Following on the wild success of my previous post on Western Physics & Astronomy’s graduate course Astronomy 9610 “Fundamentals of Astrophysics” here are some notes on my other course in fall 2014, Astronomy 2022: The Origin of the Universe.

This is a one-semester, 13-week course aimed at non-science students. The course number starting with a 2 means that first-year students can’t enroll, but it presumes no background in astronomy or physics. I was teaching this course for the first time although I have taught the full-year “Astronomy 101” course that we offer. By the end of this course, my goals were that that students would be able to:

  • describe the science of cosmology and its relation to other fields of science
  • identify and describe cosmology’s current unanswered questions
  • explain how the scientific method and quantitative arguments are used in cosmology

Here is the course outline and the accompanying learning objectives). I thought the objectives were pretty pared-down but reducing the amount of material further would be OK too. In particular it’s hard to figure out what to teach about inflation, structure formation, and historical links.

The order of topics more-or-less followed the order of the text, The State of the Universe by P.G. Ferreira; my experience is that confusion ensues if the course material and text are out-of-sync. I left out some of the topics covered in the text. The Ferreira book is not perfect (too much detail in places) but was the best option I could find; previous versions of the course had used The Whole Shebang by T. Ferris, but it was getting out of date. I am pretty sure that many students did not read the book in advance of class but I’m not sure what to do differently to encourage this. I could have chosen a more traditional textbook (Your Cosmic Context by Duncan and Tyler is the only one I know of which matches this particular course) but I was trying to keep the cost down.

The total enrollment was about 240 before classes began, 220 when classes started, and about 190 by the end of the term. In my experience this is fairly typical attrition. The class met twice a week for 50 minutes. I don’t know why twice instead of three times, which would be more usual for what we call “0.5 course”. More in-class time certainly would have made things feel less rushed.

In-class time:

  • I tried to make class time interactive, with interactive questions using “paper clickers”, and other active-learning techniques. A good source of questions is ClassAction although it needs more cosmology content!
  • I didn’t do as much interactive-type stuff in the last few weeks; students tend to get tired and so do instructors. Not necessarily a good thing.
  • I did some lecturing with PowerPoint slides (typically about 20-25 per class) which were available online (except for the “test your understanding” questions) in advance. I posted the question slides at the end of the week.
  • I showed some short videos (eg from minutephysics) in class but I’m not sure how helpful they were. I think that linking to them on our course management system is worthwhile however, and I did do this.
  • For in-class anonymous questions I tried using but found it was not terribly useful. I got some useful questions but also had some trolls, and I stopped using it about halfway through the course.
  • Student feedback partway through the term suggested many of the students would have preferred the “we just have to sit and listen” lecture-style class. I could have addressed this directly in class but did not.
  • some student feedback also mentioned “not enough information in the slides”. This was deliberate on my part; I use the assertion-evidence style of PowerPoint to encourage thinking during lectures.
  • some students commented that “material goes by too fast”. Increasing the amount of class time, or reducing amount of content, could both be helpful.
  • With a room that’s only two-thirds full, the students tend not to sit at the front, which I think can contribute to a feeling of disengagement. I don’t know how to deal with this other than insisting people move, which I didn’t do.
  • There were issues with chatty students that likely could have been resolved early in the course; I should have exercised better classroom management.

Over the course of the term we did a total of five in-class exercises, from Emily Rice and Nate McCrady’s Astronomy Labs: A Concept Oriented Approach. I assembled these plus the “Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Fate of the Universe” chapter from The Cosmic Perspective by Bennett et al., into a course workbook using the publisher’s Custom Solutions. The total cost for the workbook was roughly Cdn$25. I also put copies on reserve in the library so students could photocopy it, although it’s not clear to me that photocopying the whole thing would be either (1) legal or (2) cheaper than buying it.

The labs are designed for a longer time period than we had available. However most had several sections, so I asked students to do some portions as pre- or post-class homework. The usual way I ran them in class was to have students work in groups for 10-20 minutes on a section, then I would go over the answers with them by filling out the pages using the classroom document camera. (I posted scans of these pages on the learning management system eventually). While the students were working, both I and a teaching assistant walked around, helping and prodding where necessary. At the end of class each group handed in their completed worksheets, which were marked for completion only and formed part of the course participation mark. Students needed to complete 4 out of 5 for the full marks; I always try to do “n out of n+m” where possible since it makes both instructor and student lives easier.

Overall I think the in-class exercises were useful in helping student understanding. Topics which had been covered in the exercises were generally done better on the exams than topics which were not. They always felt a bit rushed and I’m not sure how to deal with this except for having students do more of the content as pre-class homework. Many students didn’t bother to pick up their papers afterwards (which was perhaps unwise). Were I to teach this course again, I might do fewer in-class exercises but spend more time on them.

Another section of this course is being taught by someone else this term, using some of my material. Hence I’ll defer further discussion of assessment (exams, etc) until after that course is finished…