Buy that special someone an AP Physics prep book, now with 180 five-minute quizzes aligned with the exam: 5 Steps to a 5 AP Physics 1

Visit Burrito Girl's handmade ceramics shop, The Muddy Rabbit: Yarn bowls, tea sets, dinner ware...

27 June 2015

Get class started right away -- no silly questions, no individual discussions

So many physics teachers would like more contact time with their students.  Sounds great, but don't count on administrative fiat giving you exactly the schedule you want anytime soon.  You don't make scheduling decisions, and be glad you don't, because everyone is somehow unhappy with every academic schedule ever devised.

The best solution to a schedule you don't like is to make the most of every moment you are allotted.  Don't stop physics work ten minutes early because you finished your planned activity -- instead, have a TIPERS or some sort of check-your-neighbor activity ready for just such an occasion.  Start class when the bell rings, not when everyone has finished their conversations and meandered to their seats.

Starting class promptly is a tricky exercise.  You don't want to be the officious arse who metes out punishment by caning* to those who show up a moment late.  But without careful attention to the start of class, human nature means that you'll be getting down to business later and later as the year moves along.

* figuratively.  I hope.

Routine is your friend.  My personal preference is a two-to-four-minute quiz to start every class.  Not only does the quiz provide a better review than any amount of me talking at the class, the act of me saying "begin the quiz" and starting the countdown timer sends the message that class has started.  No nagging, whining, begging, lecturing, or caning is ever necessary on my part.  Because this opening quiz is an immutable routine, students adapt without complaint or comment.  When someone is slightly late, there's no discussion or excuse, because the latecomer races to get as much of the quiz done as possible.

But there's more to starting class on time than beginning the quiz.  As students enter the room, you'll often hear a cacophony worthy of an elephant seal rookery.  "Mr. Lipshutz, did you grade last night's problems?  Can you help me with this solution?  Did we have homework?  What are we doing in class today?"  

Aarrgh!  I don't want to be unfriendly, but (a) I want to start on time, and (b) I don't want to encourage dumb questions by answering them.   And most any attempt to address a silly question at face value does in fact beget more of the same.  If I graded the homework, it will be in your work-return box, just like it was every other day this year.  I would be happy to help you with solutions, but not two minutes before class time, as we've discussed before.  We have homework every night, and if you aren't sure about the assignment, what are you going to do about that in the next two minutes?.  You'll find out in class -- you know, the class that starts in two minutes -- what we're doing in class today.  I give these non-answers -- politely the first couple of times, with emphatic finality if they continue more than a couple of days in a row -- along with a reminder to get problems out and prepare for the quiz.  The dumb questions disappear pretty quickly, often when a student starts sarcastically giving my answers to his slow-witted peers.

Okay, that's how to handle the ridiculous questions.  But what about the important or reasonable questions?  You don't want to answer those right before class, either.  It's so, so easy to get caught up in a five minute discussion with the diligent student who will be missing two days of class next week, and wants to plan how to catch up.  That's a conversation that must be had -- but it doesn't have to happen now.  Don't make your class sit and wait for your conversation to finish, just like you don't want a store clerk to make you wait to check out while he and the manager discuss important issues about the end of tonight's shift.  Ask the student to come by after class, at lunch, or some other time.  Whatever reasonable questions there might be from individuals, they can all be dealt with later.  Get class started.

Two time-saving answers to common beginning-of-class questions I learned from colleagues at the AP reading:

(1) Hey, I missed yesterday's quiz because I was absent.  When can I make it up?  Don't bother... we'll just have tomorrow's count double.  Aha!  No more tracking down people for make-up quizzes.  And since I give a quiz every day, even really good or really bad performance isn't going to change anyone's grade significantly.  It saves me trouble, but also, what incentive to keep up!

(2) On problem two of this test, you took off two points, but I think you only should have taken off one point.  Let me show you what I meant.  Not now.  But if you'll place your test in this folder, I will be glad to carefully regrade the ENTIRE test tonight.  What is the probability that this student actually bothers to re-submit the test?  Chances are, the student is grasping at straws hoping to use debate skills to convince you of something.  And this student also knows in his heart that if you go through his test again with a fine toothed comb, you might find one or two other places where he didn't deserve awarded points.  You've arranged a perfect result, then -- if you truly made an egregious error, you'll be able to correct it, but you provide a disincentive to those who are merely whining.

Do you know a polite yet firm answer to a typical opening-of-class question that avoids protracted conversation?  If so, let us all know in the comments.


  1. This is not exactly what you were asking for, but it's a fun way to stop the "What are we doing in class today" question. As the students walk into the class before the bell rings, have a song playing in the background, with the lyrics in the song reflecting the topics of that day's lecture. It's preferable to play popular songs that the students know, but some of the topics I can only find obscure songs that no one has heard of. It starts on the first day with Cake's "Going the Distance" which mentions distance and speed. A few of my favorites are:

    Tom Petty - Free Fallin'
    Faith Hill - This Kiss (mentions Centrifugal Motion, and yes, I wish it said Centripetal Motion)
    Beach Boys - Good Vibrations
    Coldplay - Speed of Sound
    Marcia Griffiths - Electric Slide

    They catch on pretty quickly and eventually turn it into a game among themselves to figure out what we're going to be covering that day. If anyone has some popular songs to add (either current or oldies), please feel free to share.

  2. I love your idea and I know it works. But, how do you find time to grade daily quizzes? I have three sections of AP Physics 1, I want to do it but I can't. Is there a trick to the grading?