PHYS 6160 – Introductory Physics Teaching – A Practicum

Course Information

This course is intended to introduce graduate students to the foundational skills and approaches in the modern physics education environment. Instruction in the class will be tied closely to the introductory physics cooperative problem-solving sessions (henceforth referred to as “Co-Op Sessions”). Students will learn to…

  • Understand the methods and applicability of the best researched physics teaching techniques;
  • Craft problem-solving approaches and then demonstrate physics problem solving approaches to undergraduates;
  • Engage undergraduates in a team-based problem-solving environment;
  • Improve their performance in the classroom environment (e.g. speaking, writing, and interaction/communication skills) through problem solving demonstrations with peer/instructor review and feedback;
  • Engage professionally with undergraduates.


  • Fondren Science 32, Monday, 11:00-11:50
  • Office Hours: by subscription in the Canvas Calendar for this course


Readings from the texts and papers below will be provided by the instructor during the semester.

Course Topics

  • Primarily, this will be a hands-on “just-in-time teaching” course, where graduate students will first be asked to simply demonstrate the solution to a typical undergraduate introductory physics problem and thus establish a baseline for the comfortability and ability in the teaching environment. Based on this, peers will assess each other based on what they felt worked or not, and the instructor will provide similar feedback. We will identify strengths and provide focus on the perceived weaknesses, to shore those up (thus the “just-in-time” part of the method), while also noting what they did that worked to reinforce positive aspects of their approach. This will result in an iterative process of “lessons learned” with each demonstration and should nudge each student away from their specific weaknesses in the teaching environment and toward mastery of the basic skills needed to teach physics.
  • Supplementing this, and allowing the students to think more carefully about what it means to teach physics to new learners and assess their ability to utilize new information while retaining old information, we will employ key readings (books and papers) on modern physics education research. Students will be encouraged to try ideas they learn from these readings in their own problem solving demonstrations and in their interactions with undergraduates to encourage undergraduate peer-mentoring and nudge their own students toward learning goals.
  • Performance in the Co-Op environment will be improved through interactions in this course and used as part of the assessment for this course.


Active participation is required, whether through attendance, live sessions (in-person or otherwise), and engagement in exercises and training for the class. Since this course is tied to the introductory physics cooperative problem-solving sessions, you are also required to attend your assigned co-op sessions as part of your teaching assistant duties external to this course.


Homework will take one of a few forms during the semester:

  • You will be asked to prepare a solution and solution demonstration for a problem and present your solution in the next class period. This will be typical near the beginning of the semester. This can be pre-recorded or done live, as conditions require in the course.
  • You will be asked to read material intended to provide background on the best known physics teaching methodologies, and try to incorporate these into your teaching style. The ideas from the readings (e.g. physics education research) will be utilized in subsequent class periods in various activities.
  • You will be asked to journal experiences in the teaching environment
  • You will be asked to lead discussions about the topics in the course


  1. [30% of final grade] In-class teaching and teaching activity demonstrations will be scored using a rubric containing the following categories, each scored on a scale of 0-5 (where 0 is poor performance and 5 is outstanding performance). A total score will be computed for each in-class problem solving exercise, and a weekly grade will be assigned based on that performance. The key observation the course instructor has to make and then judge at the end is the overall level of improvement from the beginning to the end, not necessarily the average of these grades. Students should be teaching at the level of a “B” or better on this grade scale at the end to have demonstrated appropriate mastery.
  2. [50% of final grade] Teaching Journal: Students are not required, as teaching assistants, to keep a written record of their experiences as a teacher. This course, however, requires that its participants keep such a record (a “journal” or “diary”). This will be done using Canvas, SMU’s learning management system. The journal should contain observations from the teaching environment that are useful for classroom discussion, discussion with the instructor, or both. Based on the outcome of the discussion of those observations, strategies for addressing such observations will be provided. The student is expected to document their plan for handling these situations next time and then continue this process going forward. The journal will be graded as part of the assessment for the course using a rubric similar to the one for teaching demonstrations will begin after week 7 of this course.
  3. [20% of final grade] Final teaching project. This can vary from semester to semester, but in the past has taken the form of content development for introductory physics courses.