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'Scaling up' the dropout rate for Physics department

Students and faculty hold contrary opinions on 'weed out' course

The class average is an F, over 10 percent of students have dropped and even those who dedicate their lives to studying end up failing the exams. That's Physics 191.

It's the first of a two-class series that every Engineering major at Miami University is required to take: PHY 191 and PHY 192. It's a class that impacts even the non-Engineering majors. They are the ones forced to listen to their friends weep for hours on end after getting their exams back.

Sound like a weed-out course to you?

A student in the class myself, I decided to investigate this issue. Why? Because in high school I was a straight-A student. In my one year at community college, I was a straight-A student. In fact, my final grade in Calculus 2 was over one-hundred percent. And yet, for some reason, I came five points away from failing my first physics exam.

It didn't add up to me.

So I wondered: are Miami's Physics professors intentionally making their classes unreasonably hard? Are they trying to weed people out?


Three years ago, the set-up of PHY 191 was completely different than it is now. Back then, all the students taking the course would come to the large, lecture-style classroom with their notebooks and pens, only to sit there and listen to the professor lecture and do problems from the front of the room.

But in 2014, the physics department decided to switch the class up, based on a system called ScaleUp, or Student Centered Active Learning Environment.

ScaleUp is what current students are used to. The room they sit in is different than it used to be. There are triangle-shaped tables, with room for three students at each side, nine students per table. There are about 100 students per class. And instead of the entire class period being a lecture, students now spend the majority of their class-time working together with their side of the table to solve "whiteboard problems" given to them by their professor.

Stephen G. Alexander, the chief departmental advisor for Physics and a professor of the class, said the department started working towards this shift eight years ago, with the assistance of Robert Beichner, the man who invented the Scale-Up method. Research shows that students learn better by doing. And that's the entire reason the switch was made: to help students understand the material better.

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Has it worked?

That depends on who you're talking to.

Adam Coon, a sophomore Mechanical Engineering major who took the course in fall of 2015 said, "I hated whiteboard problems. I wouldn't pay enough attention to understand the concept, so when I got to the whiteboard problem, my group and I would just stare at the whiteboard."

Kelley Patterson, a first-year student in the class last semester, had a similar structure to her physics class in high school, except the problems they would do on their whiteboards had been done the previous day in the homework.

"Doing the problems before doing them on the whiteboard, like in homework, really helps," she said.

But in PHY 191 at Miami, students are expected to know how to solve these "whiteboard problems" just ten minutes after being introduced to the concept and a few equations, with no previous example problems on which to base their work.


Another thing unique about the class is the structure of the exams.

The way most math and other Physics classes have their exams set up here at Miami are with mostly free-response problems. But PHY 191 exams have mainly multiple-choice questions. Why? Alexander said it's for efficiency. With a class of nearly one-hundred students, grading completely free-response exams is impossible.

This semester, the exams generally have 14 multiple-choice questions and two free-response. The thing that kills students on the multiple-choice portion of the exam is that it's either all or nothing. There's no in-between. And each multiple-choice problem is worth five out of a total of 100 points.

"I was frustrated with the multiple-choice exams, and that was the main thing that messed me up in the end. Like, I understood the concepts, but I would make a tiny mistake in the problem, and it would cost me five percent," said Ben Amend, a Physics and Math double-major.

In addition to hating the large weight these multiple-choice questions carry, students don't like how professors list answers that are often arrived at by a simple mistake along with the correct answer.

"The multiple-choice format is good because you get guidance on the questions, but it ends up trivializing the problem. The answers are designed to trip you up," said Nick Hutchison, a former student of the class.

And trip students up, these multiple-choice questions definitely do. According to Jennifer Blue, a professor in the physics department, exam scores became so bad after the switch to ScaleUp, that professors had no choice but to drop their students' lowest exam score.

How about it being a weed-out course now?

Weed out or not?

According to Alexander, the class is not a weed-out class. But in a survey of 38 students of the class, 35 of them claim that it is.

Why the disparity in views? Are students just not trying hard enough and unreasonably check-off their failing grade to the fact that it's a weed-out?

It all comes down to how one defines the term weed-out course.

"We don't have a set quota of people we need to fail the class like some medical programs do. The material is just challenging," Alexander said. "That's why so many people end up dropping."

In other words, he defines the term "weed-out course" as a course where the professor is actively trying to get a certain number of students to drop, something that PHY 191 isn't doing.

What's surprising, however, is that most students who define PHY 191 as a weed-out class agree with Alexander.

"I don't think they want people to drop. Professors are always doing their best to help us," said Colin Evans, a first-year Computer Science major who is taking part two of the class.

And yet, Evans still claims it's a weed-out course.


In simple terms, because people are being weeded out.

According to Grade Distribution statistics that Miami reports every semester, of the 482 non-honors students in the class last fall, 70 had dropped by the end of the semester. That's close to 15 percent. In Fall of 2013, the last year before the switch to ScaleUp, the drop rate was eight percent. The year before that was similar -- 9 percent.

"It weeds out the weak, whether that may be intentional or not," said Evans.