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25 January 2011

Personally Handwritten Notes

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It's the dog days of the school year here at boarding school.  My twelve wonderfully enthusiastic debate team members dragged themselves crossly through practice yesterday, missing that spark that had been propelling them the past two months.  I actually felt moved to cancel practice as a mental health day.  In class, I can read my students' faces -- they are present physically, but they're mentally beaten down.  This happens every January.  All will be better as the weather starts to warm and as the sun sets later.

Nevertheless, class moves on.  I ain't gonna just stop teaching.  I deliberately schedule a few non-traditional activities for January -- the student-written test, the four-day-long circuits lab -- but I've got to plow through some material somehow.  With our midwinter week off coming up, if I don't give a major quiz or test this week everyone will just tune completely out.

I tried something relatively new this week.  On Friday the AP class takes the "Big Butt Electricity Fundamentals Quiz;"  my general physics class has a major quiz on Saturday morning.  (Yes, we have Saturday morning classes.  No wonder everyone is beaten down, right?  :-)  )  But as an inducement to study, I announced today that everyone will be allowed to use any personally handwritten notes for these quizzes.

This is not an original idea -- I've seen many a physics teacher allow students to use a handwritten equation sheet.  In fact, I've generally avoided having the students write their own equation sheet, because they tend to write down every equation in the textbook, including intermediate steps in a derivation, and because they tend not to understand what they've written.  So I'm still giving the general class their equation sheet; the AP class knows what equations are on the official College Board equation sheet.  I'm expecting that the handwritten notes will not include merely equations. 

One student asked whether he could just bring his class notes -- I said, sure.  As long as they're not bringing in old tests, as long as they're not xeroxing their friends' notes or their textbook, then the process of preparing for the quiz will be as useful as the quiz itself.  And since we've already had numerous quizzes this year, everyone knows exactly the kind of questions that will be asked and the kind of notes that will be most useful. 

Will this work?  My hope is that I'll get better prepared students, even in the midst of the winter doldrums.  While I don't expect the personally handwritten notes to be a magic bullet to physics success, it just might work. 


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