APS News

Back Page: Moving Physics Courses Online on Short Notice

March 24, 2020 | Chandralekha Singh

Note: This Back Page article will appear in the April issue of APS News.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many physics instructors have suddenly found themselves in an unprecedented situation: their institutions are immediately transitioning to a completely online format. Here are some strategies and resources that can help you and your colleagues in such a situation. Keep in mind that being compassionate and providing maximum flexibility to students is critical, particularly because they did not sign up for an online course and many of them may not have necessary resources, e.g., access to a computer with reliable internet connection or a quiet room at home or required time due to being sick or caring for a sick family member in order to complete all of the requirements of your online course. Everyone is anxious and trying to do their very best, so whatever you and your students can accomplish is good. Communicating frequently and clearly with students is key.

There are many online resources, for example, Linda Strubbe and Sam McKagan’s excellent crowd-sourced resources on PhysPort [1], that can be invaluable so you should definitely go over it in its entirety. Below, I summarize seven things to keep in mind while preparing for and executing your online physics courses, including labs:

online learning image

  1. Keep the focus on the learning goals and objectives of your course. For example, if your big picture goals are to help students learn to think like a physicist and help them become independent learners and excellent problem solvers, think carefully about strategies for how your online course will accomplish that [2-3]. Reduce the overall content coverage and instead focus on effective approaches to engaging students and assessing their learning.
  2. For lecture-based courses, decide whether it is better to deliver your lectures synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous approach involves streaming your lectures live to students, e.g., via Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype or other platforms, and interacting with students as you would do in a brick and mortar classroom. You can record the streamed lecture for students who could not join the live streaming. While the synchronous format allows interactivity, not requiring real-time attendance and posting recorded videos of live streamed sessions is critical for those students who do not have the resources or means to connect live.
  3. Consider establishing virtual office hours and have them at different times of the day so that students in different time zones can connect with you. These live one-on-one or few-on-one sessions will give your students an opportunity to ask questions after they have had time to reflect on the material and work on homework. A discussion board, e.g., Blackboard or Canvas, where students and you can discuss what students are finding challenging and there is a record of those discussions for all students can be invaluable. Also, using low-bandwidth methods like chat apps may be particularly helpful for students whose internet connections do not reliably support video.
  4. Consider using pre-recorded lectures, created either by you or by others. This way you can use all of the synchronous time with students for interactions, discussions, and reflections. This approach is common in the "flipped mode" [4] of teaching in which most of the meeting time with students is devoted to activities in the spirit of "Just-in-time-teaching" [5,6]. Students interact with their peers and instructor after having gone over the pre-lectures and the corresponding pre-assessment tasks. Videoconferencing solutions such as Zoom have breakout rooms so that a smaller number of students can work with each other on the physics problems you assign. Then, students can go back into the same virtual room for a general discussion. In large classes, you may poll students by asking multiple-choice questions [7] that focus on your learning goals although it may be more difficult to engage students in peer interaction in this mode. Also, if you are pre-recording your own lectures [8], make sure that you break your lecture into roughly 10-minute sub-lectures and intersperse them with online assessments. This design is conducive to maintaining students’ attention and giving them an opportunity to assess their learning between different modules. Each of these pre-recorded sub-lectures can be, e.g., voice over power point or similar to Khan Academy offerings [9] (you will need a laptop or iPad with ability to write on it). Try to incorporate good visuals and if possible lecture demonstrations especially for introductory physics. If you are using pre-recorded video lectures, you can use the existing resources for introductory physics [4], although it may cost money.
  5. For lab courses, take advantage of interactive virtual labs, simulations, and journal articles. There are many such virtual labs (e.g., see [10-13], some of them are free while others may cost money beyond a 30-day trial period). Articles in the American Journal of Physics (AJP) and The Physics Teacher (TPT) can be great resources in online teaching not only in lecture-based courses but particularly for your lab courses at all levels. For example, there are many experiments that have been discussed in a pedagogical manner in AJP and TPT. In these articles, e.g., instructors have often shared insights about classic experiments, e.g., single-photon experiments for which video data are available [14], the Millikan oil drop experiment [15], muon decay [16], and many others. You could ask students to read about the experiments and then write about which aspects of those experimental set ups made them effective, how things evolved in that field and how trouble shooting was done, what the experimental errors were, and their implications to physics in general and various other issues based upon your goals. You can have a virtual discussion with the students about what they got out of those papers and assess them on their writings and discussions. If possible, combine these tasks with interactive simulations and data analysis. Similarly, for upper-level lecture classes, AJP and TPT articles often provide nice overview of a field including common student difficulties that can make it easier for students to understand the concepts. This can help students learn to read and reflect upon journal articles (good for becoming a lifelong learner) and enjoy the whole experience.
  6. Remind yourself that these are extraordinary circumstances and feel free to change the assessment approach and be considerate. It is ok to change assessment strategies as well as grading rubric and adjust the emphasis before and after going online. For example, it is ok for you to reduce the weight on the final exam or even eliminate the traditional final exam in favor of many low-stakes assessments, final projects, and online presentations (that can be pre-recorded or can be synchronous so that students can field questions from their peers and you). Students should be allowed to work in groups on these projects to reduce isolation (particularly because isolation can increase anxiety) and to benefit from interactions. You can come up with novel group projects that meet the goals of your course in lieu of the final exam especially for your upper-level courses that require students to work in groups but have some individual accountability built into them (e.g., all students must present some part of their project individually and answer questions by peers and instructor). If you must give final exams that students will do at their own pace at home, use an honor code. Try to be especially considerate to students who may not have resources at home to take advantage of the full online learning environment. Be inclusive and think about whether it is appropriate and equitable to give students who cannot do the work due to constraints an incomplete so they can make up later or modify requirements for them commensurate with their constraints so that they can finish with everyone. Consider not giving a grade lower than what they would have gotten based upon their performance on the course thus far before going online.
  7. Remember that technology is a tool and not the goal. Make sure the focus is always on your students and their learning based upon your course goals and personalize learning as much as possible in this online environment so that students who are already disadvantaged in many ways are not penalized further. Share your ideas with your colleagues and help each other. We will learn a lot about online learning at the end of this challenging period!


