Exploding Enrollments in Physics Based on Peer Tutoring and a “BA” in Physics

Again, The Chronicle, this time on a highly successful restructuring of a physics program at CSU Long Beach.

Physics professors at California State University at Long Beach have had remarkable success in turning out physics majors. The university is the largest producer of undergraduate physics degrees among master’s- and bachelor’s-granting institutions in the United States. It’s also above the national average in student diversity. About half of its 60 or so majors in 2019 were Latinx, one-third were female, and one-fifth were women of color.

The department created a peer-tutoring system in which students are trained through a three-credit course in physics pedagogy. And professors reimagined the tutoring center so that it is a regular part of the undergraduate experience, like going to the gym. “The normalizing effect,” Pickett says, “is that everyone is going to have a problem, and eventually everyone is going to be the one with the key insight.”

Those changes have given more students confidence that they can do physics, says Pickett. The peer tutors, for example, look like them and have done well in the given course. So why couldn’t they?

They also added a “B.A. in Physics,” which looks like a nice balance of key math and physics courses and room for exploration.

Peer tutors is something that is done (to a small degree) at my university, but it feels like an “extra help” kind of thing, rather than an integral part of any course. (Attendance hovers at around 6 or 7 out of 300 registered students.)

In addition, I have an ideological knee-jerk reaction to paying undergraduate students to perform instructional work. I’m concerned that departments could quickly become dependent on their relatively cheap labor in place of lecturers or graduate student TAs.

However, this article seems to suggest that peer tutors are brought in more as mentors for ensuring that a sense of community emerges among the students. This sounds like something worth paying for.

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