Too many students at UH were having a difficult time in physics classes, and Carol Voight wanted to find out why. What began as a graduate thesis now has changed how the physics department teaches its introductory courses.
Voight, a master’s degree student in math and physics, found that many students lacked the necessary math skills even though they had passed trigonometry and calculus classes in high school or at other colleges. She devised a diagnostic test to gauge whether a student could succeed in a beginning physics class. Measuring aptitude in symbolic algebra, basic derivatives, trigonometry word problems and scientific notations, Voight found that almost all who passed the test also passed the class. While most who scored less than a 50 on the test ended up failing the class, more than a third of all test-takers scored a 50 or below. Spurred by Voight’s findings, the department made the test mandatory for all students in its two introductory physics courses. Those who fail the test – given in the first week of class – are encouraged to withdraw from the course and enroll in a special lab to prepare them for the rigors of physics. Voight also developed the curriculum for this new lab course.