Study: Having an online social forum for class networking gives physics students a boost

October 01, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS -- Grasping the impulse-momentum theorem during a 100-level physics lecture is one thing, but what if it doesn't make as much sense once you start your homework assignment?

Andy Gavrin, IUPUI physics department chair and associate professor, first added an online social forum to his courses to help students stay engaged in the coursework and assist one another outside of class. A new study of these forums indicates the online tool is valuable to helping students succeed in physics courses.

"Networks identify productive forum discussions" is published online this month in the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research, a publication of the American Physical Society.

Gavrin is studying the forums in collaboration with Adrienne Traxler of Wright State University and Rebecca Lindell of Tiliadal STEM Education Solutions. They found that when the online forum showed denser collaboration networks, the students who were most central in the network were more likely to achieve a higher final course grade.

"This project is about how students interact with one another," Gavrin said. "Learning is very much a social activity, and you see that with students getting together to study and in classroom discussions. The more opportunities students have to interact with one another to talk about the subject, the more successful they are likely to be in learning."

Researchers analyzed data from three consecutive fall semester courses Gavrin taught of Physics 152, a calculus-based physics and engineering course. Gavrin used CourseNetworking, an online forum developed at IUPUI, that allows students to discuss course materials, connect with each other and offer mutual support. Participation in the forum, which has similar features and setup as other social networks, was not graded, but students could earn extra credit. Each semester, 160 to 180 students were enrolled in the class, producing thousands of forum comments, responses to comments, polls and response ratings.

The students' interactions were transformed to an anonymous data set that was analyzed two ways: PageRank, the tool developed by Google to determine what data is most central, and target entropy, which measures the variety in the links among individuals. If a person interacts with a lot of other people in a social network, it indicates they are likely central. If the people they interact with are central themselves, that reflects back on the first person.

"What we are finding is a clear correlation between students' centrality in the network and their success in class," Gavrin said. "That really shows there is some connection between being involved in the network and doing well."

While researchers aren't ready to say involvement in the social network causes improved grades, the understanding of how the two are linked will feed into future projects aimed at understanding what students are saying and how their use of the forum makes them central. Additionally, the research indicates that instructor facilitation in the forums matters.

In two of the three semesters, Gavrin used the online forum as the primary tool to distribute handouts, lab worksheets and other class materials. He also engaged students with a weekly "professor comment" area where he would share interesting physics news and what was coming up in class. In the semester when Gavrin used the forum only sporadically to remind the class about upcoming exams, the forum was less dense. It also lost the connection between central students -- those most involved in the network -- and higher course grades.

While it may seem the central students are simply the high-achieving students and that the forum would not improve their success, the lack of correlation between centrality and higher grades in the semester with less involvement from Gavrin suggests that argument is incomplete.

In future projects, Gavrin hopes to gain an even better understanding of how students work together and what physics educators can do to enrich that process.

"We want to understand the educational setting in a way that will allow us to improve it, so we can develop new tools that will help students be more successful in class, understand physics and other coursework better, and ultimate be more successful in college," Gavrin added.
About the School of Science at IUPUI

The School of Science at IUPUI is committed to excellence in teaching, research and service in the biological, physical, computational, behavioral and mathematical sciences. The school is dedicated to being a leading resource for interdisciplinary research and science education in support of Indiana's effort to expand and diversify its economy.

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis School of Science

Related Physics Articles from Brightsurf:

Helium, a little atom for big physics
Helium is the simplest multi-body atom. Its energy levels can be calculated with extremely high precision only relying on a few fundamental physical constants and the quantum electrodynamics (QED) theory.

Hyperbolic metamaterials exhibit 2T physics
According to Igor Smolyaninov of the University of Maryland, ''One of the more unusual applications of metamaterials was a theoretical proposal to construct a physical system that would exhibit two-time physics behavior on small scales.''

Challenges and opportunities for women in physics
Women in the United States hold fewer than 25% of bachelor's degrees, 20% of doctoral degrees and 19% of faculty positions in physics.

Indeterminist physics for an open world
Classical physics is characterized by the equations describing the world.

Leptons help in tracking new physics
Electrons with 'colleagues' -- other leptons - are one of many products of collisions observed in the LHCb experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

Has physics ever been deterministic?
Researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Vienna and the University of Geneva, have proposed a new interpretation of classical physics without real numbers.

Twisted physics
A new study in the journal Nature shows that superconductivity in bilayer graphene can be turned on or off with a small voltage change, increasing its usefulness for electronic devices.

Physics vs. asthma
A research team from the MIPT Center for Molecular Mechanisms of Aging and Age-Related Diseases has collaborated with colleagues from the U.S., Canada, France, and Germany to determine the spatial structure of the CysLT1 receptor.

2D topological physics from shaking a 1D wire
Published in Physical Review X, this new study propose a realistic scheme to observe a 'cold-atomic quantum Hall effect.'

Helping physics teachers who don't know physics
A shortage of high school physics teachers has led to teachers with little-to-no training taking over physics classrooms, reports show.

Read More: Physics News and Physics Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to