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30 June 2019

Schedule cumulative tests once a month, but NOT UNIT TESTS!

I'm thrilled that the College Board has created a brand new course and exam description for all AP physics courses.  Now it is abundantly clear how much material each topic contributes to the exam - that wasn't clear previously for AP Physics 1.  

Part and parcel with the revised CED, the College Board will now provide access to an electronic platform called "AP Classroom" with a vast test bank.  Teachers will be able to electronically assign  "personal progress checks" relating to each unit - these will consist of authentic multiple choice questions. Furthermore, I've been told that through AP classroom we can assign authentic free response items, organized by unit.  This is wonderful.

The new CED does encourage categorization by unit.  I know that's far more useful than previously, when the exam was organized by "big ideas" which overlapped multiple physics topics.  Teachers - and students - prefer to think sequentially.  Learning might be nonlinear, but time is certainly linear.  We need to decide what topics and problems to work on each day of class, each week, each month... Yes, we absolutely must scaffold our content such that the same topics reappear in multiple contexts throughout the year.  But we also have to start somewhere, and progress somewhere else.  Unit guides and "personal progress checks" are outstanding places to begin.

So how do you set up your tests (or in education language, your summative assessments)?  Do you test every unit?  Every two units?  Do you use the personal progress checks as unit tests?

No.  I don't suggest using "unit tests" at all.

I still recommend that you set test DATES far in advance.  Choose days that are unlikely to be interrupted by state championship meets, by regional honors band auditions, by the Ohio State-Michigan game, or by the first day of deer hunting season.  

Don't move these dates for anything other than the apocalypse.  These are not "unit tests"!  They are, simply, tests.  Just as the football team plays their scheduled game whether or not they've mastered the zone blitz, your class takes the scheduled test whether or not they're fully comfortable with Newton's Third Law.  Part of the whole point of the test - or the game - is to find out just how comfortable the students are with the material.

I recommend AGAINST advertising the topics of each test, or even stating the topics to yourself.  The first test will include, say, kinematics and dynamics, to the extent that your class has discussed each.  The second test will include kinematics and dynamics and, say, circular motion and gravitation and energy, to the extent that your class has discussed each.  The third test... well,  you get the idea.

A "unit test" is a signal that what came before can be forgotten.  A "unit test" encourages your students - and you - to either rush to get material on the test, or to postpone the test because you're not ready.  

Just schedule test dates.  Then put questions on each test that are cumulative until that point.  That way you're doing six to eight AP practice exams throughout the year.  That way you're demanding learning in context.  That way you've that much more incentive to scaffold.  That way our students have that much more incentive to correct each test, knowing that the material isn't going away.  (Just as the football team has considerable incentive to watch film.)  That way someone who is slow, who didn't really get kinematics or dynamics as it was presented, can show an understanding of that material later.

22 June 2019

Four suboptimal habits of experienced physics teachers

The great and terrible part of the tenth or twentieth year of a successful teacher's career is that, for the most part, major substantive accountability to others no longer is a part of their life.  Sure, they'll be observed, asked about goals, required to check off continuing education requirements.  Nevertheless, solid teachers who have lasted so long don't generally get replaced for less than malpractice. We face no competitive pressure - when has a school ever fired a good physics teacher merely to replace them with someone purported to be even better?  I mean, that's the life of a football coach in a nutshell, yet unheard of in the education world.

The truly best teachers are accountable to themselves.  They ask tough questions of themselves: not  just "are my students learning physics", because they are.  Tough questions include, "How could I make learning physics easier for my students?  How does my students' understanding stack up against that of students at other schools?  Can we attain a deeper or broader understanding of physics without adding more (or even while reducing) homework? What evidence do I have that my students enjoy my class - not every moment of every session, obviously, but in a broad sense?"

These are the questions that I ask myself in practically every day.  Just the fact that you're reading this means you're asking yourself these questions, too.  

I'm a different teacher now than I was five years ago, ten years ago, 25 years ago.  (Occasionally because I tried something that didn't work.)  Even if you realize that you've developed one of the subobtimal habits listed below, it's never too late to change.

Reminder to relatively new teachers: This post is not for today's you - it's for you in a decade.  In the first few years, just keeping afloat is a major achievement.  Make one or two substantial changes to your course each year - don't try to reinvent the wheel all at once.  Most importantly, don't give in to guilt trips, whether internally or externally imposed.  You are serving your students well, even if you'll do even better in a few years. Read a bunch of this blog's other posts... come back to this one some other time.  :-)


(1) Giving too much help, or helping too early.  We all care about our students... and so we are tempted to answer their frustrated questions, to show them the right path when they ask us for help.  DON'T!  Assign problems that you think are appropriately challenging the students, and then expect the students to meet the challenge you've laid out for them.  So much long-term physics angst - on the AP exam, in a college physics class - comes because students have come to rely on help from the friendly and dedicated physics teacher.  When that lifeline is suddenly taken away right when the stakes increase, frustration ensues.  Don't allow that frustration to become normalized, because that's exactly why so many adults say "I hated physics."  Instead, allow students to make mistakes, make them own and correct their small failures, such that they are experienced enough to power through adversity on their own.

(2) Spending an excessive amount of time on early topics (then either cutting or racing through later topics).  Since no one is going to fire the physics teacher, it becomes all too easy to stick to motion and force through most of the year.  After all, if you don't move on, no one will complain - not the top students who are earning high marks, not the bottom students who aren't really learning much but are still getting grades they need because they're not being asked to learn much.  Physics teaching is certainly not about minimizing complaints, though! If you're not spending significant time on force, motion, energy, and momentum - plus another one or two topics of your choice - it's hard to justify calling your class "physics" rather than "physical science" or "an introduction to force and motion."  

(3) Assuming grades are the primary student motivator; focusing on the transactional rewards of the course rather than intellectual rewards.  If you're discussing the quality of college a student is applying to, if you're emphasizing how important for college junior year grades are, if you're continually reminding seniors in the fall how colleges look at their grades... then you are also de-legitimizing your class for those who are already accepted to college.  I mean, why shouldn't they just take a nap every day during class once their acceptance letter arrives?  If the only reason to try hard is to earn college admission, then you should allow those who have already secured college admission to leave.  (Of course that's ridiculous hyperbole.  Model via your actions that physics is something to be learned for its own sake.  When a student asks how much an assignment counts toward the course grade, don't answer - instead ask back with a smile, "are you going to work harder or not depending on my reply?"  They'll stop asking.

(4) Focusing on a student's short-term rather than long-term performance.  Teenagers live in the moment - it's the teacher's job to help them learn to work toward goals that take a full year to realize.  Don't allow students to ignore regular physics practice in the expectation of cramming a week before the AP exam.  On the other hand, don't legitimize despair when they do poorly on the first test of the year - failure happens in the short term, and it's okay. You'll be shocked how easy it is to get your class in the mindset that mistakes are bound to happen, that no one is a Bad Girl or a Bad Boy just for getting a problem set wrong.  Once short-term failure is accepted as normal and even as useful, then long term success is in the works.  

I'm sure there are others... post a comment!