CAUT Report

UniServe Science News Volume 8 November 1997

Sydney University Physics Education Research Group aims to carry out research and implement innovations in teaching in the school.

Interactive Teaching Resources for Thermal Physics Available on the Web

Pal Fekete, Brian McInnes, School of Physics, The University of Sydney
and Paul Walker, University College London


Lectures are relatively ineffective at stimulating thought1. The problem is that rarely is there opportunity for student participation in a way that involves their preconceptions and stimulates them to critically examine those preconceptions and, where necessary, change them. In traditional lecture rooms in science and science-related disciplines, demonstrations are the only form of interaction and are usually used to show applications of scientific theories to a passive audience. Rarely is the relationship between theory and the real world explored.

Previous work on student interaction has been done for topics like Mechanics2 and Electricity3. Work has also been done on interaction using workshops and studios4. Little of this work is useful for our large lecture theatre environment. Resources need to be developed for interactive use in large lecture room environments.

In 1995 Fekete was employed by McInnes and Walker as part of a CAUT grant, Diagnostic Tools for Concept Development, to develop a practical and accessible database of resources to be used in a first year lecture course on Thermal Physics. The material was specifically designed for large lecture environments and included:

  • information on how to use demonstrations interactively;
  • a bank of questions designed to promote deeper conceptual understanding;
  • references to research literature; and
  • CD, film and video presentations.

The Web was chosen as the preferred option for distribution as it was the most suitable medium to disseminate information to a large international body of academics. See

It is a simple matter for people to print the information presented.

Particular educational problems are addressed in the creation of this resource and include:

  • poor attention span of students in traditionally taught lectures;
  • surface learning approaches in students;
  • poor student motivation;
  • preconceptions that students bring to the subject being taught;
  • the constraints imposed by the large theatre environment;
  • the traditional teaching styles of academics in the school and the desire to encourage them to use interactive teaching strategies; and
  • inadequacies of assessment methods that allow students to pass exams without understanding the concepts and their relevance to the real world5.

An Example

An example of one of the demonstrations available to our lecturers is shown below. It consists of a wooden box with two chimneys. Below one chimney is a candle. Below the other chimney is a metal tray containing a smouldering rope which produces black smoke. The demonstration is meant to illustrate convection.

Convection Illustration

To use this demonstration interactively the lecturer could do the following:

  • show the demonstration to the students and ask the class what they think will happen when only the rope is lit: the students might respond that the smoke will rise out of the chimney above the smouldering rope
  • ask the students to predict what will happen to the smoke if the candle is now lit and to explain why they believe in that prediction. Students would be asked to write down their prediction and to discuss it with their neighbours.
  • perform the demonstration: the students observe that the smoke now rises out of the chimney above the candle
  • ask the students who did not make the correct prediction to explain why their answer was different from the observation. Again the students are asked to write down their explanations.

While this is a simple demonstration, and most students usually make the correct prediction, it serves to illustrate the method of interaction encouraged by our database. This method of student interaction is called Predict, Observe, Explain (POE)6.


Thermal Physics was lectured to three normal classes of students and an advanced class. To test the resources of the database one of the normal classes was taught interactively, the other two classes and the advanced class were taught traditionally.

Evaluation of the resources was carried out through a number of means. Approximately 10 students from each of the three normal classes were interviewed both before and after the course was taught; entry and exit quizzes were administered to all students of all classes at the start and finish of the course; student appraisal and attendance was recorded; exam performance was evaluated.

From this information we were able to show that:

  • students were better able to identify the relationship between physics and the real world and showed greater conceptual understanding (interview and quizzes);
  • the student questionnaire responses indicated that the lectures were enjoyable, stimulating, satisfying, challenging, productive and thought-provoking ‹ sustained student attendance throughout the course supported this judgement;
  • the interactive style of teaching was popular with the students compared to the traditional teaching styles (course rating 4.0 out of 5.0 (best) compared to 3.5 and 3.3 for two parallel streams);
  • studentsą performances on traditional examination questions were equivalent to previous years;
  • analysis of some of the quiz answers showed that conceptual understanding of students exposed to interactive teaching improved by as much as 30%; and
  • anecdotal evidence indicated that some students adopted deeper learning approaches.


During 1995 and 1996 a database of teaching resources, which includes demonstrations and interactive questions, suitable for use in a lecture course on Thermal Physics was developed and placed on the Web. Teachers are able to choose demonstrations and other resources that complement their teaching styles. They are also exposed to alternative approaches in teaching, in particular interactive teaching.

In the future it is hoped to extend this resource for use by undergraduate students by making it interactive. Students will be able to access the resource for themselves and also communicate to each other and the lecturer through such tools as a discussion group.


  1. D. A. Bligh, "What's the Use of Lectures?", 1972.
  2. D. Hestnes et al, "Force Concept Inventory", The Physics Teacher, 30, March 1992.
  3. L. McDermott and P. Shaffer, "Research as a guide for Curriculum Development..." Am. J. Phys, 60, 1992.
  4. J. Wilson, "The CUPLE Physics Studio", The Physics Teacher, 32(9), p 518-523 (Dec. 1994).
  5. L. McDermott, "How we teach and how students learn - A mismatch?", Am. J. Phys, 61, (4), Apr 1993.
  6. L. MC. W. Liew and D. F. Treagust, "A Predict-Observe-Explain teaching sequence for learning about students' understanding of heat and expansion of liquids", Aust. Sci. Teachers J., 41(1), 1995.

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UniServe Science News Volume 8 November 1997

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