Further Information

The aims of the PPLATO Consortium are:

These aims address FDTL subject priorities under skills, curriculum design, teaching methods and student support and generic priority areas under access and student progression, independent learning and student diversity.

There can be little doubt that two challenges facing the physics HE community are the teaching of mathematics to physics undergraduates and widening participation in undergraduate physics. These are identified as QAA subject and generic priorities and in the Institute of Physics (IOP) report, Physics – building a flourishing future (IOP, 2001). These challenges are coupled since mathematics presents a serious barrier to wider participation in physics and threatens retention.

PPLATO builds on previous successful work across the whole sector in these two areas, including good practice as identified at Subject Review, linking these where possible and developing an extensive range of new resources and good practice. Dissemination of these is a key feature of PPLATO. One specific focus is the creation of an on-line generic foundation year programme, broadening access to undergraduate physics and engineering.

The impact of PPLATO is improved competence in physics and mathematics and enhanced access to and retention in undergraduate physics. These benefits are delivered within existing departmental resources and require increased effectiveness in teaching and learning. This involves new approaches such as computer learning technologies, independent learning and peer group learning. PPLATO engages with these in delivering its aims. While the bulk of the PPLATO project fits within existing boundaries of knowledge there are some aspects at the cutting edge. These include pedagogic features such as mastery learning and disability access and technical features such as random question generation with intelligent feedback for tests.


Consortium partners have an established expertise in the area and represent a wide cross section of the physics and service mathematics communities.

At Subject Review Reading scored a maximum 24/24 and in the report’s conclusions received the highest number of special commendations, including teaching mathematics to physicists and widening participation through its Foundation Year programme. Both these were based on its use of the Flexible Learning Approach to Physics (FLAP) resource. Other innovations commended included the teaching of problem-solving skills through peer-group learning.

The FLAP project, led by the University of Reading and the Open University, received £779K of funding from HEFC between 1992 and 1996 under the TLTP initiative. FLAP spans A-level (Level 0) and the first year of undergraduate physics (Level 1), including both physics and mathematics. The PPLATO Project Director, Dr Tinker, was General Editor of FLAP during its production and subsequently has acted as Co-Director with Dr Lambourne of the Open University, who was the FLAP Project Director during production. Dr Lambourne is Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the Open University and is a member of the PPLATO Advisory Group. FLAP has been described in the educational research literature [Lambourne and Tinker, Phys. Educ. 28 1993, 311-316 and Int. J. Sci. Educ. 21, 2, Feb 1999, 213-230 Taylor & Francis]. The FLAP project is ongoing and is producing Hyperflap, a new digital resource based on the original paper text.

In 2002, Drs Lambourne and Tinker were jointly awarded the Bragg Medal and Prize by the Institute of Physics for their contribution to physics education.

Dr Greenhow at Brunel has considerable experience in the production of CAL materials, including authoring two Mathwise modules and developing an extensive set of on-line diagnostic tests, called Mathletics. It has been used widely at Brunel (last year some 600 students took over 23,000 tests) and in universities, colleges and schools elsewhere. Dr Greenhow also has special expertise in accessibility issues.

The Open University has expertise in the production of high quality teaching and learning materials and has produced a short course, Maths for Science S151, to develop and consolidate the maths skills required to study an introductory physics course that has been co-published with the Institute of Physics. The S151 Course Developer, Dr Sally Jordan, is a member of the PPLATO Team.

Dr Horan and Dr Lavelle at Plymouth have considerable experience in the production of high quality web-based mathematics support material for engineers and chemists. These are at Level 0 and are equally appropriate for physicists at foundation level. Professional level typesetting of the mathematics and an uncluttered presentation produces a particularly student-friendly output. This work has been funded by LTSN Physical Sciences as a Development Project for 2001/02 and presented and described at conferences organised by LTSN, LMS and the RSC.

Dr McDonald at Salford has considerable experience of teaching mathematics to applied physics students over the whole degree programme. He has developed a wide range of resources targeted at encouraging learning through practice. His methodology has a strong student focus and has been very successful at raising competence in mathematics and increasing motivation.

