Investigative Science Learning Environment


Week 1: Goals

Day 1: Read the following introductory document and commit to doing ISLE.

Activity 1: Before you start, take half an hour to reflect on your learning goals you have in mind for your students. Try making a list and see what you come up with. In particular, ask yourself: What you do I want my students to be able to do when they leave my course? When you are formulating a goal think of what you can do to assess this goal. For example the goal is “students will learn Newton’s laws” is not easy to assess, while the goal “students will be able to apply Newton’s laws to solve two-body problems” is an assessable goal.

Here are some goals you may have put down on the first try: a) students can apply physics concepts to explain physics phenomena, b) students can apply physics concepts to solve back of the chapter problems; c) students can pass a standardized test (MCAT). ISLE does not explicitly focus on these goals although the happy by-product of student who have learned by the ISLE method is that their knowledge, conceptual understanding and problem solving are often far superior to students taught by other methods that focus on conceptual understanding as their primary goal.

ISLE Background: The primary learning goal of ISLE is a process goal (be able to use scientific abilities while solving real life physics problems, and to learn to think like a physicist) rather than a substance goal (acquire knowledge). There are many reasons why this is a good goal to have, but there is not enough space to fully justify it here. In practice the goal of ISLE is to engage students in the process of doing physics as real physicists do it. This is a really powerful goal because the scientific process abilities that students learn are abilities that can be transferred to other life endeavors. Think about it, when in your life do you really need to understand the intricacies of Newton’s second law? However, how often are we confronted by a news report with a scientific claim that needs to be examined critically and scientifically? It is the scientific process abilities (for example, being able to ask what assumptions did this person make in coming to their conclusion?) that are useful life skills, not the dry facts of physics knowledge.

Why is it important to start with goals? It is important because the goals you have for your physics course necessarily influence the types of assessment you use for your students and the types of activities that you give them. For example, it is mistakenly believed, in spite of vast evidence to the contrary, that making students solve “back of chapter” physics problems enhances their scientific reasoning abilities. In reality students tend to learn sets of rules by which to apply the formulas they’ve memorized or have in front of them on a formula sheet. Scientific habits of mind like making sense of a situation, questioning assumptions, and evaluating answers are often lost or forced into the background by the more important goal of getting the correct answer in a limited amount of time. In order to solve new problems they may encounter in the future, student need to be able to apply scientific abilities such as sense-making, and questioning assumptions.

Activity 2: If your initial goal list was dominated by substance goals (knowledge as objects that students should acquire or learn) try having another go at your list. This time, try framing your list in terms of the scientific abilities or habits of mind you’d like your student to be able to use by the end of the course. Remember, “critical thinking skills” is too broad. Be specific. What is it that physicists do that makes physics so unique and special? (The activities that make us think we’re teaching the greatest subject in the world!)

Activity 3: Read the ISLE paper at

Why is this important? This will give you a better sense of how ISLE attempts to address learning process goals in physics. See if any of your process goals are similar to those described in the paper.

Day 2: Delineate your course structure and what parts you can change.

So, you want to change, but there are obstacles in your way.
Here are the two ideal settings for implementing ISLE:
  1. (Small class < 60 students) A complete studio course (students meet in a room with tables and chairs designed for group work for roughly 6 – 7 hours a week and the course counts 4 – 5 credits: this is usually an integrated lab/lecture course, hence the extra meeting time and credits)
  2. (Large enrollment class > 80 students) Integrated lecture-recitation-lab course, for example: Large room meeting (lecture) on Monday for 1.5 hours, Recitation sections meet Tuesday/Wednesday 1.5 hours. Lab sections meet Thursday/Friday, 2-3 hours. Every student is registered for Lecture, 1 Recitation section, and 1 Lab section.

You can do ISLE without a lab but it is not and ideal situation.

Activity: If you are lucky enough to have one of these two settings, good for you! Use the rest of day 2 to make a list of what resources you have at your disposal at your school: Do you have teaching assistants? Can you get more teaching assistants? Are the tables ideal for group work? What hardware do you have? Could you enhance collaboration by buying hardware-store whiteboards? Are there enough computers?

However, most instructors are not situated in an ideal setting. For the rest, take a look at your course format. Is there anything you would like to change to make it closer to one of the two ideal formats above? For example, say your large enrollment course is simply 4x50 minute lectures a week. Is there a way you can consolidate this into 2x50 minute lectures a week and a set of 1hr 40min recitation sections? Do you have access to teaching assistants (TAs) or learning assistants (LAs)? (They will be the ones running the recitation sections.) Are faculty in your department interested in unifying the lab section into the lecture course so that students stop saying “I don’t see how what we do in lab is related to the course?” If so, can it be done by the fall semester?

If you only have lecture times, could you introduce a personal response system (e.g., iclickers) by the fall? Remember, whatever you do, the overall goal should be to have more time with students doing stuff on their own and less time with you, the instructor, talking.

Can you introduce lecture demos as ISLE observational experiments?
Make lists of what you’d like to change and what you think you can change by the start of the fall semester in terms of the course structure. If there is nothing you think you can change, that’s fine. Go with what you already have.

Why is this important? It is critical to recognize that education is a holistic system, not a series of interventions or a recipe of things you should do. There is no recipe! However, like a great chef, a good teacher knows which ingredients work together best to make a complete whole. These are: learning/teaching goals, teaching methods/plans/strategies, students’ knowledge and epistemological beliefs, student motivation, and most importantly, assessment instruments, and the structure of the classroom. All these elements are parts of a strongly interacting system. When these all work together, beautiful harmony can result. When these elements are in conflict, not much learning takes place.

