Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shared labs

Last year I tackled a common problem in our Modern Physics lab: too many students, not enough copies of the equipment for them all to do the famous labs of the early 20th century. My solution was to have them all get a little time on the lab/equipment but not let anyone do the whole lab outright.

Here's how it worked. In the first week they break into four groups, one for each experiment (Franck-Hertz, Millikan Oil Drop, e/m measurement, angular momentum study (the TeachSpin one with the magnet in the cue ball)). In that week they were tasked with writing the theory and set-up/procedure section of the eventual write up. That's it. They were given manuals for all the equipment and, of course, they had their text books from class to help with the theory section.

In the second week they come in and are expected to only do data collection. On a different apparatus. For a different experiment. The only thing they are allowed to use is the write up from the previous group from the previous week.

In the third week they analyze data. For a different experiment. From a different lab group.

Then the Frankenstein lab reports are mashed together and turned in. It worked pretty well last year and I'm between weeks 1 and 2 this year.

At first I told them that the last group would get the full grade for that lab report. That didn't go over very well. We ended up deciding that I would grade each group and their contributions, trying to be careful not to penalize a group for some other group's poor work.

Spreading it over several weeks was done because some of this equipment is finicky and the analysis can be tricky. Typically I don't like students to have to do too much outside of our three hours per week together so the three weeks is about the right amount of time is you consider all the analysis and all the writing being done in class. What was cool, though, about the three week spread was how the groups pushed each other. If a group knew that it was going to have to take Millikan data, they would pressure the set-up group to make sure to give them all the details they would need. Last year Millikan gave us some fits and it was cool how the data collection group worked with the setup group to figure out the glitches.

I see a lot of value to the way this is set up. In three weeks they get exposed to different aspects of three different labs. They understand the value of a carefully written setup section and the value of carefully organized data. I do it because I don't have enough equipment to do it other ways but I have to say I like this solution.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Global Physics Department

Announcement: Next week John Burk (@occam98) will show us how he uses Tracker in his teaching. Wednesday 3/30/2011

Tonight was the second installment of the physics educators elluminate chat. This time we had 15 different people log in and join us. Here's the recording of the bulk of the session.

Tonight we tried having a mini-presentation at the beginning (me talking about "momentum is king") and then we chatted for about 20 minutes about issues around teaching momentum, force, and energy.  The one sentence version of my take is that momentum is king, force keeps track of momentum swaps, and energy is a handy way of figuring out how much momentum an interaction can swap in total. We then group edited a google doc with our names and interests  to try to facilitate the community building that we're clearly all craving (why else would we be online late on a Wednesday night when, say, some of us are on spring break enjoying a fun stay at a hotel with 5 pools, ping pong, a basketball court, and where kids eat free!). Then we broke into a spontaneous discussion of Standards Based Grading (since, as one participant emailed me later, there were some serious heavy hitters in that department present).

Please think about joining in next week. We'll stick with the same time (9:30pm EDT/8:30pm CDT) on Wednesday. We don't have a theme for next week yet but I hope one will grow organically in the next few days (along with a possible presenter if that fits).

Here are the useful links again:

What's in a name?
I've coined this phrase "Global Physics Department Meeting" and I'm not sure if it has legs. I guess I'm trying to capture the spirit of the meetings as people are enjoying sharing with each other.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

If it spins, it doesn't flop

Me: "IF IT SPINS . . ." Audience: "IT DOESN'T FLOP!" This is a shot from my Piper Physics Patrol showing the concept of angular momentum. I hold the wheel right over the student's head and let go with my left hand (the one without the rope). It doesn't flop and so doesn't hit his head. Fun times.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wednesday physics chats

Tonight my twitter physics buds and I tried an Elluminate chat. Here's the recording of some of it. It was a lot of fun as we talked about standards in physics courses, a database of (re)assessments, Momentum as King, and more.

We thought we'd try to make it a weekly thing so here's the details:
8:30PM central time that's the link you use to get into the elluminate session

We thought we'd use Elluminate instead of a twitter chat because you gain a lot more functionality. Tonight we had eight participants but the system can handle up to 100 (I think) so please think about joining us.

We talked about leveraging some of the functionality and asking people to occasionally give a mini-presentation to set some context. Next week we'll start that off with a presentation from me on my thoughts on Momentum as King. This will involve talking about both force and energy as accounting tricks, lots of fun.

