes.

Cockpit Physics requires new techniques and skills of the instructor. Proper class management and use of real-time feedback about student progress is crucial to the success of such a learning environment. The instructor does not disappear or become less important in such a setting, but rather becomes more involved in each student's learning process.

Preliminary Assessment Results.

During the Spring 1996 semester, an assessment of the course-- including a comparison to the "traditional" small-classroom mode of instruction at the Academy-- was conducted by Ms. Heidi Mauk Gruner (4) , a graduate student in the PhD physics education program at Kansas State University.

Preliminary assessment results from Cockpit Physics have been encouraging, particularly when one considers that the course was assessed in its very first offering. The Cockpit Physics course received the highest student rating among the regular introductory physics sections during the Spring 1996 semester. Overall, there was overwhelming student approval of the many hands-on activities integrated into the lessons. Students liked the way they were interspersed with the other materials.

On the exams, the Cockpit Physics sections scored somewhat higher than the control sections, but the difference is not statistically significant. All students enrolled in Cockpit Physics successfully passed the course.

Attitudinally, the students began the semester expressing initial excitement and apprehension about the experimental and computer-based nature of the course. By midsemester, many students expressed frustration and indicated that they felt they had been abandoned by their instructors. This perceived "loss" of the instructor is particularly interesting when one considers that Ms. Gruner can document quantitatively that the Cockpit Physics mode of classroom activity involved more instructor-student interaction, more one on one interaction, and more frequent overall interaction than did the control sections of the course. At the conclusion of the semester, the students were again in two main groups. Ms. Gruner's research indicates that one group remained frustrated by the new mode of learning and by the perceived loss of the instructor. The other group successfully learned how to become more responsible for their own learning and how to rely on other students as well as the instructor to help them through the various activities. This group of students made progress both in becoming independent learners and in mastering physics content.

In the control sections of the course, even though the instructor frequently "lectured" to the group (20-24 students), the students still felt as if they were getting individual attention from the instructor. Ms. Gruner suggests that the instructor "face time" is apparently an important factor.

It is important to note therefore that the control sections in this study do not represent the standard "passive receiver" mindset that has been documented in large "traditional" lectures. (5)

The Future.

As we begin to focus efforts on adopting the Cockpit Physics materials for use during shorter class times (e.g., 50 minute rather than 2 hour periods), we are placing increased emphasis on web-based activities which the students do outside of the classroom. In this way, in-class time can be traded off for outside-of-class time, thus freeing up classroom time for activities which utilize the instructor most effectively. Thus, we are exploring ways in which the Cockpit Physics web-based materials can be used beyond the classroom to improve student attitude and performance, while maintaining a more traditional classroom environment. In this way, the efforts at the Air Force Academy and at IUPUI, as described below, are rather similar.

A very important component of the Cockpit Physics course currently is the use of "preflight" activities. These are short web-based activities which the students complete prior to coming to class. The preflight activities cover the material for the next class, and at the moment consist of one question requiring a few sentences of answer, one estimation type of problem, and one multiple choice question which is often conceptual rather than quantitative. It is intended that the students spend about 10 minutes completing these preflight activities. Students submit their answers to these questions, and the instructor then receives all of the student answers prior to the class period. Thus the instructor is able to tailor the day's class to specifically address the students' own answers. A sense of ownership and relevance is established because the classroom discussion deals with the students' actual answers, rather than concepts in abstract. These "preflight" activities are also being implemented in theme traditional setting of IUPUI as "warmup" activities, as discussed below.

The other main area of concentration for continuing development is the use of self-paced practice problems which have built-in interactivity via JavaScript embedded in the html documents. Because of the logic embedded in these documents, students can work through practice problem sessions which are customized and tailored specifically to their needs and difficulties. These problems will be used both for drill and for diagnostic purposes.

As we look to the future of Cockpit Physics, it is important to note that there is nothing in the design of the Cockpit Physics materials that prevents doing these same sorts of activities in settings beyond the Cockpit Physics classroom. The station numbers in the room status figure above needn't represent computers physically in the same room, in the same building, or even at the same institution. Web-based instructional materials such as the Cockpit Physics lessons can be used by students at a variety of different institutions, spread across a wide geographic area.

Calculus Physics Sequence at IUPUI (Phys 152/Phys251)

A Traditional Introductory Physics Course With a Strong Web Component.

The Challenge

Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) is an urban university. It is a major campus in the statewide system of Indiana University with a student enrollment of just over 27,000 students. Just under 20,000 of these are undergraduates, the rest are in professional and graduate schools, including a medical school and a law school. 12,722 students are full time, 58% are female, 11.8% belong to ethnic minorities. 79% of the students are employed, most of them (88%) off campus. The average age of the the iupui student is 26.8 years.

