Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Physics Studio - A progress report

Robert Loss
Department of Applied Physics
Des Thornton
Computing Centre
Curtin University of Technology
During 1997-98 the Department of Applied Physics at Curtin University is piloting a 'Studio' teaching and learning model to replace the conventional lecture-tutorial-laboratory program in a number of first year undergraduate physics units. The 'studio' environment consists of a classroom in which students integrate theory, experiment, problem solving and writing activities in a student centred, information technology (IT) rich, 'hands-on' learning environment. From the first day of semester, students model the activities, tools and scientific methods used by professional scientists. All this is achieved with a reduction of ~30% in student formal class contact time with an accompanying increase in the informal student work load. IT based courseware and resources were also made available for use by students in the Studio outside normal class hours for review, revision and consolidation purposes with an increasing amount of materials being also available via the Web. Assessments involve a combination of conventional physics problems and computer based exercises.

This ongoing project has been evaluated from the perspective of both students and instructors with an immediate aim of increasing physics understanding, overall performance, interest, and class attendance, and to reduce the withdrawal rates. This presentation will describe some of the aspects of the evolution of this exciting project and its implication on other areas of university teaching and learning.


The pressure on Australian universities to survive let alone improve the quality of their educational programs has forced many universities to examine their so called "teaching productivity". One common mechanism used to increase productivity at the undergraduate level has been to increase student numbers in lecture, laboratory and tutorial classes. While this approach may reduce unit costs it fails to address a fundamental issue of the passivity of the learning that occurs in most such traditional classes. Of the students, who can be bothered to attend, fewer still spend their time engaging with the content while the instructors seem to spend all their time 'doing'. The real challenge facing universities is to design approaches to teaching and learning which reverse these roles. Methods are required which create 'active learning environments', maximize student participation, and where the role of the instructor becomes one of facilitator/mentor rather than deliverer, and at the same time, improves educational quality and productivity.

Other issues addressing many other Australian Universities at this time are those associated with the need to rationalize the overall number of subjects and courses across Schools and the need to reduce contact time between staff and students. There is clear evidence of considerable "over-teaching" in many courses and no evidence that this is of long term advantage to graduates. This situation is a clear indication of what has been suspected for some time. If students do not appear to understand the concepts being taught in one hour of conventional contact per week then it is often extended to two hours; and if two hours are insufficient then it is extended to three; etc. This continues until students face high contact hours and they still do not comprehend the concepts. This ever increasing time and resource model might succeed in an environment with unlimited resources, with very small student numbers and where students who can attend for 40 hours per week, but it fails to address the root of the problem, i.e. the way teaching/learning takes place at university. The ever increasing numbers of course objectives in most course also need to be addressed by rethinking what is taught so that students are prepared for future employment demands in which communication, information technology literacy, team-work, negotiation skills and problem solving ability will be of equal importance to discipline specific knowledge and understanding (Candy et al. 1994). Courses to cater for 'new' emerging student populations with non-conventional backgrounds, needs and aspirations need to be considered i.e. programs which can be made available by non-traditional and more flexible methods.

It was with these and a number of specific local issues in mind that the Department of Applied Physics at Curtin University began to examine alternative teaching and learning methods which resulted in the establishment of Studio pilot project.

The Studio Instructional Model

The 'Studio' learning environment which is being piloted in the Department of Applied Physics at Curtin is essentially that developed by Professor Jack Wilson at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) (DeLoughry, 1995). Rensselaer has received international recognition for its innovative approach to 're-engineering' the way undergraduate science and engineering programs are delivered. In an environment of shrinking financial resources and static student numbers, RPI established a clear agenda for change in 1991. They set as their goals improved educational efficiency, greater student involvement in the learning process, increased emphasis on teamwork with no decrease in educational standards. An extensive evaluation of their model over a three to four year period has shown they have exceeded all of their primary goals (Wilson, 1994).

To achieve this, RPI changed the traditional lecture, tutorial, laboratory approach to teaching undergraduate science into what they term 'studios'. The 'studio' metaphor was selected because it conjures a vision of a creative environment in which students are actively involved with constructing understanding. Greater emphasis is placed on teamwork and problem solving as opposed to passive listening to the delivery of information. Students are required to work in groups and exploit a variety of experimentation facilities to actively build an understanding of the topics at hand. The role of the instructors in the studio differs from that in a lecture in that studio instructors acts as mentors rather than as the main delivery agents. Most class activities are planned around a series of student centred controlled discoveries. While the students are busy, instructors have time to work with individuals on specific problems and expand on questions that rise from the material.

Evaluations of the studio model at RPI over the past four years have shown significant results. Student attendance at Physics courses have increased from around 55% for lectures to around 98% for studios. Student feedback on satisfaction with their courses showed a significant improvement, faculty member satisfaction with their teaching showed a significant increase and student learning outcomes were comparable if not improved over the traditional approach. These findings are significant given that there was a reduction in student contact hours of ~30%. There is some suggestion that learning outcomes have been significantly improved however, it is clearly very difficult to provide reliable statistics in this area.

Evaluating the Studio

Details of the Curtin Physics Studio courses are available in Loss and Thornton, (1997) and the Physics Studio Website (Loss, 1997). The operation, management and physical nature of the Curtin Physics Studio essentially follows that developed at RPI. In first semester 1997, 4 first year physics units (6 classes, ~120 students) were run in studio format while in second semester this was expanded to 8 classes with similar number of classes planned for 1998.

