LA Seminar: Plan for Reading on Mental Models

Today, we shift gears from talking about “facilitating discourse” to “building on student thinking”

Before class, students will have read Joe Redish’s, “Implications for Cognitive Studies for Physics Teaching

After a brief warm-up where students interview their neighbor about talk moves they tried this week, we will start the day by watching Derek Muller’s “Khan Academy and Effectiveness of Science Videos“, and discussing how this video relates to four principles outlined in the reading. Roughly, those principles are

Principle 1: People tend to organize their experiences and observations into mental models. Students’ minds are not blank slates.

Principle 2: It is reasonably easy to learn something that matches or simply extends an existing mental model. It is difficult to learn something you do not almost already know.

Principle 3: It is very difficult to substantially change an established mental model.

Principle 4: Individual students can have different mental models. There may be not one best way to teach all of them.

Really watching the video is meant to review main points of reading, but with a shared context for talking about them. In general, I have more success providing a context for students to talk about a paper then I do just talking about the paper.

I think I then want to link this video and the paper to our discussion last week about photosynthesis and respiration/metabolism: how we each had some mental models of about how we lose weight / how trees grow, which were in many ways different than the scientific model that emphasizes carbon exchange. I’m thinking we might spend some time gathering some our ideas that influenced our thinking weight loss / tree growth, and reflect on where different ideas came from, why they make sense, etc.

  • There was the idea that roots digging into the ground get mass from the soil.
  • Others thought the the mass could come from sunlight.
  • Nathan added to that the idea that sun light powering the tree to use its roots like a pump… the sunlight powers the operation, but the mass comes from the soil.
  • Sarah had the idea that as we work out, we lose energy in the form of heat–as the heat radiates away we loss some weight.
  • Claire had the idea that we probably lose weight later (like in the bathroom), but others felt the weight you lose by going to bathroom isn’t from your fat… it’s merely the unusable food you ate. Or in the case of liquid, that weight comes and goes from hydration levels.

I’d like to emphasize how my facilitation of the conversation was guided not just by talk moves, but by an ongoing attempt to make sense of what students’ mental models were, and how they compared to each other. I took time to ask Josh to explain his idea again to the class. I compared and contrasted two ideas I heard (e.g., Sarah and Jason both think it’s about your body taking in something and putting out something. Sarah thinks it’s food energy that gets radiated as heat energy. Jason thinks it’s carbon you take in (with foods) that gets breathed as carbon dioxide.

I don’t know how much I will actually talk about this, because right now I don’t have a good plan for students talking about it. It seems like the kind of thing I want to talk about. The thing I see as “good” about it, is it’s my attempt to try to build continuity between last week and this week, and link the idea of mental models to ones they had, and link mental models to the role of the teacher— as someone who finds out about students’ mental models. I’d like to somehow motivate this next part…

The real activity for students is I want them to practice finding out about students’ mental models. I thought about watching another periscope video, but the website seems to not be working.

So, student group will get a choice to watch one of three Derek Muller Videos:

Misconceptions about Temperature

Which hits the Ground First?

What causes the seasons?

Students will be tasked with watching the video to answer the following questions:

  1. What common mental model(s) did you hear in the video? Explain what those people were thinking and why their ideas made sense to them?
  2. What experiences or observations might they have made that contribute to their mental model?
  3. How are these mental models different than the scientific one?
  4. How might knowing about students’ mental models change the way a teacher approaches helping students learn the topic?

I’d like to end the day, talking about what this has to do with being an LA. How can knowing about students’ thinking and ideas change the choices you make in helping them? Within the constraints of your classroom, how can you find out about students’ mental models?

Still a bit of vagueness in this plan, but that’s where I’m at.

Reflection on LA Seminar: Pressing for Reasoning and More than Echo-Probe-Toss

A couple thoughts after the LA seminar tonight:

Pressing for Students’ Reasoning vs. Pressing toward Correct Reasoning

One of the talk moves that students read about before today was “pressing for reasoning”, in which the instructor asks the student to explain their reasoning. I learned as students were analyzing their cases that some students interpreted the talk move “pressing for reasoning” as asking a question that steers the student toward the right reasoning.

For example, in a case that one group was analyzing, there is the following exchange:

Student:  I said that the acceleration is negative, because the object is slowing down.

Teacher:  Actually, that’s not quite correct.

The students could correctly identify this kind of reaction as “denying”, and they came up with, “What can you say about the direction of the acceleration?” as an alternative response to denying. They identified this as a “pressing for reasoning” talk move. I was a bit surprised, but we had a good conversation about the difference between “steering questions” which aim to guide them toward the correct reasoning versus question that get students to articulate their own reasoning. What makes sense about their initial interpretation of “pressing for reasoning” is I think their idea about what counts as “good question”. One property of a good question I think they were thinking about was that it quickly gets students back on track– and so it makes sense that a good “pressing for reasoning” questions would use reasoning to help guide students toward the right track.

I’m so glad we did these cases, because it provided an opportunity for me to learn about how they were thinking about these talk moves, and what implicit ideas about teaching/learning were framing their understanding of the talk moves. At least one other group has this interpretation of pressing for reasoning.

