Physics department debuts placement test

Oct. 5, 2011, 2:50 a.m.
Physics department debuts placement test
The physics department offered a placement test in the subject for the first time during this year's New Student Orientation week. Test results will help advise students what physics course they should take in the Physics 40 or 60 series. (SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

In response to a growing number of students taking courses in the field, Stanford’s physics department offered a placement test to incoming students for the first time during this year’s New Student Orientation (NSO) week – a change from previous years when only chemistry and foreign languages required such tests.

According to Hari Manoharan, physics professor and the department’s director of undergraduate studies, the test comes at a time in which enrollment in introductory physics courses has reached record highs.

For instance, enrollment in Physics 41, one of the department’s introductory classes, has doubled over the past five years to include more than 500 students per class. These students had a wide range of experience in the subject before coming to Stanford, Manoharan said.

“We are aware of the situation, and several willing professors gathered together and established this test,” he said.

This year, 250 students took the physics placement test, compared to 116 students who took the chemistry placement test. The number of students who took the chemistry placement test, which helps advise students whether they should enroll in Chemistry 31A or 31X, was almost the same as it was last year.

“Note that the chemistry test and the physics placement tests have different goals,” Manoharan said. “The physics test is trying to properly place students within an array of many introductory-level courses, plus provide advice on appropriate mathematics to take. The chemistry placement test is designed for placement into one of two chemistry courses. Thus, the number of students taking the physics placement exam is expected to be larger due to the difference in scope.”

According to Manoharan, a team of four professors and one faculty member has been working on developing the placement test for the past year, making sure that it would accurately reflect a student’s ability in the subject.

“We used the statistics in similar placement tests’ results from other universities in the public database of the National Science Academy,” he said. “We examined the relation between questions and student abilities. In addition, we held experimental tests in the Physics 40s and 60s courses to find out whether these questions can differentiate students of various understanding in physics and math.”

The test contains a substantial amount of mathematics questions, including vectors and calculus. Physics professor Patricia Burchat, who teaches Physics 41, said the team had approached the math department for assistance in designing these questions but eventually designed the problems themselves in order to cover the tools needed to learn in the Physics 40s and 60s series rather than test pure math skills.

The physics department uses students’ test results to objectively match them with course options most appropriate to their skill sets. Sometimes several advising options are offered for students to choose from, according to their course loads and academic interests.

Student opinions on the test varied.

“This is just like high school physics in Taiwan, but it is even easier that they only test the conceptual part,” said Franklin Liou ’15 after taking the test.

However, several other students noted that there were some mathematical and physical operations that had not been covered in AP Calculus AB and AP Physics B courses.

Manoharan said that regardless of a student’s placement test result, the physics department hopes the exam will help students enjoy physics at Stanford.

“We hope that the placement test will help students from all preparation backgrounds enter, enjoy and complete physics at Stanford with maximum educational benefit,” he said.


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