Category Archives: Teaching


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.

Content Mastery and Problem Solving Skills

I recently had the honor to help host a district showcase on the uses of the Canvas LMS.  It was set up like “speed dating” where I sat in one place, with my laptop connected to a large monitor, and interested parties moved from table to table, and asked me questions, or watched a demo of how I use the LMS.  It was cool.  And I got asked many great questions.

Most of the specific questions were on quizzes.   This is because in my AP and gen. physics classes I give all quizzes on Canvas.  I have quiz banks set up, from which Canvas pulls random problems, and the students do their best to answer them.  Most of these questions came after I said that I gave the students multiple attempts on the quizzes (up to 5, at their own pace in AP, and as many as needed by conference in gen. physics).

One question went something like this, “Well, how do they take the quizzes? In class or at home?”  I could tell right away that the concept of multiple attempts was throwing the teacher.  I said that both venues are used, though generally in-class for he gen. physics kids.  I later got the concerned statement, “Well if you have a bunch of kids sitting near each other they’ll cheat.  They can all work on one quiz, then shift to the other kid’s quiz, and so on… and they’ll all get 100s.”  I tried to alleviate this concern by saying that there are time limits, etc., and I am observing, so its hard for them to “cheat.”  But then I realized that what was really being voiced was a difference in opinion on what quizzes are for.

It would seem the other teacher viewed quizzes as mini exams.  They are a way to see just how much a student can recall, or solve, in a set amount of time.  The results of the quiz should be used to inform the student what they need to study up on (because they will have to do it all over again, on a much larger exam in the near future).  Therefore, students must be isolated, just them and their brain, and pour forth their knowledge.  So, having two or three students with laptops taking quizzes in class could lead to them ::gasp:: working on problems together– I mean, cheating!  And thus defeat the purpose of the quiz: to see what Student A remembers.  (And yes, I understand that a real concern is that one student does all 3 quizzes.  THAT would be real cheating)

But I don’t use quizzes that way.  I don’t think I have since, maybe, my second or third year as a teacher.  Well, they were like mini exams, but not just to gauge student understanding, but to give them credit for what they knew.  I would always try to give partial credit on problems, ask students to tell me what they meant, to give them the benefit of the doubt, etc.  Now with Canvas (and previously with Moodle to a lesser extent) I use quizzes as a mastery tool.  Students work on a quiz.  Canvas scores it.  If they get below a 75% their score gets marked as zero until they conference with me about each question they got wrong.  Then, after I feel they understand their mistakes, I give them another attempt, on another 5 randomly chosen problems.  Often this results in a student going from a 3/5 to a 5/5.  Now, as I walk around my room I will see students “looking in” on someone else’s quiz, maybe even discussing a problem with the quiz taker.  But I generally don’t get upset about this.  I see it as a form of group problem solving.

Sure some students may be “cheating” a little, asking someone nearby what the answer is when I’m not looking, but generally this is not the case.  And I wouldn’t want to clamp down on quiz taking by, say, isolating students to a corner of the room, because I like the idea of them working together.  There is something about the name “quiz” that makes students take the work seriously.  I used to give group quizzes in the past, and I would see a level of  diligent work and group communication not present during regular assignments.  So, when I see, or hear, students talking about a quiz question I allow it.  I’d rather have students working together to solve a problem, even if they’re being covert to an extent, than suffer alone.

Ultimately I want my students to master the content of the physics standards, but I don’t want that to happen at the expense of problem solving skills.  The way I see it, I can have both.  By requiring students to discuss, one-on-one, what it is they didn’t understand, I am helping to move them towards mastery.  And when students work some problems out together in the “quiz” environment, they are struggling to solve a problem under pressure.  And I think that is a good thing.  Aside from being a good skill to have, it makes the classroom a more welcoming place to be.

So what should I tell a teacher who raises a concern like the one above?  There are really only two options. 1) Set up computers in the back of your room, with the monitors facing you, and make sure they are far enough apart so students can’t help each other.  Or, 2) change your attitude about quizzes.

Flipped Learning: What is the point?

This is not a critique of flipped learning.  Without flipped learning I would never have tried the things stated below, and would therefore never have used my experiences to make adjustments.

What I am doing now:

  1. ask students to front-load information by watching videos (made by others, or myself) at home
  2. work though a concept development pack to build understanding (start with a “simple” problem, build to more and more complex problems)
  3. assign work/labs that serves as practice
  4. test them (require 75% or higher to progress)

The issue with this order: students may watch videos, but won’t take any form of notes, so they have nothing to reference in class but their hazy memory of a 10 min youtube video. (And yes, I have considered “grading” their viewership, but think that sends the wrong message about the videos)  On top of that problem, I’m also trying out the self-paced mastery model.  So some students blow through that work in 2.5 days while others struggle to get it done in 5.

What I want to add to the mix:

  1. more time discussing topics aloud, in groups…
  2. more time dealing directly with misconceptions

The big question: Why am I having students watch videos before we do any of this?  If I want to discuss misconceptions, why would I have them watch clarifying videos first?  Wouldn’t students then memorize what is in the videos so they seem to have NO misconceptions?  Despite what some students say they really do want to impress teachers with their knowledge.  And then there is the problem of students misunderstanding what’s in the video!  And memorizing misinformation!


  1. discuss misconceptions through use of demos and q&a sessions (I ask q’s, they provide a’s)
  2. have students work on conceptual development packet to build understanding
  3. give students the option to watch videos online (maybe I won’t make one until I really really have to…)
  4. have students do some practice work and labs
  5. take test

…and all students going through this at the same pace.  This sort of goes against a philosophical belief I hold, that students should learn at their own pace, but for my sanity I think I need to simplify things.

Ultimate goal: do modeling instruction in physics.  Have students use direct investigation to gather new concepts, and use data and these concepts to build models (equations, theorems, etc.) for the laws of physics. 

The flipped learning model has served is purpose it would seem.  And the purpose, as I see it, is to free up more class time for things other than lecture.  I rarely lecture, even in my AP classes, and have had time to experiment with new assignments, assessments, and delivery styles.  Any good scientist will continuously evaluate how an experiment is going as it happens, and make changes.  As I move through this flipped learning experiment I feel it is time to make some changes, reorder what I do, and assess the damage… er… progress.

Moving to the Modeling Instruction framework is out of the question for this year.  It requires a very structured environment, a specific set of equipment, and tons of planning.  Not the type of thing to jump into second semester.  But with nine to ten months to plan, and maybe some clever resourcing, I can get the ball rolling next year.  For the time being I will try out the new ordering of activities stated above.  Who knows, if that works well I may just stick with that!

I think I’ll leave things like that for now.  Any more time think about this stuff and I’ll consider throwing out grades and just doing projects or something…