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In this section:

Designing online lectures

Wonder Questions: Engaging, motivating and illuminating students and teachers

Addressing the shortage of discipline-trained high school teachers

Active learning

Making effective educational videos


Designing online lectures

A/Prof. Liz Angstmann & Dr. Kate Jackson, UNSW School of Physics Colloquium, 4 December 2020

In this colloquium, Liz and Kate outline and justify how they set about making asynchronous, online lectures for Physics 1B (first-year course) and what their students thought of them. They discuss the most important points to consider when designing for online and provide tips to help others create effective online resources for their students. They conclude with their vision of the future of online learning.

Watch Liz and Kate’s presentation below:


Wonder Questions: Engaging, motivating and illuminating students and teachers

Dr. Christine Lindstrøm, The Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education (ACSME) presentation, 30 September 2020

“Write a Wonder Question for this topic. (A Wonder Question is anything you wonder about after having done the pre-work. It should be related to the lecture topic but does not have to be directly covered by it.)”

Christine has taught introductory physics courses using a Flipped Classroom design since 2012, and this question is always the last question on the pre-lecture quiz that her students have to complete before each lecture. It is by far the highest return-on-investment pedagogical tool she uses.

Wonder Questions are valuable in three ways: they force students to connect the new material with previous knowledge; they provide an insight into what students are interested in learning so lectures can be made more motivating; and they offer an opportunity to reorganise the course material presented in class in order to answer student Wonder Questions.

In this talk, Christine explains how she integrates Wonder Questions in her courses, gives several examples of Wonder Questions, and shows how she uses them to present and have students work with course material in a new light during class.

Watch Christine’s presentation below:


Addressing the shortage of discipline-trained high school teachers

Supporting secondary school teachers in becoming advocates for higher education

A/Prof. Liz Angstmann, Scientia Education Academy lecture, 21 May 2020

The shortage of high school teachers in certain subject areas can cause a ripple effect on students’ exposure to the various disciplines available in higher education.

In this Scientia Education Academy lecture, A/Prof. Liz Angstmann discusses initiatives that she has implemented at UNSW to reduce the persistent recognised shortage of discipline-trained high school physics teachers in Australia and worldwide. These initiatives, in turn, qualify and motivate the teachers to support students in engaging with STEM subjects at the university level.

Applicable across disciplines, three initiatives are explored:

  • Online Graduate Certificate in Physics, providing qualified Science teachers with discipline-based knowledge to effectively teach physics
  • Visiting Teaching Fellow program where school teachers are seconded to UNSW for a year
  • SciX – a program supporting students undertaking Science Extension.

While discussing her Online Degree Program, A/Prof. Angstmann will also delve into important features of effective online offerings.

Watch Liz’s presentation below:


Active Learning

“Active learning” is a term that, in its simplest form, means that the students are actively participating and thinking.

In December 2019, PERfECT ran a workshop at the School of Physics retreat on active learning. You can download the PowerPoint slides here.


Research shows that active learning works

It has been well established for over 20 years that active learning techniques lead to greater learning gains in students.

the impression I get is that it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data…It’s good to see such a cohesive picture emerge from their meta-analysis—an abundance of proof that lecturing is outmoded, outdated, and inefficient.”

– Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard University who has campaigned against stale lecturing techniques for 27 years and was not involved in the work.

Freeman et al. (2014) metaanalysed 225 studies on student performance in STEM courses under active learning versus traditional lecturing. They found that 12 percentage points fewer students failed in courses with active learning (22% fail) than passive traditional learning (34% fail). ​Both Freeman et al. (2014) and Hake (1998) show that students had greater learning gains on the Force Concept Inventory diagnostic test with interactive teaching methods. Interestingly, conceptually-focused, research-based teaching spends less time on problem solving, but results in students who are as good or better at solving problems compared to traditional teaching methods (Thacker et al., 1994; Jones et al., 2000)​.

Active teaching has also been found to double student engagement, increase attendance by 20% (Deslauriers et al., 2011)and double the probability that students completed a STEM education (Watkins & Mazur, 2013).


