The decline of productive classroom culture this semester…

My intro physics class has been experiencing a gradual deterioration of productive classroom culture:

  • There is a growing attitude of “let’s just get out of here as quickly as possible”
  • There is growing attitude of, “please just teach us what we need to know for the test”
  • Fewer groups work in ways that help to make sure everyone’s contributing and learning
  • There are more and more absences, and people who decide to leave after the quiz (if we don’t have a lab)
  • There are more and more students who are disengaging from trying and just waiting for someone to show them

I’m not sure exactly what the culprit is, but I will speculate about some of the influences:

Standards-based assessment has made me a bit more skill-focused, I think at the expense of nurturing wonder and curiosity. As the skills have become more difficult throughout the semester, the focus on skills has ramped up even more.

I have been less clear about my expectations for group work, and less consistent about monitoring and intervening. Last semester I was obsessively monitoring groups. This semester, I still do monitor, but I am less consistent and vigilant.

Last semester when students were absent (which was rare), I typically emailed them, or at least mentioned their absence the next time. There are too many absences this semester to make that easy. A big difference is having a Friday afternoon class this semester, where last semester was midday Tuesday and Thursday. Students both want to get out on Friday as early as possible to start the weekend, but they are also just more likely to miss class entirely, for traveling, or just because. This, in turn, creates a tacit culture of, “people miss class all the time,” which leads people to miss class more.

I teach a long day on Wednesdays, and physics is my last class of the day. I am exhausted by the time I get around to them, which is part of why I may be less attentive to productive group dynamics, fostering healthy learning culture, etc.

Before and after class last semester was time where I got to know students. Now its a time for reassessment. I used to also use the time before class to show or talk about cool stuff on the internet. We watched a few Derek Muller Videos. We watched a Vi-hart video. We watched Dan Meyer’s Ted Talk. I showed some blog posts from Rhett Allain when they were relevant to what we were learning. We watched a video on Carol Dweck’s Mindset research. Those videos often led to conversations about how to learn physics, about the culture of school, and how physics is related to the real world and to being in a community of people who like to talk about physics. Now, we talk about reassessment.

What do you all think?


14 thoughts on “The decline of productive classroom culture this semester…

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  1. I feel this too. Last year, I almost always started class off with some cool video or physics related thing from the internet. We also had conversations about the desktop backgrounds I had on the projector. This year, I don’t do that at all, and I think we’re worse off for it. I also tried to get students to see extra help sessions at the end of the day as opportunities to do fun projects and stuff, but like you said, that’s now often consumed with reassessment. I think the idea of confining reassessment to a particular day will help this a bit, but I’m still trying to think hard about “nurturing wonder and curiosity.”

  2. I, too, want to confine the reassessment… I would like to have a file cabinet or something , where student can just go back and get a quiz for standard they need to assess on, so I don’t have to play middle man. Right now the conversations go like this: “Hey, I need to reassess.” … “Which standard?”… “Umm… I’m not sure. It’s that one about energy.” “Which one about energy, there are three that relate to energy?”… “I’m not sure.” …”Can you go online an look it up? It’s all on D2L.” … Student disappears for five minutes, comes back, “I need to reassess energy 1.2” … “Class is starting now, so you can’t reassess. Maybe after class” … end of class, “I need to reassess energy 1.2″… “I hand student energy 1.2 standard.” student say, “No I think I already passed this one.” … me, “Are you sure?” … “I’m pretty sure.” … “

    1. This sounds familiar to me too. Love the file cabinet idea. A couple of things have helped:
      1 — assessments during a 2-hour session once a week.
      2 — paper tracking sheets. I supply a 3-tang folder filled with tracking sheets. The students write down the date of each attempt and the date they complete it. They bring the folder with them to class each day. It’s easier and faster to look things up or point to the standard they want to talk to me about, even if they can’t remember the wording or have got the technical terms all jumbled up.
      3 — I took the numbers off the standards. It made me nuts when a student asked to reassess “#37” without being able to tell me anything about it. Now they have to tell me “I want to reassess ‘Calculating total capacitance.'”

      1. I think the paper tracking sheet without numbers is a great idea. I’m going to have to think about re-assessment timing issue. I don’t want to make it inconvenient for students, but at the same time I don’t want to make it crazy on me.

        Glad to *hear* your voice.

  3. Hi Brian,

    Are you finding that the decline in productive classroom culture is greater than last term?

    I definitely find that in the second term, counter-productive student behaviours start to increase because they are “so close” to the end of the year. I find that when the students have been stretched thin for 7+ months, they start to take a lot more shortcuts like sleeping in or cutting class to study for exams in other courses.

    I often see similar things from weaker upper year students as well. They will hand in the first 3-4 homework assignments and then not bother to do any for the rest of the term.

    1. Yeah, this semester is definitely worse. Last semester I saw no decline. Other instructors here have told me they noticed that spring is worse than fall, for reasons you say. Others have said that the early spring may even be exacerbating it. It’ll be interested to see how this summer goes.

      1. Yeah, just one course for one of the summer sessions, but it’s the same physics course I’ve been teaching the last two semesters.

      2. Our department is very concerned about consistency with the introductory course sequence. Structurally, the major change in summer is students don’t do independent projects. For me, a big change in structure is right now I only do the workshops (problem-solving and labs), and someone else does lecture + exams. In the summer, I will have workshop, lecture, and exam writing.

        I haven’t thought through what *changes* this allows me to make fully, but this makes me think I should start thinking about it, write a blog post, and get some feedback… any more than minor tweeks I’d have to run by the department, since they really want all the intro courses to be a similar as possible.

      3. I must say that I have really benefited from the process of fleshing an idea out, posting about it and getting some feedback before implementation.

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