The Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model has been developed to improve the problem-solving skills for incoming engineers and health science students within the University of Cincinnati. At its core, the introductory physics courses are not only required for critical content knowledge to be used in students’ respective disciplines, but also to enhance the problem-solving skills inherently needed to pursue careers in STEM and health science. While there has been strides to develop these wide arrays of skills within the physics lecture classrooms, the complementary lab sections for the course have failed to enhance these skills.
The Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model was developed as a tool to assist in the reevaluation of current introductory college physics courses at the University of Cincinnati, which include both algebra-based and calculus-based College Physics I and II. A variety of subjects are covered in these courses, including Newtonian mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and thermodynamics. Although engineering students take calculus-based physics and health science students take algebra-based physics, the method of instruction for both is almost the same within lectures and labs.
Within the physics lecture, students are constantly reminded to develop their own problem-solving strategies when approaching their work. Essentially, the students should develop a method when they are “stuck” on a problem in order to get “un-stuck”. These physics courses are required during the first couple of years of a student’s college career so that they can incorporate these skills to more rigorous courses in their future.
Within the revised physics lab, students will be able to apply these problem-solving skills in another setting, while also promoting subordinate skills necessary for achievement in scientific research. The students will be able to learn collaboration skills, inquiry-based learning as a means to promote problem-solving strategies, and work in an environment in which they are offered the chance to translate concepts from their lectures into tangible experiments.
The target audience of this course are undergraduate engineering or health science students. For many, this is their first science course in college and may be radically different from the education received during high school. Most students taking this course have some experience in other science laboratory courses or may be taking another lab course within the same semester. A larger percentage of the student population studying engineering are men compared to that of the student population in health sciences.
Other Key Elements
This course will take place in the titular setting in which the design model was named – inside a physics laboratory classroom. Within this setting, students will have access to modern computers to take data and record thoughts and responses. Students will also have access to modern equipment that is used in other laboratory settings within the professional world. A group of students will be housed at each table within the room, forming small groups that will compare results with one another. The classroom, in general, hosts an open space that promotes collaboration between student groups, allows greater physical space for experiments, and permits the instructor to easily travel between student groups.
Instructional Context Setting
The skills learned within this course can be translated to several other aspects of the students’ lives. Some students will undoubtedly work in a research laboratory at some point in their undergraduate career, especially if they are considering applying to graduate school. Other than this, the lab will promote information retention and problem-solving strategies for exams in their lecture course, especially since most exam questions are practical, real-world questions.
The Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model is geared toward promoting higher-order thinking skills that are absent from other adult learning models. This design model was created to be used as a tool to create curriculum, and not necessarily to create education technology. For the most part, the physics labs at the University of Cincinnati are well-equipped with all hardware and software necessary for student success. This instructional design model does not follow the template of a dynamic, rapid prototyping method but rather a linear, clearly defined model for course development.
Within higher-education, there are usually clear standards as to what students should achieve in terms of content retention. What most faculty need to achieve in their lab courses are designing creative learning activities using proper equipment in conjunction with their university’s learning management system. Combining clear learning standards, existing lab resources, and creative learning activities amounts to success within this learning model.
The Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model consists of four main parts. At the beginning of the model, the instructional designer is conducting an analysis of the students and resources and is defining the learning goals of the instructional session. These three key pieces of data do not need to be completed in any order, as the collection of one of these will not influence the other. Once the instructional designer gathers these pieces of information, they can create the performance objectives for the lesson. The performance objectives created by the instructional designer relies on the information gathered from the first stage of the model and must be completed before the instructional designer can continue to the third stage of the model, so it exists by itself.
After the instructional designer has formulated their performance objectives, the next task is to both design a learning activity and develop instructional strategy. Both these steps can be completed in conjunction with one another, or as a result from one another, which is why they are grouped together in this design model. Finally, after the first three major parts of the design model are completed, the instructional designer performs formative evaluations on their instruction. If the instruction is deemed incomplete or worth revising, then the instructional designer returns to the first step in the model and continues to adjust.
If the instruction is satisfactory, the instructor carries out their instruction, and summative evaluation is carried out in order to determine if the instruction is worthwhile. As mentioned previously, the model has been designed to follow a linear fashion and assumes information inherent to higher-education science laboratory curriculums. To get a better understanding of each aspect of the Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model, let us take a closer look at its individual parts.
Part I: Analysis
In the first part of the design model, the instructional designer must conduct an analysis on a couple of key items necessary for the success of their instruction – the learners, resources, and learning goals. For the most part, the instructional designer is aware of the general population of students entering the first-year physics laboratory classroom at the University of Cincinnati. The students are usually engineering or health science majors (depending on if the physics course in which they are enrolled is algebra-based or calculus-based) and may be entering a college-level laboratory course for the first time in their post-high school academic careers. However, the instructional designer should still conduct a learner analysis of this population in order to gather additional information.
Information that would be important for the instructional designer to gather before Part II of the design model would be the students’ prior knowledge of physics, attitudes toward content, entry behaviors, education level, and group characteristics (Dick, Carey & Carey, 2005). Although the sheer number of students enrolled in the physics laboratory courses may make it challenging to adjust instruction to different demographics of students, this data is still necessary for the general design of the laboratory learning activities. This data could also allow the creation of flexible laboratory activities if there is only a small student population enrolled in the course.
The instructional designer should also analyze the resources available to them that can be used in physics laboratory learning activities. Most higher education laboratories have relatively modern equipment that can be used by students, but instructional designers should keep stock of the amount of equipment available, the state of the equipment, and the technical knowledge required to operate the equipment. Failing to do this can result in frustrated students who are not able to complete their lab because of factors out of their control, which will certainly set a precedent with them for future lab courses. In addition to taking stock of lab equipment, the instructional designer should consider integrating their university’s learning management system into the instructional session.