How to implement active learning

There are many ways to implement active learning techniques in the classroom. Some general principles include:

  • Thinking of the purpose of the class. For each class make a list of “learning outcomes”, this is a list of things you want students to be able to do by the end of class. Three to five points is ideal.
  • Switching back and forth between thinking about content and what the students will be doing. Plan out the content that needs to be covered and aim to not talk at the class for more than 15 minutes at a time.Think about what you expect the students to be able to do at the end; if you want them to be able to solve problems, get them to solve problems during class (or at least one or two of the steps in a problem).When you ask a question wait for students to answer, make sure you wait at least 10 seconds before answering it yourself – students need some time to think!
  • Trying predict-observe-explain​ activities. This works well when you have demonstrations linked to the content but can also be used when there is any result that could be considered surprising. Get students to predict (and commit to an outcome). Then do the demonstration. Discuss the explanation as a class.
  • Trying class discussions. A popular discussion topic on how what they are learning relates to the world around them. Possibly use props if you have relevant ones.
  • Having students solve problems in class. If you set a problem for students to solve in class then make sure you give them time to solve it. Walk around the class and see how they are going. For larger classes you can have them submit their answers online, for smaller classes you can just ask them what they got.
  • Using think-pair-share/peer instruction. Have students solve a problem and commit to an answer. Students then discuss with the person next to them. See if they can change their partner’s mind. Finally discuss as a class.(Mazur, 1997)​.
  • Trying a jigsaw​. Assign different parts or cases of a problem to different groups then mix up the groups so that everyone can see the answer to each case.
  • One Minute Paper or Muddiest Point Paper​. At the end of the lecture, ask either: “What are the two most important points from today’s session?” or “What was the muddiest (least clear) point from today’s session?” Give students 1-2 minutes to write brief responses to turn in anonymously as they leave the classroom. Address student responses either during the next class or online.

An example of implementing active learning is below:


Flipping Energy and Environmental Physics

Dr. Christine Lindstrøm transformed an Energy and Environmental Physics course at UNSW by utilising techniques including the “flipped” classroom, “just-in-time” teaching, and peer instruction. To watch Christine use peer instruction in her classes, click here.

In the flipped classroom method, first exposure to the course material happens outside the classroom before students come to class. This enables a shift from “content coverage” in class to focusing on the students needs (Bergmann & Sams, 2012).

Just-in-time teaching required students to complete some pre-work (usually an online test) prior to class to allow the teacher to gauge student level understanding of material and help design class to what students need help with. (Novak et al., 1999)​.

Christine collected data and analysed the effectiveness of the methods described above, and concluded that engagement with material in pre-work correlated with exam performance. She also found that students liked the active learning triad and felt they got more out of lectures when they came prepared, and that lecture attendance was uncorrelated with exam performance, which strongly indicates that many students who didn’t come to class weren’t lazy or not hard-working.


Active learning in honours

The lecturer (A/Prof. Julian Berengut, School of Physics UNSW Sydney) made simple screen capture videos of lecture content. Students were told to watch these before coming to lectures.​ An example of one of these videos can be found by clicking here.

During class, students asked questions about things that they did not understand in the videos.​ Julian used activities such as a jigsaw method where different groups of students calculated wave functions/probabilities for incoming, reflected, transmitted waves from a barrier.​ Julian gave students time to work on problems and circulated the room, talking to them.


Making Effective Educational Videos

One way to free up some class time to apply an active learning approach is by placing some of the content online in video format. Screen capture videos are very easy and fast to make. You can download instructions for how to do this on an iPad Pro here (iPad Pros are available for loan to physics staff at UNSW).

Watch the video below to see what UNSW students thought about videos in teaching.


Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. 2012, Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day,  Washington DC: International Society for Technology in Education, pp. 120-190.

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. 2011, Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class, Science, 332, 6031, 862-864.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. 2014, Active learning boosts performance in STEM courses, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 23, 8410-8415.

Hake, 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.

Jones, M. G., Carter, G., & Rua, M. J. 2000, Exploring the development of conceptual ecologies: Communities of concepts related to convection and heat, Journal of Research in Science Teaching: The Official Journal of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, 37(2), 139-159.

Mazur, E 1997, Peer Instruction: A user’s manual, Series in Educational Innovation, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Novak, G., Patterson, E. T., Gavrin, A. D., & Christian, W. 1999, Just-In-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Thacker, B., Kim, E., Trefz, K., & Lea, S. M. 1994, Comparing problem solving performance of physics students in inquiry-based and traditional introductory physics courses, American Journal of Physics, 62, 7, 627-633.

Watkins, J., & Mazur, E. 2013, Retaining Students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Majors, Journal of College Science Teaching, 42, 5, 36-41.