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Students Are Pleased with New 8.01L Class

By Michael A. Saginaw
Associate News Editor

A survey of students enrolled in a new Physics I class (8.01L) indicates that the approach of the slower-paced class was beneficial for freshmen without a strong background in calculus.

A survey distributed to the class along with course evaluation forms showed that the vast majority of 8.01L students were extremely pleased with the class. "A lot of students said they would recommend this course to other students," said Margaret S. Enders, assistant dean for student affairs.

"Professor [Alan J.] Lazarus did an excellent job in preparing things," said Joel F. Huggins '96, who took the class.

In order to accommodate students with little calculus experience in high school, 8.01L moved at a slower pace and extended two weeks into Independent Activities Period in January.

During the first month, rather than diving into calculus-based physics immediately, "We did a lot of graphical analysis of pictures," said Lazarus, the principle lecturer. "We didn't want to get ahead of 18.01."

Because the course finished during IAP, there was no 8.01L test during finals week. With one less exam to worry about, "The pressure was a little bit lower," Lazarus said.

Students accepted the fact that the class took up part of IAP. "It wasn't great, but it was worth it," said Carrie R. Muh '96.

One distinguishing feature of the class was the tutorials, in which an undergraduate physics major or a physics graduate student met for half an hour each week with a pair of 8.01L students.

"The TAs were really good," said Muh. "My TA lives in the same dorm as me, and the day before each test he would always make sure I was ready, and see if I needed any help.".

During the tutorials, "The students were supposed to do one of the homework problems on the blackboard. I think that was really a big help. [The TAs] did an excellent job," said Lazarus.

"I think it was definitely an experimental class. They weren't really sure how to approach it, but they did a good job," Huggins said.

History of 8.01L

"There was a perception for many years that a number of incoming freshmen had weak math backgrounds," Lazarus said. This became eminently clear when the freshmen grading policy was changed.

Three years ago, freshmen passed a class unless they received an F. But beginning with the Class of 1994, freshmen could not pass a class unless they earned a C or better.

Typically, eight percent of 8.01 students receive Fs and another eight percent receive Ds. So when the grading policy changed, twice as many students failed 8.01.

Two years ago, the results from the first Pre-Calculus Math Diagnostic confirmed that about 10 percent of freshmen had weak mathematics backgrounds. Most of them were expected to have trouble with the mathematical aspects of 8.01.

Members of the physics department tried to think of ways to help students who did poorly on the math diagnostic. "It occurred to me that a way of doing this would be to make the course slower and go into IAP," said Physics Professor Wit Busza. Last fall, they were encouraged to enroll in 8.01L.

But many students were apparently skeptical about the new class, Enders said.

"Some students may have perceived this course as perhaps something second-class compared to 8.01," said Saul A. Rappaport, a physics professor who taught one recitation for 8.01L. This may have induced some people with stronger math backgrounds to take 8.01L in anticipation of a lighter workload; in addition, some of the students who did poorly on the math diagnostic did not want to take physics during IAP, Enders said.

Consequently, instead of getting a relatively homogeneous group of students who had weak math backgrounds, "We got people with all kinds of abilities and experience," Lazarus said.

The physics department will offer 8.01L for at least one more year, and Enders hopes that students who do poorly on next year's math diagnostic will hear good things about 8.01L and be more willing to take the class.

"I think next year the student grapevine will say, `This is a good course,' " she predicted.