Assessment of use of online physical science text by students

Science tends to be taught as a set of memorized facts, a list of previously discovered theories and knowledge that the student must master in order to be scientifically literate. And yet this approach has produced a scientifically illiterate electorate in many nations. Once science devolves into memorized facts, to learned content, then any other system of facts or content becomes equally valid in the mind of too many learners. How else to explain those who are certain the earth is flat, that climate change is not occurring, that evolution does not explain life on earth?

SC 130 Physical Science takes a different approach. Process takes precedence over content. The students are, for the most part, not exposed to facts that are not either derived from a laboratory experience or a demonstration. The course focus on laboratories and on mathematical models derived from measurement made in those laboratories. The course also has the students write up a laboratory report each week, with the report marked for content, reasoning, syntax, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion. 

For example, the course does not introduce the fact that the speed of sound is roughly 350 m/s at the daytime temperature here on Pohnpei. Instead, the students first measure the speed of sound directly in laboratory nine by timing the delay between seeing and hearing a loud clap over a distance of more than 300 meters. Once the students have their own measurement, the students are then told what the published value for the speed of sound is expected to be. The students can then calculate the difference and when the percentage difference is small, then the published value is seen as being a possible value.

The result is a course that builds up a limited number of facts from direct experience. The intent is to show that science is not a matter of opinion, not a matter of belief. The intent is to render the sentence "I do not believe in..." as meaningless. Science is not a belief system, the speed of sound is simply what one measures out there on the road on a Thursday afternoon in October.

Note too that the course does not serve science majors - the course is a non-major general education core laboratory science course. The students are perhaps even more likely to hold beliefs at variance with science than science major students.

Given that background, a traditional physical science text would be inappropriate for the course. I refer to such texts as "a thousand factoids in sixteen weeks." Published texts are colorful and filled with information. Texts are not, however, experienced phenomenon.

Thus the course has a text designed to support the unique nature of the course, a text that to some extent is of a lesser importance than a text might be in other courses. Because the design is built around doing and experiencing science, the course could theoretically function without a formal text. That said, the course does have a custom built text that serves to support the students on their journey through the material.

The physical science text is an online text, designed to be mobile friendly. Given that the course focuses on experiences in the classroom, knowing whether the text is useful to students is not made clear in the classroom.

A first question might be whether the students can access an online text. To what extent do the students personally own the technologies necessary?

Of the 23 students surveyed, 95% have access to personal technology with smartphones being the lead technology. Just over 85% of the students have a smartphone, underscoring the importance of the need for a mobile friendly text. Only a single student reported having no personal technology.

The students own the technology necessary to access an online text. Whether they prefer an online text is a different matter. 71% of the students do prefer an online text, while 29% would prefer a hard copy of the text, at least when the question is asked in the abstract. The answers might shift if the question was worded differently. The question only asked which the student prefers, an online or a hard copy of the text. If the question were framed, "Do you prefer a free online text or a hard copy that you have to pay for?" the answers would likely shift.

The course did not emphasize the text and the text was not often directly referred to in class. Were the students actually using the text, finding the text to be useful, benefitting from the explanations?


QuestionAlwaysSometimesRarely Never
3. Did you read the textbook?11282
4. Did you consult the textbook for help when working on assignments?71132
5. Was the textbook helpful?14621
6. Could you understand the explanations in the textbook?11722
7. Did the instructor refer to the textbook in class?158
8. Did you study other books in this subject (for example, those in the library)?12515
9. Would you recommend that this class use the online textbook in the future?1831
Row sums do not all add to 23, some students did not answer questions

Students generally reported that they read the textbook sometimes, consulting the text only occasionally when working on assignments. When they did use the text, the students found the text to be helpful with understandable explanations. The students perceived that the instructor referred to the textbook more often than the instructor would have estimated.

The nature of the course meant that students did not refer to outside resources in support of the course. And although 29% of the students prefer a hard copy, 82% would recommend continued use of an online text in the future. Of eight students who preferred a hard copy of the text, six recommended continued use of the online text by marking "Always." The remaining two marked "Sometimes" and "Rarely." 75% of the students who claimed to prefer a hard copy recommend future use of an online textbook. Thus the 29% of the students who preferred a hard copy can be seen as a soft number: they are not strongly committed to having a hard copy.

Statistical note: one student marked both "Online" and "Hard copy." Both answers were counted in the respective counts. That student who marked both chose "Rarely" as an answer to number nine. Number nine should have been a "yes" or "no" question, that the question was not is a design fault in the survey.

The textbook is seeing more use than I had expected, and the students are finding the text to be useful.

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