Choosing Course Resources: A Conversation with Paul Irving and Erin Campbell

Q: Is student learning compromised because you're using a no-cost system instead of the paid system for homework? 'No. We know it's not because we've measured. We've measured conceptual understanding across all the physics courses and we know for our class we have a substantially higher amount of learning.

We wanted to know how professors choose classroom texts and resources.  So we asked them. This is the third interview in a series of five conversations that we’re sharing as part of a blog series. We hope to spotlight some of the interesting ways our educators are making innovative choices to help us learn more and spend less. If you missed it, read the interview with MSU chemistry professor Melanie Cooper and the interview with associate professor of veterinary medicine, Ioana Sonea.


Interview Transcript:

Erin Campbell: Can you tell me about a meaningful text or course resource you encountered as an undergraduate?

Portrait of Paul Irving

Paul W. Irving, assistant professor of physics education

Paul Irving: I didn’t use a lot of textbooks as an undergraduate unless it was specifically emphasized that an exam was going to come from a particular set of questions in a specific textbook. I used an online resource, but it wasn’t a textbook. It was essentially an online homework program that had links to specific things that were related to that homework and they were often web links. I don’t feel that I had a lot of resources that I used a lot unless it was the notes that the lecturer gave me for the class.

Is there a particular resource that you still think about or one that influenced your thinking in a major way?

Can you clarify what you mean by resource?

Sure, by resource I mean anything from the websites or the links online you were talking about to a physical textbook. Any text or tool that supports learning in a classroom. 

I did a class that was a problem-based that involved a lot of ill-defined problems but then you’d get a solution at the end of them. These were all delivered by email to me when I was taking the class, and I still use them when I’m designing some of the material for my class now.

No book at all springs to mind in regard to helping me or that has stayed with me in anyway. I used a lot of random introductory physics books. I can’t say any one of them has influenced me in a major way. One website that I still point my students towards, I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s basically a physics website that […] that goes through a lot of introductory topics. There’s a lot of clicking through and it has some change this variable and it’ll show you what happens. It might be called Physics Classroom ( I do point my students to that. And occasionally I look at it to confirm my understanding of how these things connect together.

Can you tell me about the texts and resources you use in your course, Physics 184?

We don’t prescribe a textbook at all. What we did was, myself along with my colleagues, Danny Caballero and Daryl McPadden, wrote a wiki, which is the main resource for these students. This is a problem-based learning course where we put all of the notes on a wiki. That’s what we expect the students to refer to when they are preparing for class. A lot of that material is inspired by a textbook called Matter and Interactions, which was one of the first textbooks to include computational physics in it. So, it’s definitely inspired by that book and we do recommend that if students feel that they need a textbook that they should buy that textbook, but we don’t say that you have to get it because we are providing enough information on the wiki for students to use. The wiki includes notes, pre-lecture videos that are about 5-10 minutes long, examples problems, and problems that are written out and explained. So there’s all of those resources in one place.

How did you choose which resources you were going to put on the wiki?

It was very much based on curriculum design. These are the topics we are covering and so it’s broken into a week-by-week step, and so we basically did the same things for each week: about three or four pages of notes that were aligned with the topics the students have to cover that week. There would usually be a video for each set of those notes. So you could watch the video instead of reading the notes if you wanted to. Or you could do both if you wanted to compare and contrast what’s going on there. And then […] each set of notes has an example problem associated with it, sometimes two.

How integral do you think this wiki page […] is to the course’s assessment tasks?

Probably pretty integral. There’s a lot of [design] elements in the assessment. There’s pre-homework and there’s post-homework. The pre-homework is meant to [replace] lectures in this class. It’s a problem-based learning class. So, students don’t come in and ever get lectured at. They come in and start problem solving right away. So, there’s pre-class homework to encourage the students to read the wiki or look at the videos on the wiki so that they will be prepared to work in class. And then at the end of the week, the post-class homework is design to assess whether or not they’re able to apply what they’ve learned during that week. So, if you don’t read the notes, then you aren’t prepared for class.

So less supplementary and more like they need to do it to pass the class?

I don’t know. Again, it’s introductory to physics, right? So you can go anywhere for that material. It’s just that we’re speaking about it in a specific way. I wouldn’t say that you would absolutely need to read it in order to pass the class. I think a lot of students can get by without doing that.

What are the approximate resource costs for your students and is cost a consideration when you’re selecting resources?

Yes, we did the wiki because we don’t want students to pay for a book. It was a big part of our decision-making process. They didn’t have to pay for a homework system at the beginning. And then there was talk of the current system that we were using no longer being feasible. So we had to move to a paid system but now we’ve moved back to a non-paid system. One of the major decisions there was essentially the paid system was far too high for me to be comfortable asking students to pay for it to do their homework. That seems crazy. […] I come from a background where I was a first-generation college student. I never bought books. I used library books to study, and I don’t feel as if… especially in America and the cost of education, students shouldn’t have to buy books to take a class. So, there’s no cost involved as far as the resources we provide and that was a very deliberate move.

Do you think student learning is compromised because you’re using a no-cost system instead of the paid system for homework? 

No. We know it’s not because we’ve measured. We’ve measured conceptual understanding across all the physics courses and we know for our class we have a substantially higher amount of learning. […] You’re deciding the assessment, so you know what supports student learning to do those things. […] So as long as you do that, you’re never gonna be at a deficit model. […] I think if that [learning being compromised] is the case, you’re poorly designing your classroom. 

