Undergraduate Program - BS/BA, Applied and Professional Emphasis


Learning Objectives

A physics degree represents more than a collection of courses. It is a coherent set of competencies and outcomes which emerge from a student's experience with the degree program. Using a process known as "tuning", physics departments throughout the state of Utah have determined a set of learning objectives for the BA/BS degrees (also with Applied or Professional Emphasis) to which we all aspire. They are summarized below. For a detailed discussion of these learning objectives, please see Utah Tuning.  For a mapping between the learning objectives and Department of Physics course offerings, please look here

  1. Physics Knowledge: Students will be able to understand and apply the basic physical principles of Newtonian mechanics, relativistic physics, electromagnetic theory, wave phenomena, optics, thermal physics, quantum mechanics.
  2. Problem Solving and Mathematical Analysis: Students will be able to apply algebra, calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations to the formulation, modeling, and solution of physical problems in the areas described under Physics Knowledge.
  3. Laboratory Skills: Students will be proficient in elementary aspects of experimental hardware, experimental design, data collection, data analysis, and error analysis. Students will be able to disseminate experimental results using written and oral methods.
  4. Computer Skills: Students will be able to use computational resources to help analyze physical models. This can include code written in a language (e.g. Python) and/or existing software packages for statistical/data analysis, graphics, symbolic manipulation, and so forth.
  5. Communication: Students will be competent (at a beginner level) in the reading of scientific literature and in the dissemination of scientific knowledge in written and oral formats.
  6. Research: Students will be able to use elements from all the previous Learning Objectives in conjunction with systematic methods of scientific inquiry to ask and answer physics questions about the natural world, thereby demonstrating entry-level ability to create new knowledge.

Assessment Plan


Because the typical BS/BA student cohort is relatively small, the Physics Department is able to assesses attainment of its Learning Objectives using individual faculty evaluation of each student's progress. This is done through Touchstone Courses, a Capstone Course, and Exit interviews. The department has also used Informal Feedback and External Reviews to effectively assess and improve its programs. Details are below.

The assessment data are evaluated by the faculty as a whole during the annual Faculty Retreat; action items are created as appropriate.

Touchstone Courses

The Physics Department performs longitudinal assessment of learning objectives via five "touchstone" courses which span several semesters of work. These courses are PHYS 3870 (Intermediate Lab), PHYS 3880 (Advanced Lab), PHYS 3600 (Electromagnetism I), PHYS 4600 (Electromagnetism II), and PHYS 4900 (Research in Physics). These courses build heavily on the learning objectives and so provide an excellent point for assessment of progress. Physics 4900 (described in more detail below) is the capstone experience and so provides a final evaluation of attainment of learning objectives. At the conclusion of each of the courses listed below faculty members assess each students progress on the physics Learning Objectives using a standardized rubric. The faculty evaluations of learning objectives are submitted to the departmental assessment committee for analysis and archive. The learning objectives these courses address are as follows.

Learning Objectives PHYS 3870 PHYS 3880 PHYS 3600 PHYS 4600 PHYS 4900
Physics Knowledge X X X X X
Problem Solving and
Mathematical Analysis
Laboratory Skills X X     X
Computer Skills X X     X
Research X X     X
Communication X X X X X

Capstone Assessment

All physics majors are required to take the course Research in Physics (PHYS 4900), normally at the end of their degree program. In this course the student teams with a faculty mentor and they execute a research project in physics. A written and oral presentation on the outcomes of this project are required. These projects have resulted in scientific publications and frequently get presented at professional conferences. The written presentations are collected on digital commons. This course initiates the student into the world of the professional physicist. As such, to brings to bear all the learning objectives acquired by the student in a real-world context. For this reason this capstone experience provides an ideal programmatic assessment tool. The attainment of each Learning Objective is evaluated according to a standard rubric for each student and the results are archived and analyzed by the departmental assessment committee.

Exit Interviews

This tool assesses all Learning Objectives. The department head interviews each graduating senior with the goal of gleaning what worked and what didn't work in the physics program. The interview is based upon a questionnaire that the student reviews/completes prior to the interview. The questionnaire inquires about the goals the student has for his/her physics degree, the various strengths and weaknesses of the physics program relative to supporting these goals, and the student's self-assessment of the degree to which the Physics Department Learning objectives have been implemented. The students provide feedback regarding the USU Physics program in the areas of: curriculum, course quality, laboratory quality, infrastructure, advising and overall satisfaction. Students are explicitly asked to comment on their perceptions of attainment of all learning objectives. The College of Science also conducts its own exit interview. Three of the questions on the College of Science are directly relevant to our Learning Objectives. The responses from both interviews which concern learning objectives are scored and the data used to detect trends.

Informal feedback from students, teachers, and other stakeholders

This assessment tool addresses progress toward all Learning Objectives. A variety of formal and informal interactions with students and faculty feature in this most traditional of assessment schemes. These interactions include faculty meetings, faculty retreats, interaction with our physics student advisor, regular faculty-graduate student meetings, etc. A good number of improvements in our program have arisen through this mechanism.

External Reviews

Periodically the department's programs are reviewed by physicists from other institutions. The most recent review took place in 2017.

Outcomes Data

Outcomes data are sorted by school years. Each year consists of Capstone/Touchstone assessment data and exit interviews. 

Data-based Decisions

Changes to program/class structure are made only after careful consideration of the data collected in assessments and exit interviews.