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Effectively Moving Away from Traditional Proctored Exams in First-Year Physics Courses: Part Two

Post by 2020–2021 BCcampus Research Fellow Meghan Costello. Read Meghan’s first post.

Since the shift of many university courses to online delivery modes, academic integrity has become an increasing concern for many instructors. This is an issue particularly in mathematics-based courses such as physics, where the solution to virtually any calculation problem can be looked up online. As part of my BCcampus Research Fellows project, I have been looking at the effectiveness of having students in my online physics courses explain some assignment and exam questions via recorded video. My findings suggest that, in addition to encouraging academic integrity, the video-explanation questions help students acquire a deeper and longer-lasting understanding of the course concepts.  

In this article I focus specifically on the implementation of the project in my condensed six-week online General Introduction to Physics course. I found it best to assign one video-explanation question per week — four on weekly assignments (including an initial “introduce yourself to the class” video) and two on weekly quizzes — as well as one on the final exam. This frequency allows the video-explanation questions to cover most of the key topics in the course. I feel that a higher frequency of video-explanation questions could be overwhelming to students, as these questions do take more time to answer as well as to record.  

Diagram of a square made of dotted lines. There are 2 "L's", one on the left side of the square and one on the bottom side. Letters are seen at each corner of the square. Beginning from the top left corner we see a + sign with "2Q" written above it, then on the top right corner a + sign with "Q", the bottom right corner is a - sign with "-2Q" and the bottom left is another + sign with Q.

My video-explanation questions do not involve simply talking through a calculation but rather are broken into steps that require students to explain the reasoning behind the approach they have chosen. For example, students were given the following figure and asked to record a video in which they explain how to do the following:

  1. Draw a diagram that shows the direction of the electric field created by each individual charge at the centre of the square.
  2. Explain how to use your diagram to find the direction of the net electric field at the centre of the square.
  3. On the Physics 115 Equation Sheet are two equations that involve electric field. Which is the correct equation to use to find the magnitude of the electric field at the centre of the square, and why?
  4. Find the magnitude of the net electric field at the centre of the square. 

Could a student who was so inclined still upload this type of question to a file-sharing website such as Chegg? Yes, but in addition to the fact that such a student’s lack of understanding usually becomes apparent in their video, I have found the ability of online “tutors” to explain the theory behind the calculations is somewhat lacking. For example, I uploaded to a popular file-sharing website a basic physics problem that involved a car moving due to a constant force. Part of the assignment asked, “Can the kinematic equations be applied to the motion of the car? Explain why or why not.” As anyone who has taken any level of physics course may recall, the kinematic equations apply whenever acceleration is constant. However, the answer provided by the website’s expert study tutor was “The kinematic equations are used to describe and solve the motion of an object moving according to the laws of physics. As such, the body moving along a horizontal path can be described by those equations.” I would like to point out this answer is both incorrect and very distinct.

Overall it seems the benefits to students of creating video-explanation responses stem from the fact that explaining a concept in words requires a deeper understanding of the underlying theory than simply performing a calculation. In my General Introduction to Physics course, I gave an anonymous end-of-course survey that included the following question: “Do you think having to explain some questions via recorded video had any effect on your understanding of the course concepts?” Of the 11 students who answered, eight indicated that having to explain their reasoning via video improved their understanding of the material. Here are two examples of such comments:

  • “I think talking through the concepts and having to explain them is one of the best ways to learn. It makes you more aware of what you do and do not understand and where you can improve.”
  • “Yes, I believe the video questions made you think about what you are doing and why rather than just copying steps from example problems.”

This is consistent with other feedback I have received, including students who mentioned they remember the video-explanation concepts much longer than those of regular assignment questions. 

An unexpected side benefit of this project was the effect it had on my teaching. When delivering a regular face-to-face lecture, the instructor gets a good sense of whether the students are engaged by watching their faces. An instructor lecturing online can feel more uncertain about whether their students are following along. Watching students’ videos and hearing them explain course concepts in their own words provides reassurance they are indeed grasping the material. Also, each cohort of a class is slightly different, and the video-explanation recordings give an instructor feedback on which concepts a particular class is struggling with. My experience is that these things do not become obvious from simply marking written calculations on a traditional physics assignment.  

Over the course of the project, I found students should be provided with certain key instructions before they record their videos: 

  • Suggested length for the video (e.g., roughly five minutes). Of course, the actual videos students record will vary in length, but it is helpful to communicate to students that they do not need to record a 25-minute video in which they discuss every conceivable aspect of the problem!
  • I encourage students to write out their calculations first and then explain them in their videos (rather than writing while recording), as this speeds up things considerably. I also reassure students I do not expect a perfectly edited video. If they fumble a word or realize they made an error, it is perfectly acceptable to correct themselves and keep going rather than rerecord the entire video.
  • I clearly communicate to students that to obtain marks for the video-explanation questions, they must submit a video in which they appear (i.e., they must show their face at some point in the video).  

In speaking about my research, I am often asked whether I think it is feasible to continue with video-explanation questions when classes return to face-to-face delivery. I agree the return to in-person exams helps level the playing field, as any students who have been copying assignment solutions directly from the internet do not fare well on proctored exams. However, I do feel that with all the technology and expertise educators have developed over the past year and a half, the potential exists for some classes to successfully remain online (e.g., a six-week condensed summer course where students are also juggling summer jobs). In an online course I believe the incorporation of video-explanation questions is an effective method of both encouraging academic integrity and increasing student engagement. I have enjoyed developing these questions, and student feedback suggests that overall my students have found them to be a worthwhile investment of their time.

This research is supported by the BCcampus Research Fellows Program, which provides B.C. post-secondary educators and students with funding to conduct small-scale research on teaching and learning as well as to explore evidence-based teaching practices that focus on student success and learning. 

Meghan also summarized her project in this video:

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