Where do your students buy or obtain resources for your class? Of course, this is a little different since you have the wiki.

Well I’m sure some students use Chegg or whatever in order to do some of the homework. That’s not a resource that we want students to use, because the homework is designed to support their learning. But I know that students do that. That’s just the way things are. They don’t have to buy that or anything else either. All of our material is available for free that we give out. So, anybody could go on to the wiki right now and review our material. If you want to teach using our material, you just have to ask us for a login and we’ll give you the backend login that’s not student facing. 

Do you think there are any difficulties or delays in students getting those resources for the course?

No, we do a presentation at the beginning of the semester because we teach the class in a very different way. It’s sort of a warning label which is like if you don’t want to learn this way there are these lecture-based courses and it’s totally fine to switch over. And in that presentation, we highlight the fact that these are the resources that are available to you. Then I always send an email after that presentation with all of the links that they need to get themselves going. And there are still students by the second week haven’t figured out that there is a set of notes, but that’s pretty much their fault because they’re not listening. […]

Will students find the course resources valuable beyond the course itself?

That’s a good question. I don’t think I know the answer to that. I would like to know whether or not students refer back to those materials in order to prepare for the new classes that they’re taking. I think we provide a lot of scaffolds for doing well in other classes, but I feel as if those are problem-based learning approaches and planning and sort of project learning and stuff like that, that are not built into the resources themselves. So, I guess I’m unsure. I would be interested in knowing that myself. 

But because it’s on the internet, hypothetically, they could access it whenever down the line. 

Absolutely, they have access to it. The thing that they don’t have access to is the problems themselves that we use in the course every week. So, after the end of the semester we basically hide those problems themselves and that’s just a function of we can’t give out all of the material in regard to what the students are doing in class, because then they could prepare in advance, which is not necessarily a problem but it’s just not an ideal situation.

So how do you think the students feel about the course resources?

I feel as if I have some insight for that because we get our SIRS evaluations. I think they are generally satisfied but there’s always a few students who want more of everything. So, I don’t get the feeling from the SIRs forms that we’re not providing enough. I get the sense that some students don’t know how to use the type of resources that we’re providing. Which is why we say at the beginning of the semester, “if you want a textbook or you need a textbook to feel comfortable, here’s the textbook that you should have.” And that’s fine. […] 

I guess one of the things that we are trying to do is that this is not the be-all end-all of the resources available to you. Our class is very much built in this age where you can google stuff in class and that’s totally fine to solve these problems. So that’s actually totally acceptable when it comes to doing your homework as well. Just don’t rob yourself of the opportunity of actually solving these problems by looking up a solution because that’s not going to do you any good when it comes to taking the exam. 

Do you discuss with students how and why you selected certain resources over others? 

We try and do a lot of messaging around why the things that are in the wiki are there. We try and do a lot of messaging around the fact that you have a computer, reality is that you will always have a computer, so that is a resource that you should be using to prepare for class. We communicate in the first class that we do. Basically, we give a 40-minute presentation […] we explain why we are doing all of the things we are doing and providing these things […]

You said you give students a warning, “.This is how our class will go and it’s not a typical lecture, so if you want a typical lecture you should switch.” Do a lot of students switch?

For [184] we haven’t had a single student drop or switch out. In the 183 class, you usually get about three or four students who didn’t realize what they signed up [for] and they try and switch out. 

With regard to required reading, what’s a reasonable weekly volume or load for your course?

I think what we specify it out as is it’s essentially four wiki pages […] I would image it’s about 7-8 pages of a book. […] They can choose to watch the videos instead. The videos, if you were to add them up, would probably be about 24-25 minutes. […]

How do you determine that amount?

It was a negotiation process between how much we think is feasible to cover in this weekly period when we’re doing these two problem-based learning problems within that week. And then how much notes do we have to provide in order to be able to support the students to do that. […]

Are these expectations that you have in your course comparable to those that you encountered as a student?

Ha! No, I was expected to do way more. […] Compared to what I experienced as an introductory physics student they are very similar. But compared to what I experienced later on with more upper division physics topics, [the similarity] is a lot less. 

Do you think you were able to reach those expectations in your undergraduate courses?

I picked and chose sort of what I would expect what my students to do here. […] I would do what I felt made me feel comfortable in order to interact with the class that week. So, I felt as if it might have been 80% of what they expected me to do. 

Interesting. So, in your experience, does the choice between digital and physical texts matter to 21 century students. And how so?

It’s hard for me to say that. I don’t think I have a good student perspective on what they think you use a textbook for. […] When I use a textbook for resource purposes, it’s nice to just do a search rather than use the index to find the page and then, indexes are general, so it’d be within a five-page region. That seems like it would be handy […] I feel as if I skip between paper and digital things all the time and I’m not sure if I’ve made up my mind of what I prefer. 

Have your thoughts on course resources changed over the course of your teaching career?

I think they’ve been pretty much consistent. […] Again, I feel it’s weird to pretend that the internet doesn’t exist and I’m fine with it existing and people using that to prepare for a class. I think it’s a similar level, I just want students to…  I feel as if I wasn’t told to pretend like the internet wasn’t existing and I don’t want students to pretend that way either. 


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