The IUPUI physics department offers all the traditional physics courses through the Ph.D. level. Since the early days of microcomputers the undergraduate physics courses employed a fair amount of technology. From data processing in the lab to digital video demonstrations in the lecture technology is woven into the teaching and learning process. The teaching challenges facing a physics instructor at IUPUI include the familiar list, identified by the physics education researchers over the last two decades. Students in the physics classes have to be given a chance to control their own learning process, they have to be motivated to want to learn physics, they have to be shown the connection between classroom physics and the real world. At the same time they have to be acquiring critical thinking skills, estimation skills, problem solving skills and they have to learn some physics content.

The calculus based introductory physics sequence Phys 152/251 has to deal with all these challenges. In addition there is the extra challenge presented by the commuting student. Most of our students are on split schedules; in school in the morning, at work in the afternoon and maybe back in class in the evening. Most are older mature individuals with a strong desire to succeed but in need of guidance when it comes to study habits and time management. Retention is a major problem. Commuting students, who are often part-time students as well, have a hard time staying the course. They frequently give up early in the semester only to come back and try again in the following semester. Thus it may take a reasonably intelligent and motivated student two or three attempts to pass the course. While some of this is unavoidable, in most cases it is preventable. In-classroom and out-of-classroom strategies described below represent deliberate attempts to address these challenges.

Restructuring The Course To Meet The Challenge.

We have restructured the course to address all these issues. We are changing our classroom strategies and we are adding a World Wide Web component. The IUPUI campus has an excellent technology infrastructure. A student can find a computer workstation with internet access somewhere on campus at any time of the day, with no waiting time. Moreover, virtually all of our students have access to the internet from work or from home. The university provides free dial-up access to the internet via PPP connections. The software is free and consultants are available to help the students configure their systems. Many of our students subscribe to on-line services. By systematic use of the emerging network technologies it is possible to break down the space and time barrier and connect to the student outside the classroom at any time.

Physics education research has shown that the traditional teaching paradigms do not work well with any present day students. They are particularly ill suited to the non-traditional student. Physics courses that produce desirable educational outcomes in the crucial areas of critical thinking skills, estimation skills, problem solving skills, and conceptual understanding have all broken with tradition in one way or another (6) .

While the Phys 152/Phys 251 sequence retains the traditional (lecture-recitation-lab) format it has broken with tradition in several ways.

We have redesigned the structure of the course and the instructional strategies.

The structural redesign represents a shift to the active learner paradigm grafted onto the lecture -recitation -lab format. The new instructional strategies focus on the problems we have identified in our student population. These include: weak academic preparation, poor motivation, lack of self-confidence due to a variety of factors ranging from poor academic background to poor time-management skills and a feeling of isolation in a commuting environment.

1. We have added an active learner, around the clock, component we call the web component.

2. We have adopted our own version of collaborative learning in the recitation class.

3. We have made the lecture into an interactive session where physics concepts are integrated rather than introduced.

4. We are attempting to weave these three components into a unified around-the-clock activity

We are using the web component to provide structure for the students' "study-time". By giving students numerous small assignments on the web we encourage critical thinking and constructive use of the traditional resources, such as the textbook. Student submissions to the web give us some idea of the state of the class. We have redesigned the classroom components of the course to make the best use of the data we get from the web. We use the feedback we get from the web assignments to taylor the collaborative tasks in the recitation and the content of the lecture to address the learning needs uncovered in the web submissions.

The Web Component.

Through the web component of the course, consisting of a variety of web documents, we are encouraging the student to visit physics frequently throughout the day and to structure study time around the many assignments that carry academic credit. Since the student is able to accumulate credit frequently and in small amount we cash in on the "arcade factor" identified by some education researchers. Giving the student yet another chance encourages the student to try again and to eventually succeed. This encourages the student to keep up with the material mitigates the impulse to pull out of the course "because I am so far behind". Most of the web assignments are submitted electronically directly from the web page. This feature gives the student a feeling of connectivity that is usually missing on a commuter campus. Web assignment submissions frequently include clarification questions. These questions are answered as they come in (all our students have email accounts). Occasionally, the question requires that the student be invited for a face-to-face conversation.

The web assignments build a bridge to the real world. By providing live web links to the places where physics we are studying is actually done (NASA launches, police workshops on skid-mark analysis, atomic force microscope image galleries) we can engage the students, structure their study time and at the same time let them practice critical thinking and estimation skills.

By off-loading some of the physics content learning and skills practice that the students can do on their own we can use the recitation and lecture time where live instructors are present to do more mentoring and less "teaching".

