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PERL professors publish paper about LA approaches to teaching computational physics problems

PERL alumna Alanna Pawlak and PERL professors Paul Irving and Danny Caballero published Learning assistant approaches to teaching computational physics problems in a problem-based learning course in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: An increasing number of introductory physics courses are seeking to incorporate “authentic practices,” and a large area of focus in this trend is the incorporation of computational problems into the curriculum. These problems offer students an opportunity to engage with the programming practices and numerical problem-solving methods used by physicists. Understanding how instructors approach teaching such problems is essential for improving instruction and problem design. We conducted a phenomenographic study using semistructured interviews with undergraduate learning assistants in a problem-based introductory mechanics course that incorporates several computational problems. The learning assistants’ prior involvement as students, along with their relatively fewer experiences with programming and physics compared to the faculty instructors, give them a unique perspective on teaching in the course. We present here the results of our analysis: the identification of four approaches that learning assistants make take to teaching computational problems in this course. These approaches, programming focus, learning physics via computation focus, computation as a tool focus, and shifting perceptions of learning focus, provide a lens for understanding the different ways learning assistants perceive computation, the degree to which they take up course-intended learning goals surrounding computation, the factors that may impact the approaches they take, and how we might affect their approaches through training and support.

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