A Study of Early Intervention in a First-Year Physics Course Using Online Tutorials

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipientSarah Johnson, Department of Physics

Project team: Fatemeh Rostamzadeh Renani, research assistant

Timeframe: September 2012 to May 2013

Funding: $4,000

Course addressed: PHYS 100 – Introduction to Physics

Final report: View Sarah's final project report (PDF), which includes two student testimonials.

From the final report: "The ultimate conclusions we can draw from this study are that holding tutorials online does not improve student participation rates in optional tutorials and that online tutorials do not produce comparable results in student achievement to those observed for students who participate in in-person tutorials." Read more >>

Description: The Physics Department began its Early Intervention program in the Fall of 2008 to identify students in first-year physics courses who may be in danger of not succeeding.  During the first two weeks of the semester, students are given a physics and mathematics knowledge quiz. This quiz is typically worth 1% of the course mark and those who score in the bottom 20th percentile receive a 0 for the quiz.  Students can earn back the 1% by attending a fixed number of weekly hour-long tutorials that contain exercises designed to improve conceptual knowledge in physics.

Our studies have found that students who attend 4 or more tutorials in a given semester earn higher course marks than comparable students who attend 3 or fewer tutorials.  The main issue we have with this program is that student attendance at these optional tutorials is quite low.  For example, in Fall 2011 only 15/315 (4.8%) students attended 4 or more early intervention tutorials and fewer than half of these students (7) attended enough tutorials to earn their 1% back.  A survey of Early Intervention program students in 2011 and 2010 revealed that students felt they would be more likely to participate in an online tutorials.

In order to examine whether an online tutorial system would be a good fit in PHYS 100, we will test an online system during Fall 2012.  As in the past, eligible students will be identified with the same evaluation quiz and the opportunity to earn back the quiz marks via successful completion of 75-80% of the online tutorial assignments will be offered.  After the conclusion of the course, the final grades of students who participated in the Early Intervention Program will be compared to comparable students who did not participate or participated minimally. We will follow the same analysis methods we used in our previous studies of this program. Participation rates will also be compared with past years and we will track both online participation and attendance at the weekly office hours. In addition, we will conduct an anonymous survey of eligible students who did and did not participate to determine student attitudes towards the Early Intervention program and reasons for participation or nonparticipation.  We will compare the results of the survey with a similar survey given in the Spring of 2012.

Questions addressed:

  • Does offering online tutorials for Early Intervention increase the rate of student participation as compared to in-person tutorials?
  • Does offering online tutorials for Early Intervention produce comparable results in student achievement to those observed for students who participated in in-person tutorials in past offerings of PHYS 100?

Knowledge sharing: The aggregate numerical results of this study will be shared internally at SFU with the Physics Department.  

Johnson, S. (2014, May). A study of early intervention in a first-year Physics course using online tutorials, Poster session presented at the Symposium on Teaching and Learning: Provocative Pedagogy, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC.