UniServe Science News Volume 9 March 1998


The Flexible Learning Approach to Physics (FLAP)

Mike Tinker,,
FLAP Project, University of Reading

In the November 1997 issue of UniServe Science News, Sarah Turpin gave an account of the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) in the UK. The Flexible Learning Approach to Physics (FLAP), described here, is one of the TLTP projects.


FLAP is unique amongst TLTP projects in that it began life as a text-based project, rather than as a software-based project. It arose as a response of the UK physics Higher Education community to the problems raised by the changing intake into physics degree courses. Over recent years the students entering these courses have shown an increasing diversity of backgrounds and show less familiarity with the use of mathematics in physics. The response to greater diversity must be to employ greater flexibility in teaching and learning, particularly in the first year programmes. The route to high quality teaching and learning lies in differentiated flexible learning, recognizing that students differ significantly at the point of entry. If we couple this with the advantages of active and interactive learning then the FLAP solution to the problem emerges - a flexible supported self study resource, jointly developed and made available to all departments. Local academic staff may then select those parts of the resource needed by their students and these students then study this material actively, with staff support. In this way, both staff and students have ownership of the teaching and learning. The need to put the mathematics back into the physics arises from the increasing separation of the two at school level. It is no longer the case that a student studying physics at A-level will also be studying mathematics at A-level and vice-versa. The two subjects are now on separate evolutionary tracks, with the inevitable consequences that A-level physics syllabuses contain less mathematics and A-level mathematics draws on fewer examples from physics. A major task facing the physics degree teacher is to put the mathematics and the physics back together in the minds of students. The new flexible resource had to include physics and its associated mathematics, presented rigorously and from a common physical standpoint.

FLAP was delivered to the UK sector in September 1995, after three years of production and with about a million US dollars of support from the Funding Councils, through TLTP. The scale of FLAP needs to be appreciated. It includes about 2250 pages of text, as 83 free standing modules of physics and mathematics, supported by audio, video and software. Although FLAP is a multi-media resource it is not presented primarily on a computer platform but as photocopiable text on paper, equivalent to about five major textbooks in physics and mathematics, covering first year and foundation year university physics and its associated mathematics. This large scope requires extensive use of high quality text and to introduce this to the learner for the first time on a computer screen is not sensible, although appropriate computer technology can bring considerable added value. The design of the free-standing modules is the key to the flexibility and success of FLAP. A student entering a module can quickly compare his/her background knowledge with the module content, its aims, objectives and required pre-knowledge, to determine whether or not to proceed with the module. The student is then guided into appropriate actions. Each module has a careful teaching structure, with interactive text containing many questions and examples. Equal attention is given to developing both the skills and the knowledge base needed by a physicist. Take-up of FLAP in the UK sector has been very high, with use in first year and foundation year programmes. Since the situations addressed by FLAP are global it is also finding increasing use world-wide.

It is also notable that many of the approaches adopted in FLAP are recognizable as those subsequently identified and extolled in the recent UK report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (The Dearing Report, 1997), with its focus on the quality of the student learning experience. The next round of teaching and learning quality assessments in UK Higher Education (Subject Reviews) will undoubtedly be based on these principles.

The FLAP materials

Content of the resource

FLAP includes about 2250 pages of printed text, comprising 83 small free standing teaching modules in physics and mathematics, together with supporting audio-visual and computer materials. Its scope extends from A-level entry to the end of a first year physics degree course. Purchase of FLAP carries with it a photocopy licence which allows institutions to make copies for their own students. The resource contains material equivalent to about 200 lecture hours or 500 study hours and includes the following items:

  • 83 FLAP modules as single-sided A4 monochrome photocopy masters on card
  • 1 Index, Student Guide and Maths Handbook (also as photocopy masters)
  • Photocopying license for an institution to use for its own students
  • 1 ring bound browsing copy of all 83 FLAP modules (4 files)
  • 1 ring bound copy of Glossary (about 2500 entries), Biographies, Maths Handbook and Index (1 file)
  • 1 Tutor Guide Part 1, including product description, module outlines and guidance on use (1 file)
  • 1 Tutor Guide Part 2, including the question bank of about 1700 additional questions (1 file and disks)
  • 1 Hyper-glossary and Index on disk (about 2500 entries and 15000 hyper-links)
  • 1 CAL package (interactive simulations and tutorial material) on disk
  • 1 CAT-FLAP package (self assessment diagnostic and testing material) on disk
  • 8 C60 audio-cassette tapes, including interactive tutorials
  • 4 E30 video tapes, including animations and demonstrations

