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Education and outreach

Students reject revamped physics degree

10 Dec 1999

A physics degree at a Swedish university that was revamped to make it more attractive to students has led to a 40% drop-out rate among first-year students. The course at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, was reformed in 1993 to improve students' problem-solving and communications skills. But the new modular degree was found to be too complex and fragmented, according to Shirley Booth and Ake Ingerman of the university's eduation and physics departments. Only one-third of the remaining students found the new course stimulating, while another third found it "grinding" and too hard.

In a series of interviews with a wide cross-section of students who remained in the physics programme, Booth and Ingerman discovered that many students could not adequately explain the links between the basic maths courses and the more advanced physics modules – for example, between Fourier analysis and electromagnetism. They explain that students do not understand the basic skills needed to become a physicist, while the intensive nature of the programme caused them to lose confidence in their abilities and to lose interest in physics itself.

According to the students, the lecturers would sometimes teach techniques that had previously been taught in earlier courses, or automatically assume that they knew the material to a more advanced level. “The major problem was the lack of communication between lecturers in different modules, whether they were in the physics department or not,” says Ingerman. The solution, he says, is for the lecturers in each module to discuss the skills required by today’s physicists, and “to help students relate physics to the outside world, for example, with hand-on experimentation.”

Lecturers in the UK agree. “These sorts of modular courses are very attractive to students,” says Jim Emerson from Queen Mary & Westfield College, University of London. But he points out that teaching staff need to plan the courses well. “With vigilance and careful organising by the teaching staff, who have lots of experience of this, we find modular degrees to be very successful,” he says.

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