November/December 2001 // Case Studies
Using Online Resources to Promote Active Learning in Physics Teaching
by Marina Milner-Bolotin and Marilla D. Svinicki
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Marina Milner-Bolotin and Marilla D. Svinicki "Using Online Resources to Promote Active Learning in Physics Teaching" The Technology Source, November/December 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Recently, there has been a noticeable shift from teacher-centered science classrooms to various student-centered learning environments (SCLEs). One strategy of SCLEs is to invest students with some measure of control over their own work in an effort to bolster their confidence and increase the likelihood of their success. Yet, since the strategies associated with SCLEs are unfamiliar, they can raise in both teachers and students a great deal of uncertainty, which complicates the transition. Despite the significance of this reaction, few scholars have addressed its potential impact on the shift to SCLEs or studied ways to facilitate their implementation.

The goal of this case study is to shed some light on effective uses of:

1. Online resources such as a course Website (summer 2000, fall 2000) and an online homework service (HS) to boost confidence and security in the SCLE for both teachers and students.

2. Online resources in addressing the challenges of a student-centered undergraduate physical science (PS) classroom.

Technological Use and Rationale in the PS Classroom

In this section, we will consider some of the ways in which technology can support student-centered PS classrooms.

Setting the Stage: Engaging the Students in the SCLE

Research shows that student expectations have a direct impact on achievement (Redish, Steinberg, & Saul, 1996) and that conflict between student and instructor expectations inhibits achievement for both. Therefore, one goal in developing three sections of a hands-on PS class for our New York students was to define the course expectations by clearly indicating our intention to have students participate in discussions about readings, experiments, homework assignments, and science projects. Because research also shows that non-science majors exhibit mathematics and science anxiety on occasion (Tobias, 1990, 1993), we intended for the course Web site to achieve the following:

1. To prevent student anxiety regarding course policies, expectations, and assignments, such as the course project, by providing this information along with other resources (such as answers to frequently asked questions and useful links).

2. To orient class time to student-student or student-instructor interactions by addressing organizational matters through a continuously updated online class schedule.

3. To support and encourage students' time management throughout the semester by carefully structuring deadlines and making them available at the start of the course.

4. To provide students the opportunity both to share their concerns with classmates and instructors and to receive continuous feedback on their learning.

The goal of this PS course (Milner-Bolotin & Svinicki, 2000) was to help the students rediscover themselves in science and rediscover science for themselves. The interactive course Web site suited this purpose perfectly. First, the Web site was accessible all day every day, which meant that students had access to the range of information posted to the site at the moment they needed such information. In addition to allowing ready access to information, the Web site also provided each student an opportunity to express his or her opinions, concerns, and suggestions by either e-mailing the instructor or posting to the electronic discussion board, an important component of the HS that we discuss later in this article. Finally, the site allowed the instructors to respond to students' comments almost instantaneously by continuously readjusting the course, demonstrating in the process that students' voices were being heard and taken into consideration. Eventually, the course Web site became a flexible online framework for the entire course. According to the number and content of student postings, e-mails, and comments about the course, this mechanism reinforced active student participation and fostered their interest in creating a course that was effective for them.

However, like any other tool, a Web site presents its own challenges, which might create stress for students as well as faculty. Students who did not have computers or Internet access at home could only access the site while they were on campus. However, a course instructor had to respond to students' questions and concerns by continuously updating the site, making necessary adjustments, posting new information in response to student questions and concerns, or even changing the previously posted announcements. This process placed even more responsibility on students to consult the web site for the most 'current' information and more responsibility on instructors to disseminate such information in a timely fashion. Although it is relatively easy to create a Web site, it does requires a significant initial time investment. We spent a few months planning the course, putting together relevant information, deciding upon the deadlines, and making the site user-friendly. Ultimately, our effort paid off. In previous classes, some class time was inevitably spent reviewing the course policies, requirements, assignments, and grading, but in this class, most of these questions were addressed through the Web site or via e-mail.

In the course evaluation, a majority of the students mentioned that the Web site was very helpful and suggested retaining it in future courses (see Exhibit 1). From the instructors' perspective, it helped us stay focused on student needs and concerns by constantly adjusting the course based on the immediate student feedback that we were receiving. We believe that a course Web site can be a first step in engaging the students in SCLEs by helping them assume responsibility for and ownership of their learning.

Using an Online Homework Service to Build Student Problem-Solving Skills

While the Web site provided a framework for the SCLE, our use of an online HS, developed in the Physics Department at the University of Texas at Austin, contributed greatly to the learning that took place. The HS lets instructors create, post, and instantly grade homework assignments, which allows more time for preparing and teaching classes. Perhaps even more significantly, the service also provides instructors and students with a virtual SCLE, perfect for creating an interactive classroom. The students can solve problems online or, if they prefer, download them and use the computer to submit answers and receive instantaneous feedback. After the due date, they can download complete solutions to all of the problems. In addition, the HS has several useful features that change the nature of the learning environment. Some of these include:

1. Personalized homework assignments that assign conceptually identical questions with different numerical values to each student, thus denying them the chance to copy the "right" answers from other classmates.

2. Student online access to all course requirements as well as classroom grade statistics for all lab reports, homework assignments, oral presentations, and tests.

3. The opportunity to discuss any science problem with classmates and the instructor around-the-clock via an electronic discussion board (EDB).

In this paper, we want especially to highlight this last feature, the online EDB. Since one of the goals of our course was building a SCLE, we needed a tool that could support student-student and student-instructor interactions beyond the classroom walls. The EDB provided a technological answer to this challenge by offering students the opportunity to post questions to their peers and the instructor and receive prompt answers. Our personalized homework assignments also reinforced student discussion of physics concepts rather than the more common practice of copying the right answers. Moreover, toward the middle of the semester, more students demonstrated a willingness to participate in these online discussions, approaching them not merely as seekers of information but as equal contributors. Students' increased competence and self-confidence in their problem-solving ability enabled them to overcome any anxiety and become actively involved in class discussions. Taking into account that the PS students are nonscience majors, this result is especially encouraging.

As with Web sites, the EDB presents its own challenges. The instructor has to build a culture of mutual trust and openness about students' online participation. In our course, the instructor encouraged students to enter the discussion by modeling the problem-solving process online, as well as asking guiding questions. In addition, students actively contributing to the discussion received extra credit.

Addressing the Challenges of the Student-Centered Classroom: Technology's Role in the Project "How Things Work"

It is very important that technology use in science classrooms have a purpose beyond teaching the students how to use such technology. Although the latter sometimes might be a legitimate goal, we view technology primarily as a vehicle to achieve specific educational goals. One of the semester-long activities in the described PS course was a group project called How Things Work, in which students explored the physical principles embedded in appliances that we use in everyday life. Whereas we have described the organization, provided analysis, and documented the challenges of and student responses to the project elsewhere (Milner-Bolotin & Svinicki, 2000), here we want to emphasize that the frequent technology use in our classroom allowed students to pursue this project without taking too much time away from other important course activities. Many aspects of the project, for example, depended upon the project page of the course Web site; links to online resources, such as the How Stuff Works Web site, provided the basis for the students' literature reviews. Meanwhile, instructors used the time freed up by the HS to collaborate online with the students as they completed their projects.


In this case study, we have described the use of online resources in a PS class to give students control of their own learning, to build their confidence, and to alleviate any concerns related with such a difficult subject. We believe that successful implementation of SCLEs requires addressing such challenges as maintaining effective course organization, managing time constraints, providing multiple opportunities for student-student and student-instructor interactions, and insuring access to necessary information. We also suggest that incorporating available online resources into the traditional classroom might address some of these challenges and make a significant difference in the quality of student learning.


Milner-Bolotin, M., & Svinicki, M. D. (2000). Teaching physics of everyday life: Project-based instruction and collaborative work in undergraduate physics course for nonscience majors. Journal of Scholarship in Teaching and Learning, 1(1), 25-40. Retrieved August 1, 2001, from

Redish, E. F., Steinberg, R. N., & Saul, J. M. (1996). The distribution and change of student expectations in introductory physics. Paper presented at the International Conference on Undergraduate Physics Education (ICUPE), College Park, MD.

Tobias, S. (1990). They are not dumb, they are different: Stalking the second tier. Tucson: Research Corporation.

Tobias, S. (1993). Overcoming math anxiety: Revised and expanded. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

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