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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

New Mexico State University

Overview, Case Study Physics


Overview, Case Study Physics, is a "spiral form" of instruction in introductory physics based on the last two decades of cognitive and physics education research. The course is divided into a small number of conceptual blocks. Each block begins with an overview in which students construct or acquire a qualitative understanding of the basic physical processes under study using diagrams and graphs. In the second part of the block, students learn the mathematical representations of the same concepts, using words, sketches, diagrams, graphs and basic equations. They then learn to shift back and forth between the various forms of representation. Following this "exposition" section, students solve case study problems involving the integrated use of knowledge introduced earlier in the course. The overview-exposition-case study process is then repeated for the next block of material. Throughout, students spend the majority of the class time working together in small groups.

Innovative Features

Instruction systematically incorporates pedagogical techniques whose validity has been consistently confirmed: active learning; collaborative learning; presentation of subject matter in a variety of forms, both qualitative and quantitative; presentation of ideas in successively more sophisticated forms at increasing levels of complexity; and careful sequencing of ideas.

The course approach is presented in a study guide and a set of 300 Active Learning Problem Sheets (ALPS). The former supplements the standard text, and contains materials for the overviews, activities to support the multiple representation problem solving, and case study problems.

The ALPS Kit helps students organize their thinking, reason qualitatively about physical problems and change the representation of a problem. It can be used for collaborative learning during the class period, for homework assignments or for quizzes. Some of the case study problems require students to divide problems into parts and give definition to poorly defined problems, thus giving students experience at the introductory level in solving unstructured problems.


Strikingly superior student performance using the overview, case study (OCS) approach as opposed to standard lecture approaches has been demonstrated in five institutions of different types. In courses using standard strategies, student gains in understanding, as measured by pre- and post-tests, are small and independent of instructor style and ratings. Gains registered by students in OCS courses, on the other hand, are not only several times greater, but 75-80% of those who begin the course finish it, as opposed to about 60% in the conventional courses.

Other studies of the comparative results of the OCS approach have shown that:

  1. OCS students do better than traditional students in absolute end-of-course test scores.

  2. Students taught with the OCS strategies retain their learning better, as measured by a diagnostic test given at the beginning of the second semester course two semesters after the first course was completed.

  3. Students in an interface course offered for poorly prepared students and using the OCS approach performed better at the end of the course than students in the regular course. The problems on the comparison test were written by faculty associated with neither course.

  4. Students in OCS sections do markedly better on a final examination made up of problems written by instructors in conventionally taught sections of the same course.

Ratings of student satisfaction with the course are extremely high, 9.2-9.8 on a 10 point scale.

Project Impact

The materials have been used successfully at a variety of institutions, from state colleges and universities to technical colleges and two-year colleges, but seem to have found particularly wide acceptance at the latter. The project director has conducted workshops and colloquia at NSF-sponsored workshops for community college teachers, at meetings of the American Association of Physics Teachers, at ten U.S. universities and in South Africa. Estimates are that 20 or more institutions are currently using the materials.

Major Insights And Lessons Learned

The oversight and case study method of instruction clearly demonstrates the value of paying attention to specifically relevant research on student learning. By designing a course that responds systematically to the clues coming from research findings, the project has yielded an instructional approach that produces demonstrably superior student outcomes and high student satisfaction.


The OCS approach was included in the Introductory University Physics Project of the American Institute of Physics, which disseminates outstanding new instructional developments to the discipline. To join the Physics Project, instructional models had to be rated by a panel of physics professors in the top ten of those presented. The OCS model received the highest ratings of all.

Project Continuation

Use of the OCS approach continues to grow. Several publishers are considering production of a text based on the model. The ALPS Kit is now being used in the lecture and recitation parts of the introductory physics course for engineers at Ohio State University. The project director recently received an NSF grant to develop a series of laboratories and lecture experiments building on physics education research. He will integrate these new lab activities into future FIPSE labs at Ohio State University.

Available Information

Information about the course and sample materials may be obtained from:

Alan Van Heuvelen
Department of Physics
The Ohio State University
174 West 18th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210-1106
FAX: 614-292-7557

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Last Modified: 02/22/2006