You are here

PHYS 401 A: Special Problems

M 2:00pm - 3:50pm / * *
W 1:30pm - 2:20pm / * *
Joint Sections: 
PHYS 501 A
Peter S. Shaffer

Syllabus Description:

Welcome to PHYS 401-402-403.  The instructors of these courses are:

In this class everyone is welcome, regardless of other identities you hold in addition to that of physics student.  We expect everyone in this class to treat each other with respect.


Phys 401-402-403 series prepares you to teach the material related to the labs and tutorials in the introductory physics courses.

  • Phys 401 discusses the lab and tutorial material in Phys 121.
  • Phys 402 discusses the lab and tutorial material in Phys 122.
  • Phys 403 discusses the lab and tutorial material in Phys 123.

The courses also give students a chance to strengthen their understanding of introductory physics concepts and the connections between the physics formalism, the underlying models, and real-world phenomena.

Each quarter we will also introduce different aspects of education research and classroom management.  This quarter, the planned topics include:

  • Learning objectives
  • Backward design
  • Observing different instructors
  • Self-reflection
  • Introductory lab objectives
  • Students understanding of uncertainties

PHYS 401-402-403 courses count towards the physics capstone requirement.  Successful completion of PHYS 401, 402, or 403 also makes you eligible to be hired as a paid undergraduate teaching assistant in the labs and tutorials of the corresponding introductory course in the physics department should there be an open position.  You can take these courses in any order, and you do not need to do them in consecutive quarters.  

Learning objectives

By the end of this course, students will demonstrate the ability to:

  • Understand introductory physics concepts and the connections between the physics formalism, the underlying models, and real-world phenomena well enough to teach those topics.
  • Teach students in PHYS 121/122/123 tutorial and lab sections with an awareness of best pedagogical practices.
  • Prepare and present a short lesson on a physics topic that addresses common misconceptions among elementary, middle, or high school students, guided by physics education research.

Contact information

You can contact us by sending an email to

Course Material

No material is required for purchase.  We will provide digital copies of any material required for this course.


The course is split into the following two parts:

  • On Mondays, we will meet from 2:00 to 3:50 pm to discuss that week's tutorial and lab for PHYS 121 in PHYS 401, PHYS 122 in PHYS 402, or PHYS 123 in PHYS 403.
  • On Wednesdays, students in Phys 401, 402 and 403  will meet together from 1:30 to 2:20 pm, and we will discuss aspects of education research and classroom management.
  • The tentative schedule of topics is shown below.
  • Week Date Monday Wednesday
    1 3/29 Prep Introduction
    2 4/5 Prep Learning objectives
    3 4/12 Prep Backward design
    4 4/19 Prep Observing different instructors
    5 4/26 Prep Self-reflection
    6 5/3 Prep Introductory lab objectives
    7 5/10 Prep Students understanding of uncertainties
    8 5/17 Prep Presentations
    9 5/24 Prep Prep
    10 5/31 Holiday No class

Assignments and grades

  • Class meeting participation (35% of grade)
    • You are required to attend the Monday and Wednesday class meetings and to participate.  Each meeting will be graded based on the following rubric:

      • Adequate (2 points): Actively engaged in discussion.
      • Needs improvement (1 point): Did not significantly contribute to discussion.
      • Missing (0 points): Did not attend.

      If you cannot attend a class meeting, let the appropriate instructor know as soon as possible so that you can be excused, and we can make arrangements for you to make up the missed meeting.

      If you get a score of 1 point for a meeting, we will meet so that we can discuss expectations.

  • Presentation project (30% of grade)
    • You will work throughout the quarter to present a 5-10 minute presentation toward the end of the quarter.  The presentation will be aimed at elementary, middle, or high school students.  The details of the project and the grading rubric will be announced later.
  • Reading discussion (15 % of grade, 1 point each): you will have a weekly reading assignment to prepare for the Wednesday classes.  After you have completed the reading, click "Discussions" in the left menu to post an entry  under the correct week.  You can:

    • Ask a question you had about the reading.
    • Answer a question already posted.
    • Start a discussion about the topic, such as an opinion, a link to other relevant information, or your previous experiences related to the reading, either as a student or teacher.
  • Reflection (20% of grade)
    • Lab reflections: Each week, you should write one-paragraph reflection on one of the labs (if there are multiple parts) and its associated learning objectives on the Discussion Board.
    • Reflection paper: You can write your reflection paper on one of the following ideas. You are also free to base your paper on other ideas, but please discuss that with your instructor first.
      • Reflection based on your experience in working through one or more tutorials in the Monday meetings this quarter
      • Reflection based on how your own understanding of a particular physics topic or instruction changed as a result of working through a tutorial or lab
      • Reflection based on experiences you had in your office hours (the original assignment)
  • Grades: Your grades are assigned based on your weighted score with the following thresholds:
    • 90%: 4.0
    • 85%: 3.5
    • 80%: 3.0
    • 75%: 2.5
    • 70%: 2.0

Access and accommodation

Your experience in this class is important to us, so if you have a temporary health condition or permanent disability that requires accommodations (conditions include but are not limited to: mental health, attention-related, learning, vision, hearing, physical), please contact DRS to arrange accommodations.

If you would like to share any accommodation needs that you may have, please contact us

Safe campus

We are committed to ensuring a safe environment on campus.  We encourage you to check out the resources available here.

Religious Accommodations

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities.  The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy (  Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (


Catalog Description: 
Supervised individual study. Offered: AWSpS.
Section Type: 
Last updated: 
January 26, 2021 - 2:30am