Frequently Asked Questions

The Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3) project, led by the American Physical Society (APS) in collaboration with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), aims to help physics programs respond to challenges with a collection of knowledge, experience, and proven good practice.

The EP3 Project began with the creation of a task force in 2016, charged by the APS Council with developing a guide for self-assessment of undergraduate physics programs founded on documented best practices linked to measurable outcomes. The EP3 Guide assists physics program leaders in creating, improving, and assessing their individual programs in ways that respond to local constraints and opportunities while being informed by research and good practice. The Guide is a toolbox to help departments accomplish objectives they have set for themselves, not a set of standards for departments to meet.

The American Physical Society (APS), with support from the American Association of Physics Teachers. Funding has been provided by the National Science Foundation and APS.

See the EP3 team page for more on the leadership team, task force, and other members of the project team.

In recent years there has been a growing emphasis on accountability in higher education. Regional accrediting bodies for colleges and universities, as well as other organizations administering professional standards, have increased emphasis on measures of performance based on established learning goals and closed-loop assessment processes at all institutional levels. Program-level and student learning assessments are becoming ever more important to institutional decision-making processes. Unfortunately, individual departments must often create assessment processes on their own, without the benefit of the experience of the broader physics community or published research.

At the same time, the discipline of physics faces many specific challenges. Physics remains among the least diverse of all STEM disciplines, despite continuing efforts to increase representation of marginalized groups. Students are not learning as much as they could in physics courses, despite an abundance of research-based pedagogies proven to improve both student learning and student retention, especially for members of marginalized groups. Further, many undergraduate physics programs are designed to prepare students to be research physicists, while only about 15% of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in physics go on to complete a graduate degree in physics or astronomy. Physics programs often do not develop critical professional skills for the wide variety of professions pursued by graduates. Finally, physics programs nationwide are not producing well-prepared high school physics teachers in numbers sufficient to meet the national demand.

We must act now to address these issues by consolidating and disseminating effective practices using a process rooted in the experience and expertise of the physics community. We are also committed to not increasing the workload of physics departments by tailoring assessments to activities required for institutional accreditation.

The main target audiences of the Guide are

  • Chairs and other leaders who make programmatic decisions for physics departments and programs at four-year institutions
  • Departmental reviewers who review such departments

Secondary audiences who will not be explicitly targeted by the Guide, but who may also benefit, include:

  • Other physics faculty who want to reform courses or programs
  • University or college administrators
  • Physics departments at two-year colleges

The Guide includes a set of effective practices and guidelines for self-evaluation suitable for departmental review. It includes considerations of curricula, pedagogy, advising and mentoring, recruiting and retention, research and internship opportunities, equity and diversity, scientific skills development, career preparation, staffing, resources, and faculty professional development. The Guide also includes sections on program review, assessment of student learning, being an effective chair, creating and sustaining change, strategic planning, and creating foundational documents that guide improvements and operations. The Guide links effective practices to specific goals and programs and provides summaries of the evidence supporting the effective practices. See the Guide Overview for a visual overview of Guide content.

The Guide will help you develop program-level student learning outcomes, create and implement a plan for achieving those outcomes, and assess your plan. The Guide will help you learn how to implement evidence-based effective practices to achieve the goals that matter most for your department. It provides succinct information on how research and community experience can inform programs seeking to increase the number of majors, recruit and educate more high school physics teachers, implement a Learning Assistant program, and more. The Guide includes collective wisdom from numerous experts in the field who have struggled with many of these same issues.

The Guide includes specific guidelines on addressing undergraduate program review or institutional accreditation requirements. It can help you address these requirements without reinventing the wheel, while using the process as an opportunity to improve your department. The Guide will help you to develop program-level student learning outcomes, create and implement a plan to achieve those outcomes, and assess your plan. It will also guide you in implementing evidence-based effective practices to achieve the goals that matter most for your department. See the section on How to Undertake an Undergraduate Program Review for details.

By providing effective practices for achieving specific goals that physics programs might have, the Guide helps reviewers provide targeted feedback that aligns with a program’s own goals. See the section on How to Serve as an Undergraduate Program Reviewer for details. In addition, the EP3 project will train program reviewers to learn how to use the Guide to become more effective reviewers.

For each section of the Guide, the task force identifies outside contributors (typically three to five individuals) who are experts in the topic addressed by that section. Each contributor produces a draft section based on a template and rubric created by the task force. A subcommittee of the task force then compiles these drafts into a single coherent document, which is reviewed by the Editorial Director and original contributors, then sent to other outside experts for peer review. For each section, we choose reviewers who are experts in various aspects of the relevant research literature and reviewers who are experts in implementation in a variety of contexts within the physics community (typically a total of four to six reviewers for each section). The section is then revised based on feedback from reviewers and approved by the entire task force. Throughout the process we strive to include the voices of department chairs and others enabling change from a wide variety of institutional contexts and types to produce documents that will have broad and lasting relevance to the physics community.

Effective practices are actions that departments can take to address specific questions, improve programs, or clarify important strategies.

In all cases, contributors and reviewers of this content relied on their practical knowledge of a topic; in many cases, they also relied on published research on the topic. An attempt was made to write broadly applicable content that can be used at many types of institutions and in many different contexts. We acknowledge that not all effective practices or implementation strategies will apply to all departments. Further, we understand that different departments or institutions define terms differently, e.g., “chair” versus “head of department.” We trust that the reader can translate such terms to their local context.

No. The task force sought to create a guide to support departments in creating and building excellent programs while giving departments the freedom to set their own goals and adapt recommendations to departments’ particular goals,environments, resources, and constraints. To do this, the Guide recommends practices for achieving specific goals, with the understanding that there are many many ways to accomplish goals and a department doesn’t need to adopt all of these practices or goals to improve their program.