The specific objectives of the Curtin Physics Studio project are to:

The 'Studio' pilot is also being used to evaluate a number of other factors. Of prime importance is evaluating the studio model in terms of educational effectiveness, student and staff appeal, and cost effectiveness. At the same time the studio is considered as a catalyst to encourage other Schools and Departments to review their current approach to teaching undergraduate programs. The studio is providing valuable information for planning staff development programs for innovative teaching, the redesign of existing courses and teaching facilities.

In line with these objectives the following evaluation program have or are currently being undertaken:

To minimize the impact of many long surveys on students and staff a simple short survey form was developed and has been administered three times during the year. Data from the first two surveys, collected four weeks after the start of semester 1 and then again in the final week of semester 1, are currently available (see questions listed in Figure 1). An increase in the positiveness of the response from the beginning to the end of semester was obtained for eight of the 12 questions (Q1 - 5, 9 - 11). Of the four questions with negative change in response, three are understandable (Q6 - 8) and one is what could be termed intriguing (Q12). The general trend is for an improvement about student attitudes towards working in the studio environment, about working in groups and coping with the level of IT.

Figure 1: Physics Studio Evaluation: Semester 1, 1997

Question six is almost certainly the result of network problems and overcrowding in the studio as more and more students (not all of which were involved with the formal studio classes) sought out and were given access to the studio facilities. The small decrease in student ability to "cope with the physics" (Q7) and to "do the problems and exercises" (Q8) would be expected over this period as the first four weeks of semester 1 involves revision of secondary school concepts whereas later in the semester, many new physics concepts are encountered. The real question which we cannot answer is how much less these students would have been coping with their physics etc. if they were not in the studio environment.

The responses to question 12, (I would prefer notes/overheads to be handed out on paper) is intriguing since we might expect students to become more comfortable with working with IT over the semester and become more at ease about working with a minimum of paper. It appears that old habits die hard.

Finally one should say something regarding the academic performance of these students. There is no evidence to suggest that the academic performance of the students undertaking physics units in the studio program either increased or decreased. There was certainly a substantial increase in attendance with general attendance rates being >80% as compared to conventional lecture classes of around 50% in previous years.

A survey of the instructors involved in the studio program has shown mixed responses about the studio project. Instructors still feel under substantial pressure to "get through the content". In a related matter, planning interactive activities that enable the students to make real progress within the 2 hours allocated to each class takes time and imagination resulting in a tendency to "chalk and talk" when time is tight. To some degree this appears to be due to the lack of time most instructors have to familiarize themselves with the IT tools available in the studio. This clearly highlights the need for extensive staff development in this area.

Funding and cost benefit analysis

A preliminary evaluation of the cost effectiveness of the studio approach at the Department of Applied Physics at Curtin has demonstrated that the economic break even point appears to occurs somewhere around classes of 35 students, depending on how existing teaching programs are structured, staffed and funded. A critical factor to consider before deciding whether to convert a subject to Studio mode is the extent to which it involves laboratory and/or tutorial components. Studio units simply cannot compete economically with large student groups of 'lecture only' based units. For units with tutorials and lectures (ie no laboratories), students and groupings of around 40-45 students are required to compete on a purely economic basis. For units involving tutorials, lectures and laboratories, groupings of around 30-35 students are cost competitive.

At Curtin, the Studio pilot is currently being operated with classes of 24 students (each with an instructor and a graduate student teaching assistant) which suits the existing student numbers but is results in staffing cost slightly above the conventional lecture/laboratory program. However, the aim of the pilot is to examine the effectiveness of the model from an educational standpoint so that if appropriate it can be scaled up to cover larger courses at Curtin. In the future we anticipate being able to integrate a number of similar first year physics units and to operate the studio economically with groups of around 35 students.

Establishing studio class sizes solely to compete on a purely economically basis with conventional instruction is only one aspect of the picture. Studio instruction has the potential to substantially reduce building infrastructure costs for Universities due to the reduced need for costly large lecture halls and numerous small tutorial rooms. Unfortunately this cost saving is unlikely to be seen by Departments but may induce University administrations to support these types of innovative teaching developments.

Summary and conclusion

In terms of what "works and what doesn't", in our current context, the jury is still out on the studio system. Early indications show real gains in class attendance, increasing opportunities for real life skills development and co-operative learning opportunities. Difficulties arising from differences in student IT backgrounds, hardware-software integration and networking problems are some of the easier problems that should be overcome with experience. The issue of staff development is perhaps the most difficult as this can really only be overcome with time and appropriate levels of funding.


Funding and support for this project has been obtained from the Federal Government (CAUT), the Curtin Computing Centre, Curtin University Division of Engineering and Science, Curtin University Administration's Open and Flexible Learning Program, and Macsyma Software.


Candy, P. C., Crebert, G. and O'Leary, J. (1994). Developing life long learners through undergraduate education. (Commissioned Report 28). Canberra: National Board of Employment, Education and Training, Australian Government Publishing Service.

DeLoughry, T. J. (1995). Studio Classrooms. Chronicle of Higher Education, March 31 1995, A19-A21.

Loss, R. (1997). The Curtin University Physics Studio. Curtin University. http://www.physics.curtin.edu.au/Studio/

Loss, R. and Thornton, D. (in press). Studio Format Undergraduate Physics Instruction. Proceedings of 3rd Australian Use of Computers in University Physics Education Conference (OzCUPE3). QUT Physics Dept, April 1997.

Wilson, J. (1994). The CUPLE Physics Studio, The Physics Teacher, 32, 518-523.

Please cite as: Loss, R. and Thornton, D. (1998). Physics Studio - A progress report. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 171-175. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/loss.html

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