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New 8.01 Meets with Success

Justin Ging
Professor of Physics Wit Busza

By Eva Moy
Staff Reporter

As any good physicist knows, it takes several tries to get an experiment just right. The new Physics I (8.01) teaching style was an experiment in teaching freshmen study skills, self-confidence, and, of course, physics.

As a core requirement, 8.01 shares in the responsibility of helping freshmen adapt to MIT life, both academically and socially, according to Professor of Physics Wit Busza, who created the new course.

"We certainly have got to have a system that allows for a broad spectrum of abilities," Busza said. To suit every student, the revised class relied more on students teaching themselves, he said.

The new 8.01 featured 20 professors teaching sections of 18 students or less, one main demonstration lecture, Thursday night problem solving sessions, a text, and a study guide. Although there was no homework assigned, problems from the study guide were used in the weekly quizzes.

"It is up to you to decide how much work you need [to do] to understand" the material, Busza said. "You are responsible for your education."

"I think the 15-person class is a very good idea," said Alan J. Lazarus '53, a senior research scientist who taught one of the sections. It was "more fun to teach than the 30-person class," he said.

But "there were too many different things to do for anybody to keep up with anything," Lazarus said. Indeed, the comments in the upcoming Course Evaluation Guide reflect this split in attention to the concepts and the specific problems.

According to the CEG, "Overall, students think 8.01 is a demanding class, and at the same time interesting. Respondents feel that the class stresses independent study too much, favoring self-motivated people."

Busza received this as welcome news. "Nothing makes me happier," he said. "There we succeeded."

Overall, 13 percent of the class failed 8.01 last semester, which falls within the 10 to 20 percent failure rate every year, Busza said. But "I'd like to think that they learned more," he added.

Since enrollment in 8.01 is much lower in the spring, it is being taught in the traditional manner this term. Busza will distribute a survey in Physics II (8.02) later this spring for students to compare the new 8.01 teaching methods to a traditional class.

Professors applaud change

Professors reacted positively to this unique teaching experience: All 20 professors wanted to teach the new 8.01 next fall and also volunteered to lead an extra hour of problem solving each week, Busza said.

"In part it was an enjoyable format from the professor's point of view," said Professor Bernard F. Burke PhD '50. "Attendance in class was better" than before, he said.

As the course examiner, Busza did not teach a section, but administered the course and made up the exam questions. The other professors, however, did not know the test questions ahead of time. It is "important that students felt that the faculty were on their side," Busza said.

Busza said the biggest problem of the new format was that students tended to concentrate on solving particular study guide problems rather than understanding the general concept.

"We were supposed to both discuss the material and talk about how to solve the problems," Burke said. "That combination was difficult to fit into the time we had."

Next fall, there will be an extra class per week just for solving problems that will be led by a teaching assistant, Busza said. Professor Walter Lewin will also solve problems on MIT cable, as he has done in terms past.

Teaching motivation or skills?

Freshmen come to MIT with varying degrees of preparation and intellectual ability, Busza said. "The freshman year has to bridge that transition period," he said.

The core classes build the foundation for all the other majors. "We not only teach them skills but get them more excited and build up self-confidence," Busza said.

The view of teaching at MIT historically undergoes 5-year cycles of teaching motivation versus skills, according to Busza. The physics department has been aware of this over the past few years, and the new 8.01 is an attempt at a compromise.

"I think there is a significant number of students at MIT who don't realize the importance of the Institute requirements," Busza said. "They don't appreciate that this is what makes MIT unique."