Finally, the instructional designer should create learning goals that they would like their students to achieve. This step should be completed with respect to the content being taught in the students’ physics course. In general, Part I of the design model is not incredibly challenging for the instructional designer, as much of the necessary information for designing their lesson is consistent every semester. The challenging part comes with designing and implementing successful learning activities.
Part II: Performance Objectives
After the instructional designer has completed Part I of the design model, they can formulate performance objectives for their lesson. Based on the demographics of the learners, the availability of resources, and the defined learning goals, what should students achieve by the end of the lesson? Writing down the performance objectives outlines the learning activities the instructional designer will develop and sets clear expectations to both the instructor and the students regarding what should be accomplished by the end of the lesson. Defined performance objectives will also be helpful in determining the proper methods of evaluation for the students if they have successfully performed the desired skills (Hack, 2016). In the first-year physics courses, this usually amounts to student success on exams and consistent success in the lecture course.
Part III: Designing Instruction
After the completion of the first two parts of the Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model, the instructional designer can begin constructing learning activities and developing appropriate instructional strategies. In this part, the instructional designer can complete either step first or complete both steps in conjunction with one another. Here, the instructional designer’s preferences in one step will most likely influence the design of the other step, so it is best to complete these at the same time. The instructional designer should review each performance objective in order to determine the best instructional strategies and learning activities (Hack, 2016).
Traditionally, the learning activities for physics laboratory courses followed a very predictable format. The students would have an experiment set up for them, they would change factors within the experiment, then record the results. This would repeat several times depending on the number of variables involved in the experiment, but the premise of the lesson was the same between classes. Unfortunately, this does not lead to developing inquiry-based learning or rational problem-solving skills, but simply the ability to follow directions and record data. There have been positive revisions in physics lab courses, where the students would have to make predictions and compare those predictions with the actual results. However, if the instructional designer aims for challenging students and developing skills for success in the laboratory, they must revise this typical course design.
The design of the learning activities for the physics laboratory course goes hand-in-hand for the development of proper instructional strategy. There may be some experiments that require a heavy amount of instructor support because of their complicated nature. There also may be a lesson that is designed to allow students free reign of experiment design and implementation where the instructor merely acts as a facilitator. With laboratory courses, there can be an incredible amount of freedom in how students should approach an experiment, and what they should achieve at the end of the lesson.
Part IV: Evaluation
Finally, after the instructional designer has created a nearly complete lesson from start-to-finish, the next part of the design model requires them to obtain data to improve their lessons. Since laboratory courses are very kinesthetic in their delivery, one of the best methods to understand if a lesson is going to be successful is for the instructor to run a field trial of the planned physics laboratory lesson. For best results, the instructional designer should select learners that fall into the typical demographic of students in the physics laboratory course.
While the field trial is being conducted, the instructional designer can observe the learners participating in the lab for any noteworthy behavior, such as confusion over equipment usage, motivation levels throughout the lesson, and the instructor’s ability to follow through on the instructional designer’s lesson. On top of this, the instructional designer can also design short assessment materials for the learners in order to ascertain key behaviors and skills that need to be taught (Dick, Carey & Carey, 2005). After the field trial is conducted, the instructional designer can choose to return to the Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model to revise their instruction or release the instruction for use in the classroom. In time, summative evaluations can be performed on the effectiveness of these instructional materials in the classroom for meeting the instructional needs in the physics lab course.
Application and Implementation
This design model will be introduced to the algebra-based and calculus-based physics laboratory courses that are taught during both the fall and spring semesters at the University of Cincinnati. The Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model will be used to create learning activities that promote inquiry-based learning, rational problem-solving methods, and professional laboratory skills that will directly translate to the lecture portion of their physics courses as well as in their professional lives. The students will truly develop these skills when the physics lecture and lab course are in sync with their learning objectives.
Since each lab section has a class length of almost three hours, there is plenty of time to create a comprehensive learning activity. Students will ideally be given more learning activities where they can utilize problem-solving strategies and translate knowledge from their lecture course rather than following a step-by-step guide which would only require them to follow simple directions.
Strengths and Limitations
The Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model is a great instructional design tool in some cases but may not be so effective in other situations. This design model will be effective if used with passionate instructors and graduate assistants, who will have the flexibility to adapt the instruction considering the amount of time available to deliver the lesson. However, the design model may not provide enough direction for instructors who are pressed for time and may end up defaulting to the traditional delivery method in physics lab courses. Generally, this design model works best with instructors who have large student populations and many resources at their disposal to utilize in their lessons. So, this design model might not be as effective for smaller student populations or at higher-education institutions lacking adequate laboratory equipment.
Another aspect of the Physics Laboratory Learning Design Model is its linear format. I felt that the structure of higher education limited the design model to only be cyclical between semesters, meaning that revisions to the original learning activity really cannot be put into practice until the next semester. For busy instructors, the linear nature of the design model makes it easier to create lessons, and then revise them for the following semester. This design model may not be suitable for instructors that have the time and freedom to constantly prototype and redesign lesson plans throughout the semester. Finally, this design model is, for the most part, designed to create curriculum, not instructional materials. So, any instructional designer that would like to apply this model for designing instructional materials will not be very successful.
- Dick, W. Carey, L. Carey, J. O. (2005) The Systematic Design of Instruction (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon
- Hack, G. (2016). An Instructional Design Model for Blended Higher Education. Journal of Learning and Teaching in Digital Age. 1(2), 2-9.