Modules and blocks

The main teaching text has two parallel strands of material covering physics and associated mathematics. The two may be studied separately, as stand-alone subjects, or integrated. Each strand is divided into a number of blocks dealing with broad topics such as differentiation and fields and within each block is a set of free-standing modules. The details of the module lists can be found on our Web site. In mathematics, they range from simple algebra (such as the expansion of brackets) in M1.1 to discussion of the time-dependent Schrödinger equation in M6.4. In physics, the range is from linear motion in P2.1 to the angular momentum eigenstates of atomic hydrogen in P11.3.

Structure of the modules

The internal structure of the modules is one of the most powerful innovations of FLAP. This structure gives flexible access for students, allowing them to measure their backgrounds in relation to the topics to be introduced and to target their study time most efficiently. Despite the use of printed text the structure is reminiscent of a computer programmed approach, with interactive decisions controlling the route followed.

Each module begins with a section entitled Opening items, which sets the scene, introduces the topics and invites students to assess their background knowledge. The material may be mostly old knowledge, mostly new knowledge or a reasonable extension of old knowledge. There are Fast-track questions to test whether it is old knowledge and Ready-to-study questions to test whether it is too hot to handle. Solutions are given for all these questions to guide students in their choice of route. The Fast-track route leads quickly to the Exit test at the end-of-module, where the wisdom of this choice of route can be self-tested. Students who are unhappy about their performance on the Ready-to-study questions are directed through the Glossary to other FLAP modules, for any help needed. Students who decide that they are ready for the material move on to the main teaching text of the module. Field tests show that students quickly develop the skills to use this diagnostic front end to make best use of the modules and their study time.

At the end of the main teaching text there is a section entitled Closing items. This contains a detailed but concise Module summary, followed by a list of the Achievements, or target objectives for the module. These list the skills and knowledge that the student should acquire by studying the module. They are written in operational terms, explaining what students should be able to do, and identifying what is required for assessment purposes. The Closing items finishes with the Exit test. Successful completion of the Exit test confirms the attainment of these learning objectives. Detailed solutions to all the questions asked, both in the main text and in the various tests are included at the end of the module, so students can assess their own progress. The answers to the Exit test are provided but an institution may choose not to photocopy them into the student copy of the module, thus forcing an evaluation and discussion point of contact with staff. The Closing items section of a module is also useful for revision of the module. An average module is equivalent in content to about 2 or 3 lecture hours or 5 to 6 study hours, with study times depending markedly on the route.

Glossary and Hyper-glossary

An extensive Glossary gives the definitions of about 2500 terms used in FLAP. Since it may also refer the student to other modules for a more comprehensive discussion it is also the main routing document in FLAP. Within a module there are no explicit references to any other FLAP module and all such links are made through the Glossary. This feature maintains module independence and maximises flexibility, allowing them to be read with no particular order. The Glossary is available as text in hard copy and as a hyper-linked document, viewable through a Web browser.

The hyper-glossary is possibly one of the largest HTML documents of its kind ever produced. It takes the form of a relational glossary, combining the functions of index, dictionary and thesaurus, not only listing definitions but also showing how they relate to one another across the full range of the package. The HTML files contain about 3000 imbedded graphic links and 15000 intra-glossary links and is supplied on floppy disks. It includes an index of terms and biographies of many of the scientists and mathematicians who have contributed most to the development of the field. It illustrates a clear added value as compared to the paper glossary, being much quicker and more convenient to use.

CAL software

There are five computer software packages associated with FLAP, designed to increase understanding of some of the modules. The packages contain interactive simulations as dry labs on electric fields, a bubble chamber, gas simulation and an orbiter, together with a tutorial on forces. The packages run under Microsoft Windows 3.1 or higher on a PC. They are provided on a 3.5 inch disk, with their own installer, and require approximately 1MB of disk space.