As just a teaser for how cool these chats can be, at one point tonight I made an offhand remark about how we could all share the first three things we teach in an intro physics course. Wow, with just eight people I think we got ten opinions! It lead to some great conversation.

Thanks to all who joined me tonight. Please comment below about your impressions of tonight when you get a chance.

Friday, March 11, 2011

More on collaborative oral assessments

Today was the last of four consecutive class periods dedicated to oral assessments in my Theoretical Mechanics course. I've written about these assessments before. After that last post some of my tweeps said they'd love to see some of the assessments in action. I asked the students if it would be ok if I video taped (that's such an anachronistic phrase, what's the modern version?) the class and they gave me the thumbs up. Below are a couple videos from today.

In both I start the clip after the student has finished working the problem. This is when the whole class has a conversation about how to assess the work.

In the one above the student was asked to show the steps necessary to determine the motion of a double pendulum when the first rod is replaced by a spring. He got a little hung up on the potential energy but eventually got it all down. The students and I decided it was a 3 (meets expectations) but it was interesting to hear the debate about whether it was a 4 (exceeds expectations). That's when I introduced the concept that I brag to my colleagues about any 4's that ever happen. I say pretty bluntly that I wouldn't brag about that performance.

In this one the student had to solve the following problem:

Here it's neat to hear the students making the case that this is a 4. And, true to my word, I bragged about this one to my colleagues later in the day.

I really like how open the class is about these assessments. They're honest with each other and they're very thoughtful about their comments. This class has sure been a lot of fun so far.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Draft grading

First, sorry if you came here under false pretenses. This is about doing multiple drafts of a grading run, not grading drafts of student papers. Stick around, though! Shoot, lost 'em. Oh well, here are my thoughts about this anyways.

I like to grade on the bus when I have time where I can't do much else. I don't have internet on the bus and I don't own a smart phone. When I started grading papers with my voice I thought I'd have to give up the bus part but I found the bus time could still be useful if I printed out the paper to read on the bus and then screencast my comments later.

Today on the bus I realized that I really like this new set up. Have you ever marked up a paper, putting tons of effort into a comment on a particular page and then later realized that they fixed the problem on a later page? I used to hate that because I'd have to back to the earlier comment and cross it out or add "nevermind" or something. With this new system of mine they never see the paper copy so I can mark it up any way I like. I don't have to worry about mistakes I make because the student will never see them.

All I have to do is make sure there's enough there for me to know what I was thinking when I get around to screencasting my comments to the student. This is usually the next day but sometimes a few days go by before I remember to do it. When I see a crossed out comment or "nevermind" I know to just skip that, or, possibly, comment to the student that the order of the paper was a little different than I thought it should have been.

The other thing I like about my bus system is that I go through the whole stack of papers before doing my final "draft" of grading with the screencasts. This helps me normalize my grading.

It's funny how I encourage my students all the time to use a drafting process on things and now I'm seeing a similar benefit in my own grading. I'd love to hear how others have benefited. Use the comments or let me know on Twitter @arundquist

Saturday, March 5, 2011

collaborative oral assessments

Yesterday was a great day in my Standards-Based Theoretical Mechanics course. It was the first of four consecutive days of scheduled oral assessments, a time to pause the flow of new material and let the students have a chance to catch up on the standards that we've covered so far.

Every fifteen minutes I randomly selected a student and a standard. That student went up the to board and I gave them a situation off the top of my head for them to deal with around that standard. Four students went to fill the hour and lots of really cool things happened.

First off, no one got a 4 (exceeds expectations) and no one clamored for one. In fact, one of the coolest things that happened was the class-wide discussion about what score to give each student. They all know I get the final say but the sbg-inspired way that no grade is truly final loosens things up a bit. One student was stuck on something and wanted to approach a problem from a different direction. I said "sure" and let him have at it. When he was done I asked the class what other standard he had just done. It took a while but they realized it was a standard from a completely different chapter than the one he was at the board to do. He said "oh, if I had known it was that one I would have done it much better!" I asked the class if he should get an assessment for both standards and it was great to hear them debate the value of that. Eventually we decided that, yes, he should get two scores. We focused for a little while on the notion that he would have done better if he had named the standard and one student said "well, we need to know these things and know the connections among them." Awesome.

At the end I asked some questions about how to improve the process since we have three more days of it next week. One thing we discussed was that I talked too much. When students got stuck I would give them some hints, or, more often, ask them a question to get them thinking about it from a different direction. What they want is the ability to add those hints instead of me. But one student pointed out that it had happened a couple of times already and sometimes the students in the audience are too quick to offer help. It was decided that I would be the gate keeper, deciding when help is needed, but that they would provide the help. I'm really excited to see that in action on Monday.

