Guide to Introductory Courses for STEM Majors

Version 1. May 28, 2021

Introductory courses for STEM majors may include calculus-based or algebra-based introductory physics course sequences, often with integrated laboratory experiences. These courses are often among the first required physics courses for students majoring in physics, chemistry, engineering, life sciences, and other disciplines. The guidance in this section can be used for physics programs that offer a single course sequence for all of these students, for programs that offer separate algebra-based and calculus-based sequences, and for programs that have specific tracks for students in different majors. See the sections on Introductory Courses for Life Sciences Majors and Courses for Non-STEM Majors for more specific guidance on creating courses for these particular audiences. See the section on Instructional Laboratories and Experimental Skills for more specific guidance on designing laboratory components of your introductory courses. This section provides guidance on developing and improving introductory courses for STEM majors to meet student, department, and institutional needs; and providing support for

and students, including students from . Because the goals, needs, and resources of physics programs vary widely, the EP3 Guide does not address what content should be covered in a physics program or in particular physics courses. Instead, this section addresses how to engage in a collaborative process to determine and the content that will help you meet those goals. The section on Implementing Research-Based Instructional Practices provides general pedagogical guidance as well as guidance on how to design and assess courses based on course-level student learning outcomes.


Introductory courses for STEM majors serve as gateways into physics and other STEM disciplines, and without careful attention, they may become barriers to entry, particularly for students from

. If well designed and taught, these courses can provide some of the best opportunities to recruit students into the physics major, to support student success and retention, and to influence future scientists, medical professionals, and science teachers through excellent instruction and a positive introduction to the discipline. See the section on Recruiting of Undergraduate Physics Majors for guidance on how to connect with students in introductory and, if appropriate, service courses in order to recruit them into a physics major. Introductory courses can help students develop an understanding of fundamental physics concepts and models and of how these concepts and models are used to analyze a multitude of situations. The content knowledge and skills built in these courses can serve as the foundation for the physics major and as valuable support for success in other STEM fields. Research-based instructional practices have been shown to effectively engage students in the introductory courses, promote reasoning, improve success and retention, and provide opportunities for involving students in instructional activities through roles such as learning assistants and teaching assistants. Introductory physics courses also typically provide a critical service to the institution by serving as required support courses for engineering, chemistry, life sciences, and other departments. Serving these external constituencies in a manner that supports, respects and contributes to their efforts can help your department build relationships with other departments and your administration.

Effective Practices

  1. Design and assess introductory courses, starting from program-level and course-level student learning outcomes and student preparation

  2. Design an introductory course structure to meet your department’s goals, students’ needs, and institutional constraints

  3. Use research-based instructional practices and inclusive pedagogy in the introductory courses

  4. Support instructional staff to provide effective classroom instruction in the introductory courses

  5. Support students to maximize their learning

  6. Establish and sustain institutional support for your introductory courses

Programmatic Assessments

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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