Enhancing Higher Level Thinking in Introductory Electricity and Magnetism Lab

Hyewon Pechkis and Paul Arpin

California State University, Chico

Department of Physics

Course Name & Description: Physics 204B: Physics for Students of Science and Engineering: Electricity and Magnetism.

Charge and matter, electric field, Gauss' law, electric potential, capacitors and dielectrics, current and resistance, magnetic field, Ampere's law, Faraday's law of induction, magnetic properties of matter, electromagnetic oscillations and waves. Calculus used. 3 hours discussion, 3 hours laboratory.

Project Abstract: We are planning to redesign our more traditional introductory physics Electricity and Magnetism labs to enhance students’ higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills, introducing physics education research based instructional technology (e.g. “virtual” experiments) into our labs, reducing DFW rates, and building a faculty learning community.


Instructional Delivery: In-class

Pedagogical Approaches: Flipped, Peer Instruction, Active/Inquiry-based Learning, Clickers, Learning Assistants

About the LIT Redesign (Stage 1)

Background on the Redesign

Why Redesign your Course?

  • Course Characteristics: We plan to redesign our more traditional introductory physics Electricity and Magnetism labs aiming at enhancing students’ higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills and introducing physics education research based instructional technology (e.g. “virtual” experiments) into our labs. In particular, we plan to:
    1. Revise the current labs into inquiry-based hands on activities with a student design component. We will follow the research-based Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) model (see more details at ) Students in ISLE laboratories design their own experiments to investigate new phenomena, test hypotheses, and solve realistic problems.
    2. Introduce research-based PhET simulations ( ISLE video experiments as “virtual” labs.
    3. Implement the research based Student Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-Down Pedagogies (SCALE-UP) model with computer-based instructional equipment, in which lab activities are closely integrated with lecture courses using multi-purpose equipment and software (see more details at The basic idea is to give students equipment and software to investigate on their own in a more independent environment.
  • The Learning Problem: The current PHYS 204B Electricity and Magnetism laboratory component utilizes traditional cook-book-type experiments. Nobel Laureate Carl Wiemann recently summarized a decade of research into traditional physics labs. Results from a broad spectrum of physics programs using traditional labs have shown that these traditional labs have no measurable impact on students’ understanding of physics concepts, problem solving skills, scientific reasoning skills, or attitudes towards physics (Holmes & Wiemann, in Physics Today, 2018). Given that the lab covers roughly 1/2 of student classroom time commitment in this course, we believe that this time can be used more effectively. In addition, many electric and magnetic concepts like electric charge, electric fields, and magnetic fields are abstract, it is difficult for students to visualize and measure them in a lab setting within limited time.

High Demand/Low Success/Facilities Bottleneck Issues

  • Physics 204B serves as a pre-requisite for many science and engineering courses. Historically the course has a high DFW rate (2016 Fall DWF rate: 26%; 2017 Spring DWF rate: 16%) and creates a barrier for many students to progress in their technical majors.

Course History / Background

  • Physics 204B is the second in a three part series on calculus based introductory physics. It is a pre-requisite for all upper division courses in the physics department and for many courses in engineering programs.
  • The pre-requisites for this course are one semester of physics (PHYS 204A) and second semester calculus (MATH 121). The Physics 204 series is often the first series of courses taken outside of mathematics which applies trigonometry and calculus intensively. Many students find this adjustment challenging. The low completion rate most significantly affects students in the engineering department as many have to repeat before proceeding with their major courses.

Pre-Redesigned Syllabus

About the Students and Instructor(s) (Stage 2)

Student Characteristics

  • Typical student distributions by major and class level are shown in the pie charts.

  • Due to the number of pre-requisite courses, students rarely take the course in their first year of college – the course is roughly half sophomore level students. The other half is split between junior/senior level.
  • A small percentage of the students are physics majors. 90% of the students take the course as a requirement for their degree in engineering.
  • Anecdotally, it seems 5 – 10% of students come into the class with some experience building circuits and using circuit components. Most have little to no experience relating circuit diagrams to physical objects on the table in the lab.
  • Most students come into the course with some exposure to ideas about electric and magnetic phenomena through everyday experience. The ideas are typically vague and imprecise. Many students will use words like charge, voltage, current, and electricity interchangeably.

