Course Planning and Design

Here you can find an example syllabus that describes how I design a course with particular learning objectives in mind. I have also included as well as an annotated lesson plan with reflections on how that lesson worked in practice.

Syllabus for Introduction to Mechanics and Special Relativity

In the fall of 2015, I taught two discussion sections as a teaching assistant for Physics 1116: Mechanics and Special Relativity at Cornell. This course serves as a rigorous introduction to basic mechanics, and is intended for first-year students who are interested in physics and have a strong math and science background.

I have adapted and updated the syllabus from this course to incorporate more interactions between instructors and students during class time. I have changed the grading scheme to reward students for engaging the material during class time. I have also changed the homework sets to encourage students to focus on building complete, coherent arguments based in the material covered in class.

Learning Objectives

  • Apply the powerful conceptual tools of physics to solve problems and make predictions about the motion and interactions of everyday objects
  • Construct strong arguments that thoroughly explain and verify solutions
  • Collaborate with your peers to discuss and solve problems during lecture and discussion section

View Syllabus

Syllabus Annotations

  • Lecture Format

    To maximize student engagement during class time, this course will follow the format of a flipped classroom. Students will prepare for each class by reading the textbook or other provided materials. I will integrate a series of peer instruction questions into each lecture, and students will discuss these questions and respond to the instructor through a software tool like Learning Catalytics.

    During lecture I will also perform a series of demonstrations (or videos of demonstrations, at the very least) that will ground the material in observations and everyday experience. These demos will give students the opportunity to use physics to make predictions about how the demo will behave. Predictions can be recorded through Learning Catalytics so that both the students and I have a record of how well students understand the material in a real-world context.

    I will avoid long derivations during lecture. Often physics lectures get bogged down in the details of a long proof during class, using up valuable class time, to communicate a derivation that may be available in the textbook. In most cases, students are not expected to memorize or otherwise reproduce a proof, meaning that lecture is spent showing the students something that they will likely not think about or use again during the course.

  • Discussion Section Format

    Students will spend two hours a week in discussion section. For the first hour, the TA will give a brief (10 minutes maximum) overview of the material, and then will introduce students to the co-op problems for the week. Students will work together on co-op problems in small teams (4 students at maximum). Each co-op problem will be broken down into a series of steps that outline one way of approaching the answer to the problem. During this time, the TA will go around to each group in the room and listen in on how each group is progressing through the problem.

    For the second hour, the first half of class will follow the same format of the first hour. Student teams will complete and review their solutions to co-op problems. For the second half of class, the TA will administer a short quiz. This quiz will pose a problem that is very similar to one of the co-op problem. The purpose of the quiz is to ensure that students who complete co-op problems as members of a team are still able to reason out solutions on their own. This will also encourage teams to work carefully to make sure everyone can solve the problem.

  • Homework Assignments: Write-up Problems

    Students will spend a lot of time during lecture and discussion section solving simple problems. Homework sets will test their ability to solve more difficult problems, as well as train them to construct a well-reasoned argument.

    I spent two semesters of the 2015-2016 academic year helping to teach Cornell University's honors introductory physics courses (PHYS 1116 and 2217). My students were all very bright - when I talked to them in person about the material, most of them made a good effort to work through whatever they were working on. On their homework assignments, however, much of that understanding was obscured by confusing and incomplete explanations of their solutions. In some cases, I could not tell whether the student was confused about the material or simply how to explain it. In other cases, I knew that they knew what they were talking about but had neglected to justify certain assumptions or other choices.

    Given that for this course students will spend lecture and discussion time working on problems, I have chosen to assign write-up problems, which were an important component of the honors introduction to mechanics course. Each problem set included a problem that required students to clearly argue why their solution was valid. Students received points for solving the problem correctly as well as for giving a satisfactory explanation of their answers. I found that this kind of assignment is very effective at revealing students' thought processes when solving physics problems. It has the additional benefit that requiring written answers prevented students from copying their solutions from resources (such as CourseHero online) that provide complete solutions to textbook problems.