At the end of the cases, one student in class kept asking about other great cases: (1) What if a student has right answer and right reasoning? What else can you but confirm? [We mostly agreed that you should ask others students to weigh in before possibly confirming] (2) What if one student has wrong answer, you probe for reasoning and get wrong reasoning, and ask others who also agree with same wrong reasoning? [We talked through some specific scenarios, but I mostly emphasized that at this point, any help, hints, steering question, or guidance you give will be in the context of having actually gathered information about what trouble they were having. ]

Echo-Probe-Toss becomes..   Be Encouraging / Help Make Connections / Keep Everyone in the Game

As usual, the echo-probe-toss game was fun, but also very challenging for both me and the students. Students struggle to remember each stage and how it works, especially for the first couple of students to go. I struggled with when and how often to interrupt. One of the things I think after today is that it can really help in the future if I give very clear directions about where we are restarting from after a pause. It caused unnecessary confusion when I wanted them to restart one place, but I didn’t say it specific enough. It’s such a silly thing to waste cognitive effort on that very clear directions are just needed.

In general, when students were echoing, they often did not use tone of voice to indicate interest, nor did their probing feel super encouraging.This is totally to be expected, because it’s their first time. Also when tossing it back to the class, students often very narrowly re-voiced students’ ideas and asked very generic prompting.  But it provided a good opportunity for me to step in and model how it could be differently.

It’s hard in the blog to express how I used tone to be interested and encouraging, but I do want to about how my “toss backs” were different than students, so here are some examples:

1. Re-voicing to Emphasize Reasoning rather than the Answer:

One clicker question was, “Which of the following topics in physics is the worst?” A student said, “Static Equilibrium was the worst, because it was so boring”.

Student Facilitator Revoicing:  “Angela says Static Equilibrium is the worst, because she found it boring. Does anybody agree or disagree?”

I paused to offer an alternative re-voice: “Interesting. So, Angela is saying that one reason why a person might think a topic is the worst is because it’s boring. Who else has disliked a topic in school because it was boring?”

While I emphasized that my re-voicing drew attention the reasoning, students added that my move helped each move to build on the next.

2. Summarizing Multiple Ideas before Prompting for More Participation

When students re-voiced before tossing it back to the class, they often just summarized the idea that was just said. This made it feel like a list of ideas that were unrelated. I took a few opportunities to model how to summarize multiple ideas:

“OK, so we heard from Valerie and Jason who both think that trees gain weight through the soil, because as the roots go deep in the ground, they pull nutrients up…  We’ve also just heard from John, who added his idea about how trees have leaves that breathe in air, and in doing so pull in carbon dioxide. ”


“OK, so one thing that can make a topic the worst is it being boring. Another reason why a topic might be the worst is that we don’t really understand the topic.”

3. Re-voicing to Clarify a Complex Idea:

We had gotten a little into a debate about the role of sunlight… and one student was trying to explain their idea that sunlight provided the energy that the tree used to pump up water and nutrients from the soil. I was facilitating this conversation at the time and modeled two things, first, I asked Nathan to restate his idea for everyone.  I had actually zoned out and not quite heard what he said. Then, when he was done, I said, “OK. So I think I get Nathan’s idea. So like, If I had an electric pump that could pump water out of my flooded basement, I would probably need to first plug it in to the electrical outlet. The outlet would provide the energy to pump the water up out my basement. What Nathan seems to be saying is that in the case of the tree, sunlight provides the energy for the tree to pump up the nutrients out of the depth of the ground. Its the nutrients that cause the weight gain, not the sunlight, which just powers the whole operation of bring nutrients up out of the soil.”

We were running late on time, so the day didn’t end as smoothly as it could, but we started a list of things I was doing that seemed different than just “echo-probe-toss”… Here’s the list we made

  • Being Encouraging and Acting Interested
  • Helping Make Connections Among Ideas
  • Reframing the Conversation
  • Steering away from Unproductive Tangents
  • Keeping Everyone in the Game

All and all it was a good LA day. I still wish I was doing a better job with time management so that we could end days closure rather than a rush.

Day 1: Learning Assistant Seminar (First Day)

In the first day of our LA seminar, we did a fairly “standard” learning assistant activity from the original UC-Boulder LA Pedagogy Course handbook.

Students are presented with an interesting object (in my case a horse skull), and are told to work in pairs to come up with as many questions they can ask about the object. They have five minutes.

Afterwards, questions are collected the board. Once we have a varied collection, students are prompted to go back and look for any patterns or categories–questions that seem to go together. Here are some of the categories:

  • Present (Is the skull fragile?) vs Past (How did it die?)
  • Quantitative (How much mass?) vs. Curious (Was species is it)
  • Utility (Could it be turned into fossil fuel?) vs. Existential (Why is it in the room?)
  • Physical (what is the density) vs Historical (Who found it?) vs Fantasy (could it shoot lasers from its eyes?)