Advice I Give my Students to be Successful

  • Multiple course components are employed to enhance student learning. Especially PHYS 204B, Electricity and Magnetism covers various abstract concepts in microscopic level that students can’t visualize easily as they could with 204A, Mechanics. Therefore, multiple course components are crucial in making students’ learning successful. First step is for students to complete pre assignment such as readings and instructional videos before the weekly laboratory and lecture. Second step is proactively participating in group work during the class time. Third, reviewing the lecture material and completing homework is essential, and students will review again the material through the exams. Computer simulations of physical systems will also help conceptualize the abstract course material.
  • The laboratory portion of this class is quite important, since it offers hands-on experience through which students learn the most. Students who are more actively engaged in the laboratory have a deeper understanding of the course material. Therefore, I always encourage students to be proactive and to be curious in the laboratory portion of the course.

Impact of Student Learning Outcomes/Objectives (SLOs) on Course Redesign

The focus the redesign is on creating a lab environment which enable students to use the scientific process to investigate physical phenomena in the context of topics electricity and magnetism. In the context of problems relating to electricity and magnetism students should be able to (taken from the CSU Chico Physics Department Learning Outcomes):

  • Explain physics concepts and laws to others.
  • Apply physics knowledge to solve real-world problems.
  • Represent physical concepts and processes in multiple ways, including diagrams, graphs, mathematical equations, and verbal explanations.
  • Build a model of physical situations, including making appropriate assumptions, simplifications, estimations, and mathematical formulations. Students should also understand the limitations of these models.
  • Design and implement experiments to empirically investigate physical phenomena including defining the problem, testing models, using instruments to make measurements, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions.
  • Evaluate the validity of experimental and/or calculated results.

Alignment of SLOs With LIT Redesign

  • We are choosing to focus on Learning Outcomes related to the process of doing science in the context of this course as we feel this better aligns our redesign with the published goals from the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) model.
  • By implementing more simulation pre-activities and SCALE-UP lab instruction, we will be able to align better with our student learning goal.

Assessments Used to Measure Students' Achievement of SLOs

  • How are you planning to assess the students' achievement regarding the SLOs?
  • What course activities are you planning to measure?
  • If you use an assessment rubric(s), please upload here.

Accessibility, Affordability, and Diversity Accessibility

  • We have written our course syllabi on the campus provided accessible syllabus template.
  • Many of the PhET simulations we plan to use have features to increase accessibility. The designers are actively working to improve accessibility (


  • The lab manual is produced by the department which helps reduce the cost to the students.


  • The laboratory is a very good platform for students to speak out freely compared to the lecture. Especially female students tend to be more active in laboratory, therefore the laboratory redesign will benefit those students greatly.

About the Instructor

  • Hyewon Pechkis - I am an experimental physicist in the area of atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) physics. In particular, I study ultracold gases, which are cooled to near absolute zero temperature using laser light. At these temperatures, we can study the quantum nature of matter and one day maybe able to use these gases to make quantum computers. As a teacher, I hope to inspire a love and appreciation for physics through direct engagement of students in interactive learning environments that convey the importance and real-world application of physics in our daily lives. One of my main goals is to inspire members of underrepresented groups in physics, such as women and minorities, to pursue careers in STEM fields.
  • Paul Arpin - I have taught in the Physics department at CSU Chico since 2014. My research experience includes ultra-fast spectroscopy, imaging, non-linear optics, soft x-ray optics, and energy transfer in light harvesting materials.

Curriculum Vitae

  • Our C.V. with the details of our background and interests are attached below.


HPechkis CV

LIT Redesign Planning (Stage 3)

Implementing the Redesigned Course What aspects of your course have you redesigned?