    To help students become accustomed to this format for homework sets (which will likely be very different from their work in high school physics), I provide them with a grading rubric that clearly defines the graders' expectations. I will also provide solutions to example problems that students may emulate. Students will get in the habit of writing down all of their assumptions; defining all variables and coordinates; drawing clear diagrams; and justifying steps by explicitly referring to tools and ideas from physics.

  • Expectations and Feedback

    For almost all of the physics courses that I attended in college, the instructors remained at a far distance from the students. Sometimes, instructors would go the entire semester without learning students' names. This may have been because some of us physics majors were shy, but also because there were few explicitly permitted channels for students to approach their instructors, or for instructors to get to know their students.

    Working as a TA, I have seen how shy my students can be. I have come to believe that decreasing the social distance between instructors and students will only improve the classroom experience. Keeping instructors and students separate can be isolating and may discourage students from seeking help or asking questions.

    For this reason, at the beginning of the semester all students will be required to meet in person with their TAs to talk about what they want to get out of the course. During this meeting, students may tell the instructor whether they intend to major in physics; their physics and math background from high school; what they hope to learn from the course. This meeting will help TAs get to know the students on an individual level so that they can help each student achieve his or her goals, as well as clarify the instructors' expectations for the students.

    Additionally I will adopt an open feedback policy (as described in the syllabus). Students will be asked to give mid-course evaluations so that I can learn more about how the course is going. Additionally there will be an official channel for anonymous feedback. In the event that a student has a legitimate complaint about the course, I will publicly respond to that complaint and try to adjust accordingly. If the student has identified something that must change, then we will take measures to change. If the request is unreasonable ("Can we skip this chapter?"), then I will still publicly respond but explain to the class why nothing will change. This policy should help lower the barriers to open communication between the instructors and the students.

Discussion Section Plan for Capacitors

I created this lesson plan for a discussion section in Electricity and Magnetism (PHYS 2217, Spring 2016). The purpose of the lesson was to help students gain intuition about capacitors using physics concepts that we had covered in previous weeks. This lesson came one week after learning about how ideal conductors add constrain to electrostatic fields and electric potential.

Learning objectives

  • Relate capacitance to fundamental electrostatic quantities: charge, electric field, and electric potential
  • Calculate the capacitance of conductors arranged in parallel-plate geometry
  • Calculate the energy stored in capacitors using electric field energy

Teaching methods

  • Short introductory lecture - review what a capacitor is, how we can characterize capacitors using electrostatics
  • Small group problem solving - students divide into groups of 1-6 and work on the assigned practice problems
  • Short concluding lecture - poll the class on their final answers to each practice problem, and discuss the solution methods used by different groups

View Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan Annotations

  • Incorporation of Demo Video

    I gave my students a break by showing them and discussing a video of what happens when you discharge a giant capacitor through a watermelon - the video dramatically shows the capacitor doing work on the watermelon, and so dramatically demonstrates that the capacitor stores energy. The students enjoyed the video, and we had a fun discussion about what actually causes the watermelon to explode.

  • Changes to the practice problems

    I also changed the framing of the questions somewhat in implementation: for each of the last two parts (energy after changing capacitor) I asked them to consider which quantities changed (V, sigma, E, C) - this forced them to use their previous answers to gain some intuition about how the different variables depend on the geometry, and also forced them to remember that V is always constant.

Physics GRE Test Preparation - Short Course

For the past three years I have taught a short course to help third-year and fourth-year physics majors prepare for the Physics GRE Subject Test. The course is intended to teach students strategies and tricks for solving complicated physics problems quickly (in the context of the exam). We also review certain topics (Statistical Physics, Atomic Physics, Particle Physics) that are not covered in detail in Cornell undergraduate physics courses.

The Physics GRE is unlike any challenge that physics majors have needed to overcome before - the exam requires the ability to quickly recall the physical concepts related to a wide variety of possible problems, as well as to perform rapid calculations. My course is designed to review the kinds of problems that students can expect to encounter on the test, with a particular focus on developing intuition that leads to more efficient problem solving.

You can find materials for the course here ».