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10 April 2009

The Physics Walk

I’m getting my class ready for the
AAPT Physics Bowl, a national contest which consists of a 40-question multiple choice test. If you haven’t heard of this contest, I highly encourage you to check it out. It doesn’t cost much money; more importantly, it doesn’t cost much time, either. A single 45-minute period is sufficient for participation.

Even better, the physics bowl doesn’t really, truly require any “preparation.” The questions cover an extremely broad spectrum of physics topics, the scope of which is unpredictable from year to year. Therefore, the best way to prepare the class is merely to teach like you always do.

So, Greg, you say, why are you “getting your class ready” for the contest if there’s no preparation necessary? The secret is, what I’m really doing is reviewing for the AP exam using the Physics Bowl as a tool. Not every Physics Bowl problem would be an appropriate AP question, but physics concepts are the same no matter who’s asking the questions. The Physics Bowl provides me with an extra 40 question multiple choice bank every year. Woo-hoo!

I will administer the 2009 contest next Wednesday. This past week, we practiced by taking the 2007 test in class.

Another secret of my preparation is the manner in which I go over a multiple choice practice test. A long time ago, I would simply ask, “Who has questions?” This opening led to a most unproductive class, as only the student who asked the question would pay attention to my answer. My first solution to this dilemma involved the use of a scantron machine. The automatic grading machine provides me a report of how many students got each question wrong. Therefore, I knew which problems really needed discussion. *I* chose the problems to go over in class, and I informed everyone of how many students missed each one.

The next, and most important, step in going over a multiple choice exam is to require corrections. When we take the physics bowl, I award full credit for each question a student gets right; I also award full credit for each question he gets wrong initially, but gets right on a correction. (In a test correction, students write out an explanation for the correct solution to a multiple choice problem. See my
previous post for details.)

Just knowing that they will have to correct their wrong answers inspires students to pay attention when I go over the test. Nevertheless, it’s springtime, my classroom has only one small window overlooking the vista of a dirty brick wall, and a young man’s thoughts naturally don’t want to concentrate on the ugly guy in the funny tie who’s droning on by the white board. Minds wander, no matter how energetic and interactive I try to make the class.

Can I prevent minds form wandering? Not figuratively, but I can literally insist on wandering minds… each year my classes take a Physics Walk to go over the practice AAPT Physics Bowl. I warn everyone to wear comfortable shoes and to be on time for class. We head out the door and down the wide, paved path to the Rapidan River. I only have about 15-18 people per class, and all are in decent physical shape – ah, the benefits of the boys’ boarding school, where a daily afternoon activity involving rigorous exercise is a requirement for all students. We can thus walk down and up the path at a good clip while staying together. I have a loud voice, so everyone in the class can hear me easily. We carry our Xeroxed copy of the test, and I go over each problem just the same way I would in class. I explain, ask specific students to give ideas, field questions from the audience, and so on. Since we’re on the move, though, I can see that my students are much, much more focused on the class discussion than they’d otherwise be. No one is doodling, staring out the window, or fantasizing about their date for the formal.

Try it… I don’t know (nor do I care) WHY the Physics Walk has proven to be so effective, I just know it is. If nothing else, I get to leave my dungeon I mean classroom on a 65 degree sunny day.


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