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27 April 2012

End of year review techniques: do it yourself, and drill vs. new matieral

This time of year, I'm asked regularly about review -- review for the AP exams, review for the Regents, review for the end-of-year exams, whatever.  The point is, we have covered enough material now that we can be putting it all together, assigning problems which integrate multiple topics, multiple levels of understanding.  And we can expect our students to either get these problems right, or to correct their mistakes.

Today I'll discuss two (of several) features of my April and May review.

Number 1:
During review time, I am stricter than ever about students doing everything on their own, without asking anyone for help until they've completed a problem.  We do a lot of work in class, and I am constantly saying "No, you may not ask me that question, not until the problem is finished.  What?  You say you can't do anything without me answering you?  Really?  So, on the AP exam in a few weeks, you're going to ask the proctor this kind of question?  And when she says 'I can't answer, and I don't know anything about physics anyway,' you're going to give up and stew at your desk for the remaining three hours?  Now go do whatever you can on the problem, and come back with the best answer you can come up with.  THEN we'll ask and answer questions."  Our students must must must get in the habit of working independently, then debriefing.  This process will develop confidence, study habits, and test taking habits all together.

Number 2:
By April, I know my students' strengths and weaknesses.  Review time will help everyone cement the topics and skills on which they were shaky; but no review in the universe is going to magically change a student's raw talent level.  We can use this time to separate our students, to give people work that's appropriate to their ability and progress.

It is always better for a student to get really good at a few topics rather than be sort-of-okay at all the topics on a cumulative exam.  During review time, the difference between an A and a B student should be the amount of material that he's trying to master.  Someone who has been getting top scores on the tests should be reviewing everything, especially those little topics that you didn't have the time, inclination, or energy to cover in the course of the course.  But someone who has been coming up short on tests should FIRST work on cementing some basic topics before moving on to new or difficult material.

In AP classes, I tend to separate out those with consistent As from those with Bs (or Cs) on tests.  The A students would work on atomic physics, nuclear physics, and electromagnetic induction as priorities.  Atomic and nuclear were not covered so thoroughly in the regular part of the class, but A students can generally learn this on their own as well as they could with lecture; electromagnetic induction WAS covered, but always needs careful review, as it's one of the hardest topics on the exam.  

The B (and C) students would instead work on other material.  I start them with some drill on frequently tested topics.  For examples of the kinds of things we do, look at the 5 Steps to a 5: AP Physics book's drill chapters.  You'll see problems on pulleys, inclined planes, electric and magnetic forces, and motion graphs.  I've created a couple more of these this year, as well.  Here's a worksheet on slopes and areas of graphs.  I've done a series of collision problems, and another on graphical analysis for lab problems.

Now, I don't generally believe in "busy work," especially early in the year when we're establishing the idea that physics is about creative problem solving, not about plugging in numbers to equations.  However, this time of year, practice is important for some students.  Which students?  The ones who have shown by their previous performance that they would benefit from more practice.  I don't offer a choice of learning new material or doing drill sheets, because some A students would choose the easy road, some B students would tilt at windmills.  So I assign each student to a review track.

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