This self assessment testing tool contains a bank of over 400 multiple choice questions and solutions on the FLAP modules. Modules may be attempted in any order and a printed report can be generated for tutor discussion. The materials are used by students to assess their need to study particular FLAP modules or as additional Exit test questions after studying the modules. CAT-FLAP also contains three longer access tests, two for physics and one for mathematics. These tests contain questions covering a wide range of topics and are intended to be used to assess readiness to study particular FLAP modules. The tutor tool kit can be used to input additional tutor generated questions.

Coming soon - Electronic FLAP

Early in 1998 we expect to make available the full set of FLAP modules on CD-ROM, mountable on a local network. This will be an option for purchasers of the full FLAP resource. The files will be pdf documents, viewable through Adobe Acrobat Reader, and will be formatted exactly as in the paper version, allowing printing of individual pages or modules. For copyright reasons it will not be possible to edit the pdf files but notebook comments may be added.

Using FLAP

FLAP as a textbook replacement

To appreciate the innovative solutions offered by FLAP it is helpful to compare and contrast FLAP with the more familiar standard textbooks. Both support teaching and are intended to be used alongside lectures, tutorials, workshops and laboratories. Both are text intensive and are produced primarily on paper, with electronic delivery providing added value for reference and storage. However, the differences are profound. FLAP takes the textbook format into the 21st century, differing from standard textbooks in several key ways.

  • It is much larger in scope and more detailed in its explanations, covering physics and its associated mathematics over a wide range of levels, yet its modular structure maintains portability - without wheels!
  • It provides a common approach to physics and mathematics, presenting mathematics thoroughly, yet within a physical context whenever possible and with due regard to dimensions and units.
  • Its use of supported self study engages students in active learning, developing self reliant skills such as reading for information, organizational skills and general skills for lifelong learning.
  • It is much more flexible for the student, delivering differentiated learning and giving them ownership of the learning. It allows them to measure their background against module content, establishing fast track routes, normal routes or additional help as needed.
  • It is much more flexible for the course designer, consisting of free-standing modules rather than the interlinked chapters of a conventional text, and with pre-requisite knowledge clearly specified for each module. This is quite unlike the chapters of a standard textbook. Students can enter or leave the resource at any appropriate module, determined only by their background and the course objectives.
  • It is sufficiently detailed and clearly written to form a primary teaching vehicle, not just lecture support - so it may be used successfully to replace some routine lecturing and thereby free some time for teachers to give more targeted support.
  • An institution may photocopy FLAP for its own students, making it an institutional resource rather than a student product, such as a textbook. An institution can effectively create its own textbooks at a fraction of the price of a normal textbook, avoiding students having to purchase unwanted material or becoming victims of the elatae editionis scenario.

Summary of uses and benefits

FLAP is not a course. It is a very large high quality supported self study resource from which institutions can create a wide variety of courses to their own design, to meet their own purposes. It supports but does not replace the teacher. There are as many ways to use FLAP as there are styles of teaching, ranging from the most conventional to the most innovative. FLAP leaves all these decisions firmly in the hands of the teacher.

Some of the more common uses of FLAP are:

  • for diagnostic testing;
  • as preparatory reading or as background materials;
  • to support main stream lecture courses;
  • to replace some lectures (up to two thirds of the total) in a physics or mathematics course; and
  • to construct full term or full year programmes (for Year 0 or Year 1).

FLAP brings benefits both to the institution and to the students. These accrue from the high quality of the material and from its flexible self study format. Institutions may adopt a broader intake strategy and can deliver enhanced teaching quality without additional staff resource. Staff time may be used more effectively, with savings in lecturing, assessment preparation, marking and course design. Along with this is the potential for an improved student support system, since staff effort can be more focused and the clear structure of the modules allows postgraduate and other teaching assistants to make a more positive contribution in classes and workshops. Students can take a more active part in their learning, developing a strong study discipline within a more flexible study programme, with material selected and delivered at a rate which matches their individual backgrounds. Self-assessment allows students to develop their problem solving skills without additional staff marking. Evaluation has shown that most students using FLAP are enthusiastic about it and confirm that the learning curves expected are realistic. They like the increased ownership of the learning gained through the FLAP approach, responding with increased motivation and commitment.

The FLAP URL is:

Mike Tinker
FLAP Project
The FLAP Office
JJ Thomson Physical Laboratory
University of Reading
Reading, UK, RG6 6AF

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UniServe Science News Volume 9 March 1998

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