The Classroom Component.

The heart of the classroom component are the two recitation hours per week. The recitation session starts with a ten minute review of the 2 or 3 problem set home-work assignment students have just submitted. A faculty member addresses the class for ten to fifteen minutes. This time is spent discussing the recent homework assignment: providing an outline of approach and a review of important concepts rather than detailed solutions. After this time the students are requested to form small groups (3-4) and to take up positions at the white boards that have been installed around the periphery of the classroom. Several problems are announced (the students have no foreknowledge) and students are set to work. As the students work, several faculty members circulate throughout the room answering questions, providing an occasional push towards a correct approach, and observing the students at work. It is important to note that all faculty associated with the course are present during these sessions. This style of recitation has several advantages in teaching introductory classes. Because students are forced to tackle unfamiliar problems, faculty may address basic problem solving skills that students often lack at this level. Because students work in groups, they are forced to attempt explanations of their work to their peers. This is often the point at which a student realizes that a particular method or idea is more complex than previously thought. A faculty member may observe that a student or group has a basic misconception, step in, and provide one-on-one or small group instruction. Often with much greater impact than can be achieved from the front of the room. If a faculty member notices that many groups have the same difficulty, that problem may be addressed in a subsequent lecture. In addition to these benefits, there are several other, less direct advantages to this recitation format. Students and faculty get to know one another and to discuss physics in a relatively informal setting. This scheme breaks down the anonymity barrier. Students become comfortable working with one another and with the instructors. Standing in a group around a white board and arguing is close to the professional settings many of these student will encounter in the workplace. Students learn how to formulate arguments and defend them. Much time is spent on coming to a consensus on the plan of attack. Learning how to get started on a problem is the hardest part of the task. This is where a live instructor can make the most substantial contribution. Students who would normally hesitate to come to a faculty member's office have far less compunctions after only a few classes. This familiarity spills over into the lecture as well; although the lectures in PHYS 251 and 152 are in the traditional format, the willingness of students to ask and respond to questions during lecture is dramatically improved. Also, students also get to know one another, and are given a natural opportunity to form study groups that persist outside the classroom.

Details Of The Web Component (7) .

For the web part of this course we run a dedicated WebStar server from a faculty office. Student submissions are sorted and archived on the server. Instructors access student communications from their individual work stations via an HTML document. Thus with a mouse click they receive from the server a custom report of the latest status of a particular item, such as a warmup quiz.

The server workstation is part of the campus network. Course instructors can save web documents directly on the server hard drive.

Students enter the web part of the course via an intro page which is a common gateway to both semesters of the course. This page briefly describes what we are trying to do and introduces them to the organization of the course. The next link is the anchor page of course.

From this page the links go to three information pages which are basically electronic versions of the syllabus, to a page called The Communications Station, and to a page called "This Week in Physics 152" (251 for the second semester course) where most of the action takes place.

The Communications Station is a one-stop site from which the student can communicate with the instructors in the course. The page contains links to further information about the instructors, in most cases the instructor's home page. The page can also be used to send email to the instructors. The feature most used by the students is the anonymous comments text area box at the bottom of the page. These comments go directly to our web server where they are read several times a day. We try to respond immediately.

The heart of the web document is "This Week in Phys 152" (251 for the second semester course.)

The "This Week..." page contains timely messages from the instructors to the class, enrichment material, and links to various extra credit assignments. We hope to develop this into an interactive instructional resource that will complement the textbook to the fullest extent without duplicating it. The "This Week..." document is the centerpiece of our web instructional strategy. It is constantly being evaluated and fine tuned.

The main instructional objectives of this web document are:

1. To encourage the students to work on physics throughout the day, in frequent short sessions.

2. To connect textbook physics to the real world in order to engage the student, to make the material relevant and to uproot the false preconceptions. Dealing with preconceptions is an incremental process, proceeding in small steps.

3. To encourage the development of critical thinking, estimation skills, and the ability to deal with ill-defined problems.

4. To shift the real learning experience away from the classroom to group work ouside the classroom.

5. Develop cooperative work habits. These have been shown to enhance learning. They are also useful skills to have in the work place.

The layout of "This Week..." is that of a newsletter. The document is short and easy to peruse. Most of the content is in deeper layers, reached via the web links.

Typically a particular edition of "This Week..." will follow a theme. The theme will be suggested by the syllabus or by a current newsworthy event.

The present version of "This Week... " has four main instructional parts.

a. Announcements.

b.What is Physics Good For.

c. The Puzzle.

d. The Warmup quiz.

The "Announcements" section typically contains some factual information about the course (e.g. the distribution of the scores on a test just taken), some currents events notice (e.g. an eclipse about to happen) and a link to the current warmup quiz.