We are redesigning our more traditional PHYS 204B labs aiming at enhancing students' higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills by introducing physics education research-based instructional technology, such as PhET simulations, into our labs. We redesigned the activities not only to help students better visualize and understand abstract concepts and their relationships, but also to use them as “virtual'” experiments before, during, and after each lab to reinforce the lab learning experience.

The prior more traditional lab manual, gives students clear instructions for each step without requiring them to reflect or plan their own thinking about how to understand the physics. We want to create a laboratory environment that enables students to work more like a scientist and discover the physics principles not only the equations.

Example modification to incorporate inquiry based activities:

Placing Scotch tape on a plastic chair and removing it quickly it will become charged. Stacking two pieces on top of each other on the chair - removing them from the chair and then peeling them apart - they end up charged with the opposite sign. Doing this with two pairs of tape students can make observations and conclude that there are two types of charge and how they interact. We kept this lab in but modified the presentation to make a more inquiry based activity. We changed the order as shown below.

We let the students make a hypothesis based on the observation rather than proving the hypothesis that they were given. We then ask them to think further to answer harder questions such as - how do we know there are not three types of charge.

Example incorporating PhET Simulation:

Students are given a link to the PhET simulation shown below (Capacitor Lab PhET ). They are asked "What is the largest voltage you can create across the capacitor?" This can be determined by going back to equations or simply playing with the simulation. We hope this will help with conceptually challenging aspects of capacitors - in particular the role of the battery and the parameters of the physical capacitor.

We devised some of the PhET simulation prompts ourselves, but found many or were inspired by many from instructor resources available on the PhET website.

Describe the class size(s) What technology is being used?

In Spring 2019, two sections are using the redesigned labs and one session is following the traditional lab. The learning and the progress of students in three sections will directly assessed by comparing their scores on research validated pre- and post- tests which survey conceptual understanding and attititudes about physics.

As of Feb 12, we have performed three redesigned labs introducing PhET simulations. (PhET simulations are interactive, web-based, research-designed simulations of key concepts in physics, developed at the University of Colorado.) The effect of the redesigned lab has been already very apparent. We could see very clearly, that redesigned lab gives students much clearer understanding and easier visualization. Students try out the PhET simulation before, during, or after the hands on activity, which enhances their understanding in a much more interactive way.

What professional development activities have you participated during your course redesign?

We are utilizing the Learning About STEM Student Outcomes (LASSO). It is an online platform that support instructors to assesse the course by providing and administering many available research validated assesments. Dr. Ben van Dusen, who is director of Chico State Learning Assistant Program and LASSO platform has been giving us constant support on assessment part. Through the LASSO program, we have been getting support of Learning Assistants in the laboratory as well.

Which Additional Resources Were Needed for the Redesign?

Every semester, 6 sections of PHYS 204B are offered. To try out some sections of redesigned labs was challenging due to lack of space, and equipment needed to be shared by other sections. Therefore, we are limited in performing redesigned labs as freely as we wanted, though this will improve next semester as the scheduling better aligns with allowing a redesigned section and a traditional section.

(Upload your revised syllabus here)

Redesigning PHYS 204B
Redesigned Lab syllabus and a sample of redesigned lab(a sample of More traditional lab is also attached.)

LIT Results and Findings (Stage 4)

LIT Redesign Impact on Teaching and Learning

  • The LIT redesign was a learning experience for both instructors and students. Compared to a traditional approach where students are told the physical principles governing the universe, our inquiry-based approach allows students to “discover” the underlying physical principles. This puts more emphasis on the students in their role of learners with the instructor as a guide in their learning. It maybe a bit early to tell if our redesign strategy solved the issue that we have in the introductory physics course or not. However, I observed students’ attitude slowly began to change, and I think that it was reflected a bit more in the pre- and post-surveys of the course as well as in the final letter grade. The LIT redesign will be updated and improved throughout the  next semester. Eventually, it will be a great foundation for our transition to studio physics.
  • We note that the redesigned lab had the greatest impact on low-performing students whose grades improved as a result. However, we did not note any significant increase in the numbers of students earning top scores in the course.
  • The sample below shows the design component of a redesigned experiment. In this lab on capacitors, instead of the instructor or lab manual simply stating the relevant quantities that increase the capacitance of such device, students are to experimentally determine these quantities. They then compete to design and construct a device with the largest capacitance. Students are much more motivated and engaged in this type of activity compared to the traditional lab where they simply verify physical relationships.