Not at this time. After extensive study and discussion with members of the physics community, including a survey of physics department chairpersons, the APS Committee on Education has concluded that it is not appropriate at this time to institute certification or accreditation of undergraduate physics programs; this conclusion was also reached independently by AAPT. The Effective Practices for Physics Programs Guide is based on a different model of engagement with the community. It provides a community-based resource to assist physics programs in developing a culture of continuous self-improvement, in keeping with their individual missions, contexts, and institution types. Such a guide will provide many of the benefits of accreditation, without the disadvantages. If the physics community decides in the future that a certification or accreditation program is desirable, the effective practices described in the Guide would form the foundation for such a program.

We plan to train and, potentially, to certify external program reviewers as one way to help departments measure their programs against a set of external standards. If you are interested in receiving such training, please sign up on our mailing list; we will announce any training through that channel. If you are interested in having your department reviewed by such trained reviewers, please contact education@aps.org to get more details.

The SPIN-UP report, published in 2003, focused on identifying the characteristics of “thriving” physics departments, defined as departments that have a large number of majors, are valued by other departments within the university, engage students in the life of the department and in undergraduate research participation, and have lively outreach efforts and recruitment programs. SPIN-UP focused on strategies to increase the number of undergraduate physics majors and degree recipients. Because of the limited scope and resources for SPIN-UP, the report did not say much about curriculum, professional skills development, or program assessment. The Guide draws on the SPIN-UP report but has a much broader scope.

The Phys21 report, published in 2016, focused on advising physics departments on how to prepare students for diverse careers. The charge of this task force is much broader, and the Guide offers advice to departments for achieving many goals, including preparing students for diverse careers. The Guide’s section on preparing students for diverse careers draws heavily on the Phys21 report and refers to it as a significant additional resource.

A number of task forces within and outside the physics community have investigated specific issues faced by departments and institutions. This task force draws heavily from these reports. Future editions of the Guide will incorporate newer reports as they are released.

In a number of disciplines, a bachelor’s degree or certification implies a specific set of skills. In these cases, accreditation is one route to demonstrate to students that their education will allow them to join a profession. It also assures employers that graduates from a program have acquired that skill set.

Physics is not as strongly “typed” as some other fields, and graduates find themselves pursuing a wide range of professional pathways. APS has received many requests to certify or accredit programs; many others have advised the society not to pursue this path. Our choice, after considerable data gathering and deliberation, was to engage the community to create this Guide, to help departments improve their programs. Our intent is strongly informed by department chairs from across the country and from all sizes of institutions. We have more than 200 individuals creating and reviewing content. We are also working with the APS Committee on Education, in collaboration with AAPT, to develop a framework for maintaining and updating the Guide into the future.

Additionally, we understand that a number of departments face an uncertain future. While primarily economic in nature, threats can come from different quarters, and solutions require a holistic look at how we educate our students and organize our efforts. We hope the tools provided in this Guide will help departments form part of that solution and assist chairs as they work to improve their programs and provide strong, sustained leadership.

A key strategy in achieving these goals is to make use of departmental reviews. Periodic reviews are required of nearly every program, and we have developed a set of guidelines departments can use to prepare for these reviews and that reviewers can use for reviewing departments. We have also shaped our guidelines to embody practices of specific goal setting, specific interventions, data acquisition, and reflection. This cyclic review structure allows departments to see progress without periodic bursts of activity during which an overwhelming amount of time must be spent on assessment. Further, such a process is now required by nearly all regional accreditors, and shaping departmental actions along these lines can save chairs significant time and enable departmental ownership of the activities they wish to explore and choose to assess.

The task force recognizes that institutions are subject to regional accreditation and periodic program review. Physics departments must participate in this process, and one goal of creating the Guide is to provide a process that will fulfill the needs of regional accreditors while engaging departments in a process of continuous improvement of their programs. The Guide is also designed to help departments prepare for periodic external review, a process most physics programs undergo every five to seven years. Having a single process that serves all of these purposes can save time that would have been spent preparing for multiple external assessments and keep faculty from reinventing departmental programs for which substantial knowledge is already available.

The Guide is an online document that can be easily navigated and maintained. It will be a living document, maintaining currency with developments in research and community practice. When the guide is complete, the APS Committee on Education (COE) will take over long-term maintenance and revision of the Guide, using a process similar to that outlined by the task force. APS and AAPT will recommend members for a group that will be created and charged with reviewing and updating the Guide based on community input and advances in the literature. Small updates will occur on an annual basis. Roughly every five years there will be a more detailed revision process involving a review of the entire Guide, updates to existing sections, and addition of new sections as needed. Additionally, as new areas of focus arise within the community, we expect the Guide will incorporate specific content to address these areas.

The task force has welcomed and will continue to welcome volunteers who can contribute to the Guide as content and implementation experts or serve as reviewers for relevant sections of the Guide. If you would like to know more, please contact one of the task force co-chairs, David Craig or Mike Jackson.

To learn more about the members of the EP3 team, see the EP3 team page. If you’d like to talk to us about the project, please contact one of the task force co-chairs, David Craig or Mike Jackson.

To get updates on the project, join our mailing list.

“A Guide to Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3)”, S. McKagan, D.A. Craig, M. Jackson, and T. Hodapp, Eds., (American Physical Society, College Park, MD, Version 2021.1), 2021." If you are citing a particular section or chapter of the Guide as a contributor, do so as you would a book chapter, for example, "A. Author, contributor to “Recruiting of Undergraduate Physics Majors” in “A Guide to Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3)”, S. McKagan, D. A. Craig, M. Jackson, and T. Hodapp, Eds., (American Physical Society, College Park, MD, Version 2021.1), 2021.