Day 3-7: “ISLEizing” the concept of circular motion at a constant rate

Activity 1: Join the ISLE google group. You can request access at:
It would be great if you introduce yourself and let everyone know you’re thinking about ISLEizing your course.

Why is this important? It is important to get feedback on what you are doing. By joining the ISLE google group and announcing your intents, you will get a “support group” of mentors including people with differing levels of expertise with ISLE. They can be a source of feedback and support.

Activity 2: Consider the circular motion (at constant rate) concept. Write down in detail how you would teach it from start to finish (including recitation exercises, lab, homework questions and exam questions.) ignoring what you read in the ISLE paper.

Why is this important? These are your resources that you are starting from. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel with ISLE, just tweak and rearrange things a little.

Activity 3: Identify all the ISLE resources at your disposal and study those parts related to circular motion. The main resources for ideas for an ISLE cycle on circular motion are:

  1. The College Physics Textbook by Etkina, Gentile and Van Heuvelen, Chapter 4.
  2. The Active Learning Guide (ALG) Chapter 4.
  3. Instructor Guide, Chapter 4.
  4. The video website: Take a look at the learning cycles on circular motion
  5. The ISLE labs which can be found on Navigation: Select the “Design experiment” tab from the horizontal navigation bar at the top. Then choose Design labs “Newton’s laws and circular motion” and “Circular Motion”.

Activity 4: Now write a 1-2 week plan within the constraints of your current or envisioned class structure, that executes the circular motion concept in an ISLE cycle (make sure that you consult the Instructor Guide for possible logical paths and the textbook for MC questions for iclickers). Namely, start with observational experiments then activities that help students build the key patterns of circular motion (e.g., net force directed to the center of the circle), then a testing qualitative testing experiment (a new situation where they can make a prediction based on the pattern they’ve developed), building quantitative patterns (things like radial acceleration), quantitative testing and finally applications to the real world.

Special Note on Activities: Take what you already do in class or lab or recitation and turn them into an ISLE activities. In other words, take what you already have; reframe it, and reorder it into qualitative and quantitative ISLE cycles. Only when you can’t see a way to turn an activity into an ISLE activity, try looking through the resources to see if you can find a good placement for the activities. For example, if you only have lecture time, maybe there are some videos on the video website that can be used for observational and testing experiments.

Activity 5: Assessments: Take your homework and exam questions and turn them into ISLE questions. Look at what is in the back of the chapter problems in the textbook and in the ALG. There are several new types of problems that will enrich your repertoire and help students apply scientific abilities.

Send your lesson plan and assessments to an ISLE expert to get feedback during days 3 – 7 or post your ideas on the isle google group for group feedback. Don’t wait until the end! Multiple iterations are better than trying to get it right the first time.

Day 7: Week 1 reflections

Below are a few prompting questions to help you reflect. You can use some of them, all of them, or come up with your own reflection theme if you prefer.

  1. Write about what you learned from this week.
  2. What difficulties are you having?
  3. How do you feel about the process that you have been through? Is it intimidating? Exciting?
  4. What do you think about switching from learning goals focused on content to learning goals focused on students acquiring process abilities? Is it an easy/hard switch? Are you struggling to see the point or is it opening up new vistas of possibility for you?
  5. Week 2: Trying on your own

    Day 1: Re-read the ISLE paper.

    If you have questions about things that are unclear or confusing, email an ISLE expert and/or share your difficulties with the ISLE google group. We’re here to help!

    Days 2 – 7:

    Pick a new topic (anything other than circular motion) that is not mentioned in the ISLE paper. Study resources, design lesson plans and assessments. Send your stuff for review to an ISLE expert and/or the google group.

    Activity: Think about your student population. What do they already know? What is their math skill level? What do they expect from a physics class? You need to take these factors into account. For the students who have lower math skills, you can’t go straight into calculus. You have to think about how you would prepare them. For example, think about ways in which you can slip integration in while they are learning kinematics.

    Week 3: Content triage

    You have now constructed two complete ISLE cycles. You need to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Remember, you’re going to have to be extremely adaptable the first time out because it is highly unlikely that things are going to go as nicely as you’ve planned. It is better therefore at this point to skip over the smaller details and make sure you are putting the bigger picture in place. Identify lecture demo resources that you have or need to get etc…

    This is the point to start doing course content “triage.”

    Activity: Make a list of topics you want your students to learn. But remember our commitment is mainly to process abilities, not content. Start deciding what you might be able to discard without compromising the course sequence or the education of your students. For example, complicated electric circuits pretty much stand on their own (adding resistors in series and parallel, Kirchoffs rules, Capacitors, AC circuits etc., etc.) If you are teaching electrical engineers, sure, you should keep it and focus on it, but if you’re teaching pre-meds, how important are those? You’d be better off devoting more time to optics since it is far more related to what they might see and experience in the future. The converse argument applies if you’re teaching future engineers. You might want to completely discard the optics part of the course (it stands on its own as well) and devote more time to E&M and electric circuits. Remember, we’re teaching students how to think like physicists, we’re NOT teaching them the entire canon of physics. Any physics content that they do encounter needs to be relevant to their lives and they need to feel that. Without that, your students will struggle to find the motivation to learn. It is better to teach 2 topics that the students really learn well rather than 10 topics and discover that the students only have a very superficial understanding.

    Why is this important? Remember: Content is less important in ISLE than process. Learning takes time. By removing some content, students are able to engage in the process of developing their knowledge (like physicists) without so much time pressure.

    Good luck and stay in touch!