The warmup quiz is an extra credit incentive to stay current with the material. The due date usually coincides with the formal introduction of the material in the classroom. The purpose of the quiz is two-fold. The student gets credit for previewing the material. The instructor gets some idea of the conceptual state of the class. The answers to the warmup quiz drive the lecture and recitation emphasis.

In the present format the warmup quiz consists of an essay question, an estimation problem, and a conceptual multiple choice question related to some common pre-conception.

The "What's Physics Good For" is a serious attempt to relate the course content to the real world. The section is a short news-like story with at least four links to related web sites. Students are asked to follow the links and discover answers to several extra credit questions.

Occasionally the links are to mini-lessons which are presented for enrichment and are typically followed by students who are especially interested in the topic and by students who need the extra credit. This is yet another way to make use of the arcade factor.

As the name implies, The Puzzle is a physics scenario with an extra twist that requires the student to see beyond the end-of-chapter formulas. They may appear quite trivial to a physicist but are chosen because classroom experience has shown that particular way of asking the question is troublesome to beginning students. The Hestenes' Force Concept Inventory questions (8) or Eric Mazur's peer instruction questions (9) have a similar character.

The puzzle in the example below was answered correctly by only 12% of the respondents. We know from classroom experience that a question "What is the tension in the rope between the pulleys" would have given a far better yield.

A 10 kg mass and a 5 kg mass are suspended from pulleys as shown in the diagram. A small metric scale (calibrated in newtons) is spliced into the rope joining the two masses. Assume that the mass of the scale is negligibly tiny. What does the scale read after the masses are released from rest?

Some Preliminary Results And Plans For The Future.

The course has been offered twice in this format. We have anecdotal evidence that the system is working well. Attendance in the classroom has jumped to 95%. The early withdrawal has virtually disappeared. That means that we are retaining the students who, in previous years, dropped the course for psychological reasons and eventually passed. We are still looking at a 10 to 15% attrition rate in the first course and 5% in the second course. This represents students who withdraw at midterm or fail the course. We consider this an acceptable rate. Some of these students start out in the wrong program. About 60% of the students in the first course and 95% in the second course submit material to the web. Virtually all of them visit the web site.

For the future we are planning more features in the "This Week.. ."document. The students like the extra credit features and the variety. We are fine tuning the content and the timing of the puzzle and the warmup. These are the sources that shape the content of our recitation and lecture. We are recruiting other members of the department to come and visit the class to make this into a departmental communal effort. We want to give the students the feeling that we are doing this together.

Looking Ahead.

We have learned that work on the web extends the classroom, improves communication, allows for timely intervention and can drive the classroom experience. Web exercises can also build skills not traditionally emphasized in an introductory class. Students can learn estimation skills, they get exposed to dealing with ill-defined problems, they work in teams and learn to work toward reaching consensus. They practice communication as they defend their own approaches to problem solving.

The explosion of the WWW technology leads one to believe that in the future, WWW access will improve for all kinds of student populations, so perhaps this is the vehicle to provide increased educational opportunities for all students in the future. The World Wide Web technology also already provides the opportunity to make up seamless interactive instructional sessions comprised of materials from all over the world. For example, students might first take a diagnostic test found at a web site in Michigan. Then, based on their expertise level as determined in the diagnostic, they might be given instructional materials located in Florida. After completing those materials, they might proceed to work through a local assessment activity. The locations of the materials is transparent to the students, and the ability to access materials from anywhere opens up enormous possibilities for education. How these capabilities can best be used by students and educators to transform education is a question we in the education community have only begun to explore.


(1)Visit Alan Cairn's reference page

(2)"The Comprehensive Unified Physics Learning Environment: Part I. Background and System Operation," Computers in Physics, Vol. 6, No. 2, Mar/Apr 1992, p. 202-209.

(3) Karplus, R.,"Science Teaching and the Development of Reasoning"

J. Res. Sci. Teach. 14 (2), 169 (1977).

(4) For a much more complete and thorough assessment of the first semester of Cockpit Physics, contact Ms. Heidi Gruner ( or read her PhD dissertation when it becomes available.

(5) Sheila Tobias, "They're Not Dumb,They're Different", Research Corporation, Tucson, AZ, 1990.

(6)"Evaluating Conceptual Gains In Mechanics", Richard R. Hake, submitted to Am.J.Phys, preprint available (

(7) Visit the IUPUI course

(8) Halloun and Hestenes, Am. J. Physics, 53, 1043-1055, 1985.

(9) Mazur, E., "Peer Instruction: A User's Manual", Prentice Hall, 1996.