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24 November 2014

Are we in the happiness business?

I spent a decade fine-tuning my elective general physics course to present about one-third of the material on the AP Physics B exam, but to the same level as that exam.  Students consistently did fantastic work, earning the equivalent of high 5s on the authentic AP-style tests I gave.

Then one year the population for the general physics course changed.  We began enforcing the requirement that all students take physics.  Those who had entered as 10th or 11th graders -- that is, those who didn't take 9th grade conceptual physics -- took this general physics course as a graduation requirement, not as an elective.

During that school year, I taught the same way, and I noticed no difference in performance.  As always, everyone who put forth a credible effort earned a B- or better; better than 1/3 of the class got As, with an overall average in the B+ range.  I was quite pleased with the year's work.

On the year-end course evaluation, though, I discovered significant dissatisfaction with the course.  "You're way too intense."  "You yell too much."  "Relax and back off."  I certainly was insistent and demanding in that class, as I had been for a full ten years teaching that course.  I had previously gotten only the very occasional complaint about my approach, coupled with significant thank-yous for bringing students through a difficult subject. In this particular year, though, a message was delivered unto me -- Back off.

And so I did.  I changed my approach to general physics for this new population.  I lowered the course expectations, so that they matched the New York Regents exam rather than part of the AP exam.  I made a conscious effort to use a calmer demeanor... instead of "NO!  BOUX!  ACCELERATION IS CERTAINLY *NOT* ALWAYS IN THE DIRECTION OF AN OBJECT'S MOTION!" it was, "So, Mr. Jones, could you please recall and repeat the facts we know about the direction of an object's acceleration?"  I truly did "back off."  What were the results?

* Happier students.  Year-end evaluations were quite positive, with no hints of the complains about me and my intensity.

* Poorer grades.  Only 20% or so As, and a class average in the low B range.

A large segment of the class continued making fundamental errors long into the year.  Many were content getting Cs.  But the class and I got along famously, and I've done well with the general-level students on this model for years now.

One day I recounted this story to a veteran teacher whom I greatly respect.  He began to redden a bit as I described the changes I made.  He finally exploded:  "Greg, we're not in the happiness business," he said.  "We're here to teach students the way we think best, not the way they think best -- that's what we're paid for."  

While I see this veteran's point, and agree with it wholeheartedly, I think part of teaching "the way I think best" is to respond and adjust to reasonable feedback.  Just as different levels of baseball call for different strike zones,* different audiences of student need different things from their physics courses.  I'll push my AP students as hard as I can.  They signed up for the varsity course, and they have the option to leave it it becomes more than they can handle.  But the general folks... they don't have a choice about taking physics.  Now that we're really requiring all of these folks to take physics, I'd rather they take away an enjoyable experience in exchange for a bit less depth of coverage.  I'd rather they be happy with a C than bitter with a B+.  And for those who want the greater challenge, they know how to sign up for AP next year.  They chose the general course, and for now, that's what they're going to get.

* And if you think the zone should be the same for major leaguers as for 8th graders, I challenge you to sit through an 8th grade game in which batter after batter waits for the inevitable walk.  If the pitch is hittable, I'm calling the strike.  I've never gotten pushback with this approach at the 8th grade or JV level -- and that is sort of the point.

POSTSCRIPT:  Interestingly, I am once again teaching the honors course this year, but I have maintained, for the most part, my lower-key, backed off demeanor.  And I'm not satisfied with my students' performance.

I have a gaggle of honors-level alumni who have given the Intense Greg positive feedback, who have mentioned how well they've been served by my course.  So why would I change my approach?  Nearly universally, graduates laugh at me, saying "Oh, I knew better than to confuse velocity and acceleration, I didn't want to get BOUXed!"  They knew I cared about them, and that I would work my arse off to teach them college-level physics the best way I knew how, they knew that a BOUX was never personal... but they also knew that they'd better not confuse acceleration and velocity.  

The toughest skill in physics teaching is adjusting your approach to the level of student in front of you, especially when different levels show up in your classroom back-to-back.  Even now that I have a clear game plan for each level, I still have difficulty pitching my tone and material just right.
  


1 comment:

  1. Hi Greg,

    Great post - I've felt many of the same feelings as I've worked through different groups of students. I've had groups point out the element of my class that they don't like (labs, computer simulations, data analysis, and problem sets, for example), and I've made adjustments accordingly because I do want them to enjoy themselves while learning the material. One year's group is always different from the next. Knowing how to walk that line is certainly a major challenge of this job.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Evan

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