My Intro College Physics: Issues and Concerns

Issues that are on my mind today about the intro physics course I teach:

(1) Students don’t get enough individual feedback from me, partially because almost everything in class is done in groups, but their high stakes assessments are done individually. This is not good for students (especially those that are struggling). Plus, for me, it makes assessing and diagnosing individual students difficult. I need to get students doing more individual work for which they can get feedback, even if that’s not part of the model for the class.

(2) What little individual feedback they do get from me (mostly on lab reports) is for things that are borderline irrelevant / on the margins of importance. This makes me spend my time “grading” student ability to write their lap report in the correct format rather than “assessing” their understanding of disciplinary ideas and skills. That, and it gets students really focused on the wrong things—looking for ways to make sure they dont’ lose points in the future rather than learn.

(3) The overall grading system has so much “stuff” with so little substance– reading quizzes, project presentations, project reports, discussion quizzes, clicker participation, checked labs, and graded labs. There is nothing in those parts of the grading system that point them to what is important to learn. Rather, it seems to point them toward what bases are important to have covered to get a good grade or be positioned to get a good grade (if one performs well on tests). Students who struggle to understand (and do poorly on tests) can’t spend time trying to learn and understand because there are too many hula-hoops to jump through in order to guarantee enough fluff points that a good test grade will even matter.

(4) I have growing concerns about differences in performance outcomes among different populations I teach. Without going into details, there are certain combinations of race and gender are faring well and certain combinations that are faring not-so-well. This is probably typical of college physics, but it’s still weighs heavily on my mind.

6 thoughts on “My Intro College Physics: Issues and Concerns

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  1. Brian,
    One way in which I get individual feedback to my kids every day is simply having a warm up question they complete on their own on an index card and we then discuss as a class. I collect the cards and write quick feedback on them that takes less than 5 minutes for a stack of 20 cards. It’s a pretty easy way for me to catch the kids who are struggling the most.

    Also, I assume you’ve read about Uri Treiman’s work on the Mathematics workshop to develop enrichment opportunities and study groups for minority students that led to some singificant gains in understanding?

    1. The index card warmup with feedback is a great idea. Right now, I *have* to get give a 5 minute “reading quiz” at the beginning of class. It is fairly pointless and stupid, IMO. I’m definitely interested in wiggling my way out of it, and doing something more formative. My choices are to replace reading quiz with something formative and just give students 5/5 for putting down a reasonable effort or to build in more individual work throughout the day. I’d really hope to do both. I have so much class time with my students, but so much of it is lost to things that have little to do with learning. It’s a shame. I’m squeezing the most I know how to around the edges, but at some point the edges just aren’t enough. We need to take some the garbage out.

      I am not familiar with that work, so I really appreciate the link. For next semester, thinking about how to encourage all individual in my class to form supportive learning communities needs to be a priority.

  2. Brian,

    Since you have clickers, is it reasonable to run a couple peer instruction questions at the start of class and then have a couple follow up questions to those as “the reading quiz” where the students submit their answers via index card? Let them have a bit of time to practice with their peers the new ideas from the reading and then give them a small assessment (which is graded generously).

    I give away a lot of fairly fluffy marks in my intro courses. My JiTT-style pre-class assignments are worth 8%. But since most of my questions are “explain your reasoning” types of questions, I am giving them marks for something which I keep on communicating to them as important to their learning, and that is articulating their understanding. I stopped giving participation marks for clickers. And I also give them marks for doing feedback assignments (corrections) on their weekly quizzes, but these are reasonably writing intensive, demanding they explain their thinking that led to their incorrect answer and an explanation of their new generalized understanding of the physics concept for that questions. But I’m still trying to find the right balance of assessing their learning without having them jump through hoops for points (or at least making sure that those hoops contribute to their learning in what I consider to be a meaningful way).

    Also, you hit the nail on the head for my concern with how labs are traditionally run and assessed.

    1. Hey Joss,

      This is great advice. A lot of this I suppose is issues of working in and around the system I am supposed to do. I have students for 5 hours a week for mini-lectures, problem-solving and labs, and the clickers are for the 1-hour lecture per week. I think next semester (teaching same course again), I am going to tell students they have to bring clickers to the 5 hours with me as well, and will try to incorporate that. I use a lot of questioning and peer discussion, but why shouldn’t I leverage the technology they’ve already spent their money on. I also have to give a 5 point MC reading quiz that covers the reading on the syllabus for that day. I’m wondering how far I can depart from that. I think what you have suggest makes a lot of sense: give them some practice with the whole class, and then give them the quiz. I guess I want it to be a learning quiz and formative assessment quiz, not a points-grab. … I guess I could also implement a corrections systems, which would allow even the MC-quizzes to be more of an opportunity to learn.

      And you hit the nail in the head with the issue of using points to encourage them to do something that helps them learn and helps you teach. In my situation, I’m not convinced that the points have much to do with getting them to do things that help them learn. Well, I shouldn’t say not help, but not very effective learning.

  3. I hope you’ll keep writing about #4. I suspect that it’s very much related to points 1-3. The research I’ve read about this has been frustrating in its superficiality — the Treisman link looks interesting, but if you have other suggestions, I’d be interested.

    My fear is that while groupwork can lower the stakes and give more people a chance to talk/think/experiment, it can also encourage people to conclude that they aren’t capable of doing anything alone. In my classroom, women, some people of colour, and people with certain chronic illnesses/disabilities seem to reach that conclusion disproportionately. Once they’re in that boat, groupwork seems to make them feel increasingly isolated (believing they’re the only ones who know they’re “incompetent”), rather than the reverse. I’m trying to avoid pathologizing the situation, and I know there are reams of poorly-documented psychobabble about “imposter syndrome,” but I can’t help noticing it coming up over and over in the conversations I have with my students.

    I suspect that the same effect can come from being rewarded for hoop-jumping — leading people to conclude that what they’re good at is hoop-jumping, not (physics/math/electronics/whatever). It’s hard to blame them for drawing that conclusion.

    1. Hey Mylene,

      Great points. I do feel that they are all related to the issue of #4- the lack of individual feedback, the nature of group work, and the grading system.

      I also think, like you say, that feelings and realities of academic (and other kinds of ) isolation are key here. I need to re-think how the class operates within the class and how that operation extends beyond the classroom walls.

      Another interesting factor is that I’ve had no students drop my class. I don’t think this is typical. I know that I have several students in my class who tried to take this class before but withdrew because they were failing.

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