At the end I also asked the five students who weren't picked whether this was a good learning experience. They commented that it was neat to see how other students make similar mistakes. It was also good for them to see slightly different approaches to things. And of course they liked to see what follow up questions I and others had.

Overall I was really pleased with how it went. I'm glad we're taking this extended break from new material to give them a chance to really show me what they've learned. They've also really picked up the pace in asking to check out my LiveScribe pens so I'm looking forward to lots of pencast assessments this week as well.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Online pseudoteaching

Another in a series of pseudoteaching blog post organized by John Burk and Frank Noschese.They coined the term with the following definition:
Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.
They further refined it by pointed out that not only did you think the lesson was "good" but so did the students at the time and perhaps even an outside observer if there had been one.

I'd like to talk about some pseudoteaching of my own, specifically in the fully-online courses I've taught in a program for an alternative physics teaching license.  This program takes licensed science teachers and gives them a path to an additional physics license in the state of Minnesota.  Each cohort of roughly 20 teachers takes an online course with me in the fall (thermodynamics) and another in the spring (modern physics).

I wanted to build in opportunities for community building and group learning into the courses.  I had found (though I wasn't really surprised) that forced discussion board posts weren't really doing that so I came up with a grand plan.  The students were stressed out about the homework and wanted further help. I proposed that we try to mimic a technique we had done in our in-person classes (done in the summer) where we worked to produce what I called "road maps" for a problem. These are not solutions but rather statements about what physics is necessary to get to a solution. Here's an example for a falling object problem:

  1. Potential energy is converted to kinetic energy
  2. height is needed for potential energy
  3. speed can be found from kinetic energy
Of course the problems were typically much harder but hopefully you get the gist of how minimalist the road maps are while still being quite useful to students. We had found in the summer that, since they were all teachers, it was great practice to develop these road maps to think about how to guide students without giving everything away.

Ok, this sounded great and we talked about how to pull it off online. I used Blackboard back then and so I randomly put the students into six groups because every week there were six homework problems to be done. The homework was due on Sunday so I required the groups to work collaboratively on their assigned problem and to post a road map for it by Wednesday night. Everyone would still turn in all six problems on Sunday but now they'd have a road map for each.

The first time I did it I worked very hard to keep up with what each group was doing.  The issue was that they had to find the solution to the problem first and then figure out the road map, all by Wednesday. This often proved too difficult as they would start to just post more of a bare-bones solution.

To combat that I had the next great brainstorm: provide full screencast solutions to each group! This way they had the solution right away and could use their teacher talents to really come up with a road map rather than expending energy on the solution first. Cool right? That's what I thought, at least, and I think the students were jazzed about it too, not least because now they really only had to do 5 problems per week.

Why is this my example of pseudoteaching? Because the students didn't do well on the homework. Of course they'd nail the one problem but in our interactions in my online office hours (held on Thursday nights) and in grading their homework I'd see that they weren't synthesizing the material. In fact, often they'd do the steps of the road map, but not see the overall picture of the chapter or problem. Even worse was the lack of retention as we'd move through the class.

It became too difficult to ensure everyone was contributing ("I agree" became a common post) and I was frustrated with the lack of learning. In hindsight, it seems that they were simply trying to do what they could to help each other complete the homework set.  What it evolved to was a near step-by-step method for doing the problems (use equation X, then divide by the rest mass, then plug in to equation Y, . . .). I would comment to a group with phrases like "that's too much detail" but I found it difficult to get the students to engage with the material as a whole and the learning/synthesizing that I was looking for wasn't happening to the degree I wanted.

So what now? These days my online course is run in a much more individual way. I regret the loss of community and I'm still looking for ways to get that back in. But as far as learning is concerned, my most recent class was a big leap forward compared to the past. Now I give every student full access to all my screencast solutions on Sunday. On Thursday I still have online office hours to talk about any issues they're having with either the homework problems or the chapter concepts. Then on Friday morning I post a new problem that is similar to one or more of the six screencast problems. The students then have until Sunday to provide a screencast of their own of the solution.

What I like about this new method is that they get the full benefit of seeing how typical problems are done but they still need to synthesize the material as best they can before our Thursday sessions. And of course, I love hearing their voices.