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23 February 2013

Freshmen: taking things one correction at a time

Test corrections have been a staple of my classes for years.  In a junior-senior course, I assign everyone to correct every answer they got wrong.  This work is done sometimes in class, sometimes as homework, sometimes in a combination of the two.  Since I'm usually either awarding points back on the test, or making the corrections worth a major grade, I generally get good effort and good understanding of the original mistakes.

I've given the same assignment to my freshmen this year.  But, this year test corrections have not been particularly effective.  Students make the same mistakes on the correction as they did on the test; or, despite repeated entreaties from me, they state claptrap like "The cart weighs 90 N because that's the only answer that makes sense." 

I'm realizing that part of the problem here is the non-immediacy of my response.  With, say, four problems to correct in a homework session, ninth graders seem much more concerned with merely getting all four done as quickly as possible than with getting the answers right.  They spew some BS, write enough that I won't call out their laziness, and then make puppydog eyes the next day when I tell them all their answers are wrong.  If they are to work on the corrections in class, freshmen sit and stare, or yap with friends, far more than my older students ever did.  Their answers are no more likely to be correct than if I assigned corrections as homework.  

I've seen it suggested that the "immediacy of evaluation" is one of the major video game features that turn on middle schoolers and teenagers.  In an adventure game, you either accomplish your quest or don't, but you find out right now, and unambiguously; then if you failed, you get another immediate chance to do it right.  Sports or shoot 'em games are the same way, just substitute "score" or "die" for "accomplish your quest."  

When it comes to video games, adults don't have to nag children about how "practice doesn't make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect."  The video game structure ensures that only perfect practice exists.

So this week, in the context of second trimester exam review, I made my class more like a video game.

My typical "multiple choice correction sheet" is a full 8.5"x11" page, divided in half so that one correction takes up half the page.  Well, for this year's trimester review, I cut the pages in half: one small page, one correction.  One at a time.

The in-class assignment was to correct every problem missed on the recent test; then, to correct each problem missed on the last few problem sets; then, to pull from a "grab bag" of questions.  For each question they did CORRECTLY, they earned a ticket, good for extra credit and a game of skee-ball.*

* Yes, I do in fact have a skee-ball machine at my house.  Don't you?

But each person was required to show me their answers, not at the end of the period, but after each individual problem was completed.  If the answer wasn't perfect, I sent the student back to his seat to do it right.

This approach worked amazingly well.  Most got into the swing of the class quickly.  Since they were moving their bodies frequently, they did a lot less aimless staring.  Since there was a tangible, immediate way to measure their progress (the tickets), I saw a lot less yammering about non-physics topics.  

I did scan the room regularly -- when I saw a student who had been seated for more than about 5 minutes, I called him out: "What are you working on?  Why haven't I seen you?  No, you're not allowed to be 'stuck,' you've got 15 other students who can help, or you can come ask me.  You have two minutes to be up here with some sort of answer, right or wrong, capish?"

Amazingly enough, at the beginning of each class I still got some claptrap.  But this time, instead of me nagging two days after a POS problem had been submitted, I said something right away and in person: "No, 'the acceleration is left because the block is accelerating to the left' is utter nonsense.  Please read it out loud to me.  Does your sentence explain anything?  Does it help you understand why the acceleration is to the left?  Does it include a fact of physics from our fact sheet?  No?  Then please try again to justify the answer the way the class has been taught to justify answers."  

In most cases the next attempt was spot-on.  Go figure.  

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