Assessment Findings

  • Grade distribution for a sample pre-redesigned and redesigned course are shown below for the total count of students. We note that the number of students is similar (68 pre-redesign and 70 redesign) so the data looks very similar to a comparison of percentages. 

  • We have limited comparable data available at this point because the enrollment capacity of PHYS 204B recently increased from 48 to 72 in Fall 2018. 

  • This semester we taught two of the lab sections with the redesigned labs and one of the lab sections with the traditional labs due to constraints on the available equipment in the lab space.  

  • We administered the Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism - a research based conceptual assesment tool for introductory electricity and magnetism - through the Learning Assistant Alliance ( ) for comparison. The redesigned lab section showed a modest improvement over the traditional section (normalized learning gain of 0.3 compared to 0.26). The number of students is too small for this to be significant. We look forward to continuing this assessment over time.

  • In addition, other assessment tests, such as the Colorado Learning Attitudes About Science Survey for Experimental Physics (E-CLASS) and the Colorado Learning Attitudes About Science Survey (CLASS), will be administered next semester!

Student Feedback

Positive Feedback

  • “I think that doing a lab without explicitly being told what the result should be before performing the experiment was satisfying when we would come up with a prediction that turned out to be right once we made a graph or something.”

  • “One thing I loved about the labs were the fact that everything that was simulated was for the purpose of reaching a conclusion about that subject and it was somewhat of a puzzle.” 

  • “My lab section was the cookbook lab where we just follow directions. I did notice that during the labs it was easy to not have to think about what we were doing or how it related to class.”

  • “Sometimes I felt like the labs were too open ended and there was not always enough background information for why we were doing a particular experiment in the first place. Especially in regards to how to actually perform the lab, most of the equipment was brand new to me and I wish there was at least time spent on how to properly use it before starting the experiment.”

Critical Feedback

  • “Sometimes I felt like the labs were too open ended and there was not always enough background information for why we were doing a particular experiment in the first place. Especially in regards to how to actually perform the lab, most of the equipment was brand new to me and I wish there was at least time spent on how to properly use it before starting the experiment.” 

  • “The one downside was that sometimes it was confusing to follow along with the instructions and you go back to cook book mode in order to just get it done.” 

Challenges my Students Encountered

  • The open-ended structure is challenging for both students and the instructor. This is directly related to the culture shift for students. Having learning assistants was a very critical component for successful implementation. 

  • To implement the PhET simulations, having an individual computer/tablet for each student would have been ideal. Having one computer on one table for 4 students was not the best solution. However, the simulation portion could be used as a pre-lab assignment or homework assignment if we can’t provide a computer/tablet for each student.  

Lessons Learned & Redesign Tips

Teaching Tips

  • What advice do you have for others who might want to use this redesigned course?

Course Redesign Obstacles

  • There were practical constraints such as multiple sections taught in one room on one day. This became a problem in particular, since not all of sections are currently involved in the redesign. This will gradually resolve itself once we move and all sections are taught in the new format.
  • Difficult to fit in all of the desired changes.

Strategies I Used to Increase Engagement

  • Flipped Classroom was implemented that utilizes the small group work and learning assistants. Learning Assistant support was critical to our success and will be critical to sustained success.


  • We are going to continuously work on improving our resdesign course, by moving towards studio physics format. During the redesign, we tried to keep this in mind.  We designed activities could be readily broken into pieces. This will better align with learning cycles as well by doing more small, focused activities without the separation of course and laboratory portion.

Instructor Reflection

  • Collaborating on the redesign promoted good discussion between faculty teaching this course on where we want the course to go.  
  • The ePortfolio  was an important part of the process as it helped us formulate and structure goals for the course as well as reflect on what was successful and how to improve the course further in future iterations.