Dr Turton at Newcastle has a special interest in forming strong links between PPLATO and the sector, ensuring that the project addresses the problems as seen by practitioners and draws in existing good practice from a wide sector base, easing the task of dissemination of PPLATO deliverables. Close liaison with PPLATO implementation sites is an important element of this strategy to embed these deliverables widely.

The Consortium has a broad base of educational, technical and management expertise and is well placed to deliver its aims. It represents a wide cross-section of the HE physics and service mathematics communities and has the strong support of all the institutions involved and both LTSN and IOP.

The PPLATO Advisory Group

The PPLATO Team will be guided by an Advisory Group that is drawn widely from the sector and includes acknowledged experts in the area and representatives from the major stakeholders in the project’s outcomes. Members currently include:

PPLATO deliverables:

These deliverables will be made available at nominal cost to all HEFCE and DEL-funded institutions.

Development of resources for the teaching of mathematics for physics

The project builds on previous successful developments, including Mathletics at Brunel, Mathematics for Science at the Open University, Interactive mathematics at Plymouth, FLAP and Hyperflap at Reading and Tutorial modules and Example data-base at Salford. These resources fit well together and provide mutual support. We describe them briefly, along with developments planned with FDTL4 funding, indicating how they are to be integrated.

Mathletics is an extensive set of on-line diagnostic mathematics tests developed at Brunel. It currently spans 175 topics and skills from GCSE to second year undergraduate level. Web-based question templates with much enhanced functionality have recently been developed. With FDTL4 funding the present bank of 4600 questions will be considerably extended and new tests linked to physics topics will be produced. Question Mark Perception and MathML equations with random parameters, random tables and dynamic diagrams will be used to generate an unlimited range of runtime questions of various generic forms. Intelligent feedback on student responses to these random questions will be by linking responses to ‘mal-rules’ that embody common misconceptions.

Maths for Science S151 has been developed by the Open University to consolidate the maths skills required to study introductory physics. The course includes printed distance-learning materials, a wide range of practice questions and an innovative on-line e-assessment. The e-assessment is used both formatively and summatively to provide immediate feedback to students on all answers and allows students to attempt questions for a second or third time for reduced credit following feedback on incorrect answers. These materials are tailored to OU distance-learning students but FDTL4 funding will allow them to be adapted, extended and made available for the whole sector and for their effectiveness in face-to-face contexts to be compared with their effectiveness in distance-learning.

Interactive mathematics at Plymouth consists of high quality web-based mathematics support material in the form of interactive linked files containing questions and quizzes. Resources may be used on any PC without special software. The software to produce the packages, LaTeX, is future proof. For example, MathML output can be generated and the materials disseminated via the web. FDTL4 funding will allow the production of about 20 to 30 new packages in a similar format, with graphics where appropriate. A wider range of mathematical topics will be produced, allowing better differentiation of levels and including applications within physics.

The FLAP resource spans Level 0 and Level 1 physics and mathematics. It was produced in 1995 as a paper-based text resource with supporting audio, video and software components. It is modular, flexible and uses supported self-study to encourage independent learning. The mathematics is introduced thoroughly but presented within a physics context. The physics and mathematics form two strands that may be studied separately, but they share a common notation, have dimensional integrity and are mutually supportive. New materials include further physics and mathematics modules, an electronic copy of the text and a developing hyper-linked version, Hyperflap.

Salford has developed a wide range of resources and strategies for teaching mathematics for applied physics students throughout the degree course. These include self-contained Tutorial Modules that target key problem-solving skills and develop competence through confidence. FDTL4 funding will allow the further development, testing and computerisation of 30 tutorial modules and supporting materials, targeting Level 1 with some bridging into Level 2.

Integration of these materials into a single PPLATO resource

The present resources include materials for teaching, testing (formative and summative), diagnostics and tutorial support. They span Levels 0 to 2 but work in isolation. PPLATO will extend and integrate these, allowing mutual support.