[1] https://www.physport.org/recommendations/Entry.cfm?ID=119906

[2] Z. Chen, T. Stelzer, and G. Gladding, Using multimedia modules to better prepare students for introductory physics lecture, Phys. Rev. STPER 6, 010108 (2010).

[3] S. DeVore et al., Challenge of engaging all students via self-paced interactive electronic learning tutorials for introductory physics, Phys. Rev. PER 13, 010127 (2017).

[4] www.flipitphysics.com

[5] G. Novak et al., Just-in-time teaching: Blending active learning with web technology. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, N.J. 1999.

[6] R. Sayer et al., Case study evaluating Just-In-Time Teaching and Peer Instruction using clickers in a quantum mechanics course, Phys. Rev. PER 12, 020133 (2016).

[7] https://perusall.com/

[8] R. Mayer. In Multimedia Learning. Cambridge Press. 2001.

[9] www.khanacademy.org

[10] https://phet.colorado.edu/

[11] https://physlets.org/tracker/

[12] https://www.macmillanlearning.com/college/us/product/iOLab-Version-2.0/p/1464101469

[13] https://www.pivotinteractives.com/

[14] R. Aspden et al., Video recording true single-photon double-slit interference, Am. J. Phys. 84, 671 (2016).

[15] R. Jones, The Millikan oil‐drop experiment: Making it worthwhile, Am. J. Phys. 63, 970 (1995).

[16] B. Braua et al., Determining the muon mass in an instructional laboratory, Am. J. Phys. 78, 64 (2010).

Chandralekha Singh is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a past chair of the APS Forum on Education and is currently the President of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Resources for Online Physics Instruction

By Monica Plisch

Many physics departments have quickly moved their courses online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While online instruction has its limitations, learning technology and physics education research have advanced rapidly to provide high quality resources to support remote instruction. Some leading resources include:

  • PhysPort (physport.org)—APS Fellow Sam McKagan is founder and director of this user-friendly web portal hosted by AAPT that supports physics faculty in implementing research-based teaching practices. The Expert Recommendations tab has a well-developed page titled “I suddenly have to move my face-to-face physics/astronomy course online! What should I do?” Sourced from dozens of experts, this vetted page includes ideas and links from how to structure your class to group work online to online teaching resources.
  • PhET Simulations (phet.colorado.edu)—Winner of the 2018 APS Excellence in Education Award, this website hosts over 100 interactive simulations of physics phenomena. Most simulations can be run on the web and all can be downloaded. Curricular materials are available for most sims, which can be used to supplement or substitute for hands-on laboratory exercises.
  • Virtual Chairs Meeting—APS and AAPT jointly organize the Physics Department Chairs Meeting and will be holding a shortened version of this meeting online, likely on June 19. Chairs and other department leaders are welcome to attend and discuss lessons learned from the unexpected experiment with online education, among other topics. Look for announcements and sign up HERE to stay in the loop.

Please contact us at education@aps.org if APS staff can be of assistance regarding questions with online education.

The author is APS Director of Programs.

News Update Archive

View Archive

APS News

Read Current Issue

Recent News Update
Harvard Chemist and APS Fellow Shares 2022 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience
Dr. George Whitesides, a Harvard chemist and APS Fellow, is one of four recipients of the 2022 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience.
Productive Scientific Discourse Demands Respect
APS strives to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all those engaged in physics.
APS Continues Progress to Make US More Welcoming for Science
The China Initiative, which sowed fear among some APS members and curtailed legitimate collaborations, has ended in its current form.
March Meeting Heads to Chicago
The 2022 APS March Meeting will be held live in Chicago with many sessions available online as well.
Celebrating Leaders in Physics Teacher Preparation
Nine colleges and universities received top honors for preparing highly qualified high school physics teachers.
2022 APS Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research Awarded to Elliott Lieb
Princeton University physicist to receive top APS honor