Using Online Resources to Promote Active Learning in Physics Teaching

**The most recent version of this article is available at **

Go to previous version

Recently there has been a noticeable shift from teacher-centered science classrooms to various student-centered learning environments (SCLE) promoting student involvement. One of the strategies associated with SCLE is giving the students some measure of control over their work which should result in a feeling of confidence in the course and their ability to succeed in it. Since these strategies are new to both students and teachers alike, there is often a lot of uncertainty associated with the switch to SCLE, but few articles address this problem either directly through a discussion of its potential impact or indirectly through suggestions about implementation.

The goal of this paper is to shed some light upon effective use of a course web site, online homework service (HS) and other online resources for creating a greater feeling of confidence and security in a SCLE in undergraduate physical science (PS) classroom.

Why and How We Used Technology in the PS Classroom

There are multiple ways to use technology in support of student-centered PS classrooms. However, it is not always clear how and why technology supports SCLE, and what are the issues, which could be effectively addressed through its use. We will explore some of these issues in the following section.

Setting the stage: Engaging the students in the SCLE by reducing anxiety and increasing active control of their own learning

Research shows that student expectations have a direct impact on their achievement (Redish, Steinberg, & Saul, 1996), and a conflict between student-instructor mutual expectations may kill the best initiatives. Therefore, our primary goal in three sections (Ntotal=59 students) of the hands-on PS class were setting up course expectations, such as our intention to have students actively participate in the discussions about readings, experiments, homework assignments, and science projects. Moreover, knowing that nonscience majors often exhibit mathematics and science anxiety (Tobias, 1990), we hoped to use a course Web site as a vehicle in building a SCLE through:

  1. Reducing student anxiety and uncertainty regarding the course policies, expectations, assignments, and requirements.
  2. Decreasing the time spent on organizational issues in the classroom while increasing the time spent on student-student or student-instructor interactions. Continuously updated online class schedule included all necessary information.
  3. Supporting student time management during the semester, via carefully structured deadlines posted from the beginning of the semester.
  4. Providing students with an opportunity to share their concerns with the classmates and the instructor, and get ongoing feedback on their learning.

The goal of a PS course (Milner-Bolotin & Svinicki, 2000) was helping the students to rediscover themselves in science and rediscover science for themselves. The interactive course Web site suited this purpose perfectly. First, it contained accessible 24 hours a day a course syllabus explaining our philosophy, goals, evaluation procedures, and expectations. Second, it included a class schedule, important deadlines, information about the course project, the HS, interesting links about physics, and answers to frequently asked questions. Third, it provided an opportunity to everybody to express their opinions, concerns, and suggestions via e-mailing the instructor or posting a message on the electronic discussion board, which was a part of the HS we discuss later. Fourth, it allowed the instructors to respond to students' comments almost instantaneously through continuously readjusting the course, and showing that students' voices were heard and taken into consideration. Eventually, the course Web site became an online flexible framework for the entire course. According to the number and content of student postings, e-mails and comments about the course, this mechanism reinforced students' desire to become active participants and co-constructors of the course, having an ownership in creating a course that was effective for them.

However, like any other tools, a Web site has its own challenges, which might raise a stress-level for students and faculty. First, the students who did not have computers at home could access it only on campus. Second, a course instructor had to update the site continuously responding to students' questions and concerns: the site was always a reliable source of information, and the students were actively using it. Third, although it is relatively easy to create a Web site, it requires an initial time investment. We spent a few months planning the course, putting together relevant information, deciding upon the deadlines, making it user-friendly. However, our initial effort paid off. It saved us a lot of time later, time usually spent on rehashing and retelling the course requirements, assignments, grading, specific grades, and policies. Most of these questions were addressed through the Web site or via e-mail. In the course evaluation, the majority of the students mentioned that the active Web site was very helpful, and suggested keeping it in the future courses. From the instructor's perspective, it helped us stay focused on student needs and concerns via constantly adjusting the course based on immediate student feedback. We believe that a course Web site can be a first step in engaging the students in SCLE through helping them to take responsibility and ownership of their learning.

Using Online Homework Service to build student problem-solving skills.