Teaching and learning, particularly in physics and mathematics, requires teaching materials to be supported by copious examples with feedback. Further, the teaching materials may need to be comprehensive, as in a textbook, or more informal, as in tutorials. Summative testing is required to measure progress and achievement and provide feedback to teacher and learner. Diagnostics is needed to determine an effective programme of study and to measure learning. A comprehensive integrated resource must provide all these aspects and be sufficiently flexible for use by students from a wide range of abilities and backgrounds and by institutions in many contexts and situations. This is the plan for PPLATO. The variety of teaching styles in the original resources adds value through flexible learning, allowing student choice of preferred learning styles.

Flexibility extends into how departments use the resource. For example, at one extreme the use might be for testing alone, with the teaching within the resource being peripheral – giving students an option of additional help. At the other extreme the full resource could be used as the main teaching and testing vehicle, in supported independent learning. Current practice is for staff to spend much time on assessment and it is likely that between these two extremes most departments will welcome the resource into their teaching and learning programmes. This flexibility is one of the strengths of the resource, easing dissemination and embedding it into departmental programmes in whatever way those departments determine.

Computer generated questions and feedback

A particularly attractive feature is the ability to generate an unlimited set of random questions of a particular type at run-time, with random tables, dynamic diagrams and intelligent feedback. Such tests do not depend on extensive question banks, laboriously created. This not only frees staff time for more effective support but enables new strategies to improve student mastery of basic skills such as algebra, trigonometry and basic calculus.

Widening participation in undergraduate physics through a new foundation programme

Successful foundation programmes for physicists or engineers, such as those at Reading, Brunel or Salford, require physics and mathematics and impact on both PPLATO target areas. PPLATO will draw on successful foundation programmes, integrating its new resources to establish a generic foundation programme that may be offered face-to-face or on-line and full-time or part-time; it will also develop good practice for its use. Institutions with or without undergraduate physics provision may use this with staff support for their local students, enabling wider access to physics and with the programme accredited by the user institution. The programme can also be made accessible to mature students and those with special needs and to schoolteachers for in-service training and career development, increasing the interaction between HE and schools.

Implementation Sites

As part of its dissemination strategy PPLATO plans to create 6 new Implementation Sites in each of the three years of the project. These will trial the deliverables and produce feedback to the Project Team through annual reports and evaluations. In return for this the site costs will be met, up to £500 pa, and travel costs for a site representative to attend a sector training day will be covered. Additionally, a named member of the Project Team liases closely throughout the collaboration (1, 2 or 3 years), as does the Project Co-ordinator. Training days share expertise on effective evaluation strategies and best practice in the use of the resources.

This plan calls for development and support of a strong and growing community of PPLATO users through annual meetings and a user web-site. The web-site allows rapid feedback and the sharing of good practice. The annual meeting cements the community and provides further opportunities for training and shared experiences.


The expected PPLATO outcomes are improvements in student competency in physics and mathematics, widened student participation and increased retention. Any evaluation must measure these quantities to assess the impact. The External Evaluator of PPLATO is Dr Mike Steel from Heriot-Watt University, an acknowledged expert in this area. He will be involved with the planning and implementation of the project from the start and will liase closely with the Project Team. The External Evaluator is a member of the Advisory Group and will provide two interim reports each year and a final report to this Group and to the Team.

Accessibility issues

The project is keen to maximise accessibility to its resources and to work actively with host institutions to conform with their disability access strategies. The PPLATO digital resources form a test-bed for accessibility issues. At its most simple this will mean that general style, navigation, target icons and colour choices will conform to CAST (Bobby), WC3 and WAVE standards as far as possible. There will be on-line instructions for browser configuration for disabled students (e.g. override of font colours and sizes). The material will include a dynamic background colour changer to accommodate dyslexics. The www, Perception-based tests and pdf pages will be trialled with the JAWS screen reader; this will take place at Brunel’s Disability Learning Resource Centre that already has JAWS experience. The mathematical questions will be based around a limited range of schematic diagrams that will be ALT-tagged with the name/number of a braille schematic figure. A similar tagging arrangement can result in questions being read out to visually-impaired students. Some of these issues require development and we plan to involve the LTSN Generic Centre in this.

©2005 The PPLATO Project

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional