Monthly Archives: January 2013


During this first semester doing the flipped classroom (with a semi-focus on mastery) I’ve noticed some good and bad trends.  The good: students are eager to improve their quiz scores, even if they have an 80%, and they must conference with me about mistakes.  The bad: I haven’t structured class time well enough and to many students are “slacking off” in my view.  The idea is that students have more time to work on understanding during class, after getting some information as homework.  But, as I’ve heard from others who have tried this, most students do not dive into content acquisition during their out-of-school hours.  This results in students trying to catch up on lessons during class, and less time is spent getting help.  Roughly one quarter of my students fall into this category: they are perpetually behind, and surrounded by others who are working independently.

A side effect of this system is that I have a large majority of my students in the A & B grades, and a minority in the C, D, and F grades.  The only reason I’m bugged by this, and in my old style of teaching I’d be elated, is that it seems I’ve made it easy to get an A.  I just recently put out a survey for my students to complete.  Only a handful have responded, as it is winter break, but those that have say their favorite aspect of my class is the ability to retake quizzes.  This was an option against things like “I can work at my own pace” and “less time is spent taking notes”.  The biggest suggestion so far is that I do more lecturing.  This was an option against “more labs” and “more structure.”  ::sad face::  Its early, but the trend is that students want me to lecture more but still let them take quizzes until they get their desired grade.

Two things I really want to do, which I either stated or alluded to in my last post, are teach students stop seeing me as their only source or information, and assess them on what they have learned, not their completion rate.  So let’s take a look at the mess I’m in.

Current structure for grades (just typing this out makes me feel like an ass):

  • ASQ (version of notes) – 10%
  • Concept Development (assignments) – 10%
  • Explorations (labs and such) – 20%
  • Quizzes (quizzes) – 40%
  • Final Project – 10%
  • Final Exam – 10%

The issue with this structure, aside from it being a points race, is that most of these assignments and notes are fee points.  Explorations require more thinking and work, but students work together.  Quizzes are mastery driven, so if a student gets below 80%, I knock it down to 0.  So of course nine times out of ten they conference with me and take another quiz.  I’m truly shocked ANYONE is getting less than an A!

My ideal structure:

  • Learning Objectives (standards) – 80%
  • Midterm Exam – 10%
  • Final Exam – 10%

That 80% coming from learning objectives (LOs) would be determined by performance on any assignment, lab, quiz, or project we do in, or out of, class.  Ace a quiz on constant velocity? Boom! You’ve got 5/5 or 10/10 for that standard.  Make a video demonstrating momentum and its conservation?  Thats two LOs you can nail down!  And if you did well describing momentum, but you didn’t do well on conservation, no problem: we’ll reassess your understanding later… maybe on a quiz, or during a lab.  Makes sense, don’t it?!

Now, as much as I really really really want to jump into that “ideal” grading structure second semester, I know I can’t.  I need to ge the kids on board — I had a syllabus that proclaimed the current structure… and their parents read it!!!  And I need to inform the admin as well.  Don’t want my first year at a new school to be my last year at that school.  So I’m going to propose a compromise to the the students, reminding them that most of their grades won’t change much under the new system, and that its really a test of whether I can pull it off:

  • Assignments (still pretty much credit/no credit) – 5%
  • Quizzes (still using the same system) – 10%
  • Learning Objectives – 70%
  • Midterm Exam – 7.5%
  • Final Exam – 7.5%

The real selling point is that the assignments, quizzes, and tests all are used to assess the students LOs.  So retaking a quiz can raise their quiz % AND fix their LO levels.  Not too shabby.  

Hopes and dreams…  while I see this system as the way to go, from the point of view of a teacher, and a sane person, I also hope it will lend some focus to my other goal: to teach kids to find the information they need.  Currently, a student who does poorly on a quiz relies on verbal feedback from me as to what they need to work on.  But when they look at their grades, they see “Quiz 7 – 50%” and as a result study just those questions they missed on that quiz.  If they instead see “LO 12: students can describe elastic and inelastic collision using momentum – 50%” they have a pretty good idea what it is they need to work on.  Not just a couple of problems from the quiz, but an entire idea.

We’ll see what happens.

Phixing Physics… I hope

I started this post a month ago when I first read through the new AP Physics 1&2 guidelines.  Since then I’ve been too swamped with robotics meetings, rocket projects, and existential musings to finish it.  And a good thing too!  In that time I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on various blogs (thank you ThinkThankThunk) and literature concerning why we do things the way we do them.  Specifically, why do we grade assignments rather than learning, and why should kids bother showing up anyway?  Below and indented is my original post, which still encapsulates my feelings about AP Physics.  What follows that are my ideas on how I might remedy some issues.

I was initially jazzed when I read the new AP Physics 1&2 framework (APP1 & APP2).  It made sense to me that the content in AP Physics B (APPB) be split into two years with added focus on conceptual understanding and lab skills.  I’ve read some opinions that go against mine though.  A teacher in a forum claims that his 100+ students always average a score of 4 on the APPB exam.  I wonder how much they remember 1 year later???  The question of whether his students were first year physics students remains unanswered.

My situation: 2 periods of APPB, with about 3 of the 55 being 2nd year students.  All are struggling with the conceptual parts, even those that ace the mathematical parts.  This is my first year teaching the APPB course, and beyond my enjoyment working through the problems, it hasn’t been fun.  It always seems like I’m behind schedule (a sentiment echoed by the former teacher). So a two-year sequence seems like a godsend.  But is it?

Advantages of 2 year sequence:

  1. students spend more time on each topic
  2. more time for labs and projects
  3. students who are happy with credit for APP1 can elect to not take APP2

Disadvantages of 2 year sequence:

  1. it is 2 years long
  2. students that want a full year of college credit need to commit 2 years of high school
  3. when both courses are offered it makes for 2 preps per day for me

The change from APPB to APP1&2 will not take place next year, too.  So if I want to transition to these courses I still have another year of APPB to teach. To me that feels like working on a car you’re going to scrap.  I mean, I’m getting the hang of APPB, but I don’t want to become a master of pacing it if I’m going stop teaching it.  So what about AP Physics C?  If there’s one thing I like more than algebra-based physics, its calculus-based physics!

But APPC is a complex beast.  The College Board says that schools may teach the Mechanics and Electricity & Magnetism parts in the same year.  But it also says that all AP Physics courses are recommended as a 2nd year physics course:

If AP Physics is taught as a second-year course, it is recommended that the course meet for at least 250 minutes per week (the equivalent of a 50-minute period every day) . However, if it is to be taught as a first-year course, approximately 90 minutes per day (450 minutes per week) is recommended in order to devote sufficient time to study the material to an appropriate depth and allow time for labs

Now, I know for a fact that I’m not going to get a lot of 2nd year students taking AP physics.  Most students who take physics move on to AP Bio or AP Environmental Sci.  So could I get 90 minute classes?  That would mean two periods back to back!  And I doubt the administration would go for that.  What about just doing mechanics for a full year?  I’d be up for that but would feel bad about not giving students a real look at physics (so many topics left out).

So, what did one month of life teach me?  Basically, that school blows, and there will never be any real fix for this until we rebuild it from the ground up.  Seriously… I see my students for 53 minutes per day.  I have their attention and engagement for maybe 48 minutes of that time (if I really want their attention on me).  And once a week we have “planning” schedule, where periods are only 46 minutes (~41 minutes at full attention).  That is less than 4 hours of attentive time from students per week.  Is that enough for me to dispel misconceptions, reinforce good practices, foster good study habits, AND administer assessments?  Not really.  I mean, I’m doing an OK job, and others seem to be doing even better (just look at the test scores! <– sarcastic).  But I want to do more for my students than < 4hr/wk can provide.

What to do then? I’ve been trying the flipped classroom model all semester, and while its core purpose (freeing up class time) has been effective, the byproduct (at-home video lessons) have not been.  My first objective is to teach my students how to learn.  (And boy-oh-boy, some of my AP kids are the worst at learning)   The students need to learn how to find and acquire information from a variety of resources.

I typically make a page on our class site with resources I think are useful for the current unit.  What I’ve noticed, is that if I haven’t made my own video for the unit, or if the resource page I’ve made is sparse, students don’t do much studying… because I didn’t tell them where exactly to go.  It seems baffling to me that students would think that I only want them to use three websites/videos I linked, and that all the world-wide web is off limits, but thats how they see it.  I need to show them how to find resources that will help them fix their misconceptions, or lack of understanding.  Otherwise I become a crutch: “Mr. Zook, I didn’t get your video.  Can you just do a lecture?”  My response (elaborated for effect), “No, sorry.  I’m not going to spend a whole class lecturing on a topic because a small group of students didn’t get it.  I will however show you how to find the solution, and help you figure out if you understand it after that.”  And the student shuts down because they think it is impossible for them to learn anything without the teacher instructing.  So, teaching them HOW to learn is necessary (and depressing… these are 11th graders!).

My second objective is to grade them based upon what they actually know.  You don’t already do that??? Er, no.  I give them scores based upon what percent of content they complete to my satisfaction, be it bookwork, quiz questions, or exams.  I then add up and average the scores, with category weights (because not all points are created equal), and that is their grade.  Why do I want to change this?  Because for too many years I’ve dealt with bad test scores differently than students.  If a student does poorly on a test I say, “Don’t worry you can still bring your grade up.” –because they can study what they did wrong, and do better when those topics come up again.  But students think, “Its OK, I can still bring my grade up.” –because they can learn the NEW stuff better and thus cancel out their old misunderstandings.  That is a disparity if I’ve ever seen one.

Transitioning to an objective, or standards-based grading system seems to be the logical solution.  I already attempt to make quizzes cover only one standard (sometimes two connected standards). The only issue is with what the standards are.  Right now they are the State Content Standards.  A truly effective system would require I make my own standards based on what I want to understand.   These would no doubt be tightly linked with what the State of California thinks my kids should know.  But would be more explicit, and easy for my students to understand.  This would work great in general physics, as we have a less math-oriented curriculum, but in AP it would be a bit more difficult.

The AP objectives list tallies up to over 250 individual objectives (currently).  Maintaining a record of student performance on each of those would be challenging, but I think it would pay off in the end.  Students would also monitor their progress.  They would know which specific topics they need help on.  Instead of saying, “I missed the conceptual problems on that unit exam.  Can I do corrections?” They can look at my objectives breakdown and say, “Oh, I didn’t get the problems on describing adiabatic processes, or isobaric processes.  Mr. Zook, what can I do to study for those objectives?” <– ideal world 🙂

I’m going to work on my transitional gameplan… can’t just jump into standards based grading (SBG) 2nd semester… and post it here when it is done.  In the meantime, if you’re interested in SBG, check out Shawn Cornally’s blog.  He has made an awesome guide to SBG.