Although, the Web site provided a framework for the SCLE and helped us gradually build course expectations, the real difference in the course was caused by using a HS. This online service was created at the Physics Department at the University of Texas at Austin. C. Fred Moore, Herbert Ward, several teaching assistants, and a high school physics teacher Patsy McDonald continuously update and improve this free but priceless service. Information on free adoption of the HS is available at Despite its name, the HS allows the instructors much more than creating, posting and instantaneously grading homework assignments, saving time for teaching and preparing for classes. It provides the instructors and the students with a virtual SCLE perfect for creating an interactive classroom. The students can work on their assignments online, or if they prefer doing it in a more traditional way, they can download all the assignments, and use a computer only for submitting the answers and getting instantaneous feedback. There is always a possibility to resubmit the answer. After the due date, they can download complete solutions to all the problems. The HS does not require having computers in the classroom. In addition, it has a few useful features that change the nature of learning environment. Some of them are:

  1. Personalized homework assignment: every student receives conceptually identical questions with different numerical values, so they cannot copy the "right" answer from the classmates.
  2. Student online access to their grades, to all the classroom statistics, information about all the course requirements, all the solutions and the statistics of their previous homework assignments, etc.
  3. A unique opportunity to discuss any science-problem with classmates and the instructor around-the-clock via an Electronic Discussion Board (EDB).

In this paper, we want to focus on one feature embedded in this service: an online EDB. Since one of the goals of our course was building a SCLE, we needed a tool supporting student-student and student-instructor interactions beyond the classroom walls. The EDB was a technological answer to this challenge. An EDB provides the students with an opportunity to post questions to their peers and the instructor and receive instantaneous answers. We observed that assigning conceptually identical questions with different numerical values reinforced student discussion of physics concepts as opposed to traditional copying of the right answers. Moreover, toward the middle of the semester more students were willing to participate in these online discussions, not as seekers of the information, but as equal contributors. Student increased competence and self-confidence in their problem-solving ability helped them to overcome the anxiety and become actively involved in class discussions. Taking into account that the PS students are nonscience majors, this observation is especially encouraging.

However, the EDB has its own challenges. The instructor has to build a culture of student online participation. In our course, the students actively contributing to the EDB were awarded with an extra credit.

Addressing the challenges of project-based instruction: Technology role in the project "How things work."

It is very important that technology use in science classrooms should have a purpose beyond teaching the students to use it. Although the latter sometimes might be a legitimate goal, we think of technology as a vehicle to achieve specific educational goals. One of the semester-long activities in the described PS course was a group project How Things Work. The project focused on student exploration of the physical principles embedded in appliances we use in everyday life. We described the organization, analysis, challenges, as well as student reflections on the project elsewhere (Milner-Bolotin & Svinicki, 2000) . It is important to emphasize that the everyday technology use in our classroom made the project possible without taking too much time from the traditional activities. For example, planning and organization of the project was managed via the Project Web site; the students were using multiple online resources, such as the How Stuff Works (Brain, 2000) Web site (see project resources on the Project Web site) to perform the literature review; instructor's time traditionally invested into grading homework assignments was spent on collaboration with the students on their projects.


In this paper, we described a case-study of online resources use in the student-centered PS class to encourage students to engage in control of their own learning so as to build confidence and alleviate concern related to the introduction of an unfamiliar instructional method. We believe that successful implementation of SCLE requires addressing the challenges such as effective course organization, time constrains, providing multiple opportunities for student-student and student-instructor interactions, access to necessary information, etc. We suggest that incorporating available online resources in the traditional classroom might address some of these challenges and make a big difference in student learning.


Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No1 Report One). Washington DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Burron, B., James, M. L., & Ambrosio, A. L. (1993). The Effects of Cooperative Learning in a Physical Science Course for Elementary/Middle Level Preservice Teachers. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 30(7), 697-707.

Ebert-May, D., Brewer, C., & Allred, S. (1997). Innovation in large lectures - teaching for active learning. BioScience, 47(9), 601-607.

Edelson, D. C., Gordin, D. N., & Pea, R. D. (1999). Addressing the Challenges of Inquiry-Based Learning Through Technology and Curriculum Design. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 8(3&4), 391-450.

Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64-74.

Meyers, C., & Jones, T. B. (1993). Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. (Vol. 1). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Samiullah, M. (1995). Effect of In-class Student-student Interaction on the Learning of Physics. American Journal of Physics, 63(10), 944-950.

Svinicki, M. D. (2000). Active learning in a large-enrollment classes .