Jessica Reames • editor emeritus

Spencer Carver • guest writer

The Rose-Hulman Physics Department has adopted the Mastering Physics program and e-textbook for use in the freshman physics curriculum. This software has advantages and disadvantages. Students currently enrolled in physics courses and the tutors who assist them when they get stuck have a lot to say about Mastering Physics.
According to the website for the computer application Mastering Physics, the program facilitates individualized tutoring, improved learning and grades, and provides insight for professors into their students’ performance. While this is certainly a possible outcome of applying the program in a course setting, speaking with Rose-Hulman students seems to portray the opposite effect. “There is no professor-student interaction and the program is all or nothing”, says Ethan Hixon, a supervisor at the Learning Center, “there are few hints, and often times the ones provided are unhelpful.”
The homework questions are immediately graded, which eliminates the need to hire graders, but the submission system is really picky about syntax, notation, and significant figures. From Carver’s experience working with the program, the hints are certainly a problem, but the bigger problem is the system’s answer system. Entering a value even slightly wrong (e.g. p1 instead of p1) gets marked wrong without any indication of why, or sometimes worse, with the message “the answer does not rely on the variable: p1.” Not only are these situations incredibly detrimental to the students, they are also very common.
On top of this, many of the questions provided by the program are purposely vague as a way to test if a student understands the concepts or simply only knows how to read an equation sheet. While this is a common technique and can be incredibly useful in the right setting, it becomes a glaring problem in Mastering Physics. The book is not as easy to navigate as is claimed on the Mastering Physics website, and many times the examples given in the book and in class have very little in common with the homework problems assigned.
While the customization provided by the program can be beneficial to professors, improper use can also cause the program to function worse than normal. “Some teachers mark off points for each wrong answer tried, and some completely forbid students to see the correct answer, even if they have used all their attempts” notes Jessica Reames, another Learning Center supervisor. While the former is not a problem, the latter completely negates the ‘resource’ aspect of the program.
Mastering Physics seems like it could be a great resource in the right setting. As it is still a relatively new piece of software in the Rose-Hulman curriculum, it is expected to be buggy. These bugs need to be ironed out quickly and some of the other features of the program should be utilized like the interactive tutorials, real world simulations, the ActivePhysics applets, and the math review. This would improve the experience and education of all the students who pass through the freshman physics courses at Rose-Hulman.

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