Fundamental mechanics courses – Statics, Dynamics, and Mechanics of Deformable Bodies – provide the foundation upon which advanced discipline-specific courses are built. They are also characterized by conceptually-challenging material and are usually taken with similarly challenging courses, such as Physics and higher Calculus. However, rising costs and student populations have led large institutions that offer multiple engineering programs to teach Mechanics courses in large classes in order to manage resources. As such, students are being placed in classroom situations where there is less opportunity for quality interaction between the instructor and the students – a commonly observed reality in the large class setting. With diminished quality of interaction, students either fail these courses, or pass them while still having fundamental knowledge gaps that may affect their performance in succeeding courses.
A pilot study on faculty teaching large mechanics courses conducted by the authors in Spring 2016 yielded shared experiences of diminished quality of interaction between students and the instructor. Faculty interviews described a decreased ability to provide meaningful feedback to students, despite the availability and use of resources meant to help manage the challenges associated with large classes, such as online homework tools (e.g., WileyPLUS). This description by faculty prompted the examination of student perceptions for this study – how do students describe their learning experiences in large mechanics courses? How do their perceptions align with those expressed by the faculty who taught these courses? We are particularly interested in synthesizing student experiences from institutional data to encourage and facilitate their use in reflective teaching practices, especially among faculty teaching large classes.
We have data from surveys on student perceptions of teaching (SPOT) for all offerings of Statics, Dynamics, and Mechanics of Deformable Bodies in a large public research institution over a period of two academic years (Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, and Spring 2016). This data include numeric scaled responses and free-form answers to open-ended questions that cover both general and course-specific items on teaching and the learning environment. This allows us to conduct both quantitative and qualitative analysis of data across fundamental mechanics courses, and to document student perceptions of their experiences in a meaningful way.
We chose to conduct an analysis of SPOT surveys because we believe that this is an efficient way of using currently-collected institutional data. We hope that this study will lead to a better understanding of student experiences in large mechanics classes, an understanding that may then be used as a point of reflection for instructors and as input in the design of effective learning environments. We also hope that this work will serve as impetus for a replicable process to meaningfully analyze and present student responses to SPOT surveys, specifically in Mechanics courses taught in large classes, so that these responses may be more effectively used to inform decisions regarding curriculum and pedagogical techniques for future course offerings.
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