After talking about their categories, I introduce a new way of looking at the questions list in terms of convergent questions with (one right answer / closes possibilities) vs divergent questions (no right answer/ many right answers / opens up possibiltiies) We return to this list and find that only one questions was divergent (“What could we learn by studying this skull?)

Students are tasked with trying to take the convergent (or closed) questions and make them more open. The group came up with examples like

  • “How could we measure its mass?”
  • “What are different ways we could test its fragility”
  • “What evidence would confirm that it could shoot lasers from its eyes?”
  • “What physical properties could we measure?”
  • “What species can we rule out?”

We formalized the following strategies for making questions more open:

  • Focus on ‘How do we know?”,  rather than “What is”
  • Use conditional verbs such as “would” or “could” to emphasize possibilities
  • Ask at one category level higher

For HW, they are reading a paper about questioning, which will reinforce the open/closed, but also introduce others issues related to questioning such as “Wait Time”, “Bloom’s Taxonomy”, etc.

The rest of the day went to introductions, logistics, and “questions and concerns” discussion.

Back to Daily Sheets. This time with my LAs

One thing I have returned to this semester  is daily sheets in inquiry. Every day, the last 5 minutes of class is dedicated to students writing answers to the following questions:

  • What did you do, think, or hear today that made sense to you? What specifically about it makes sense to you
  • What did you do, think, or hear today that didn’t make sense to? What specifically about it didn’t make sense to you?

Because I have two learning assistants in class, a really useful debriefing has been the following: We divide the stack of papers in three, and we read through them. As we read, we share interesting things we find and discuss common patterns that arise. Then and only then do we talk about how things went today, where we think students are at, and what we should think about doing next. I feel like this is a really good practice for me and my learning assistants–attending to student thinking, using data to focus conversations about teaching and learning, and using data to talk about instructional planning.

After we are done, I go back to my office and read through all the daily sheets, making at least some comments on every individual person’s writing. This is important. Students need to know that I am reading and thinking about what they are writing. It’s not busy work. I make sure to return them first thing the next time I see them.

I’m really glad to be back to doing this. I needed more structured formative assessments, where I get feedback from individual students.

Undergraduate Physics TAs–I love this class

Here is a reflection from one of the undergraduate TAs enrolled in my teaching and learning seminar.

This week I discovered upon reflection that most of the questions I asked were very convergent. So, what I thought had been a fairly good dialogic conversation, was just a disguised univocal one. Last Friday I also noticed that I tended to have a lot of teacher-student-teacher interactions. So as Wednesday approached I tried to remain conscious of this and aim for more divergent questions and group discussions.

One of the biggest things I did differently was that when I noticed a student seemed unsure of themselves about an answer I’d just tell them to try explaining their reasoning to a random member of the group. This usually easily got discussion going and allowed me to avoid the usual teacher-student-teacher interaction. Other than that I got less timid about posing questions to groups and I found questions I initially found barely worth asking provided more discourse than I thought. This helped to remind me that I have to keep in mind that all of this material is entirely new to these students and trivial questions may very well still be worth asking.

A specific interaction I had in which I tried to engage in dialogic discourse using the questioning technique actually resulted because I was not prepared for the question. It was one of the QODEC multiple choice questions that I had looked over, but not really thought about. So, I initially just asked them to explain why they thought the answer they had picked was correct. After that, we were all still a bit unclear as to which answer would be correct, so I suggested we go through each answer and try to see what it would mean if it were correct. Doing this resulted in most of the members of the group talking to one another about why they thought certain answers were good candidates for the correct answer or not. Eventually, in this way we narrowed the answer down to two questions and I got a bit excited and accidentally gave the answer way. I did not realize that I had done so until I asked them why they chose the answer they did and they responded that thats what I picked. Luckily, this did not get them out of having to justify this answer to themselves before they could bring themselves to actually submit it.

Overall, I found that it was actually a bit of a challenge to listen carefully enough to figure out where students are having problems so I could ask appropriate kinds of questions to help lead them to a discovery. I hope to think more about the questions before this next lecture so that I can perhaps have some anticipated question sets prepared.

I love how this student is able to “sop” up ideas from our readings and discussions and use them as lenses on his own experiences in the classroom. I love how honest and reflective he is about what’s happening around him–what he thinks is going well, and what he’d like to improve, what’s it like for him, and what it’s like for students. I love the fact that he writes about being with student in terms of an inclusive “we”–as in “We were all still unclear as to which answer would be correct”. I love that he is managing to keep his mind on sooo much–discussion, questioning, listening to students, soliciting reasoning, etc. I love how at the end he invents the idea of proximal formative assessment, as a challenge he has faced and wants to pursue as a goal.

Readings I’m using in Various Science Teaching and Learning Courses

This semester, I am teaching (i) an inquiry course for future elementary school teachers, (ii) a teaching physics course for future physics teachers, and (iii) a teaching and learning seminar for physics majors who are serving as undergraduate TAs in one of our reform-oriented introductory physics courses.

As semester goes on, I’m going to try to keep up updated reading list for each of the courses. Here’s where we are thus far…

Inquiry Readings:

Week 1:

“The Pendulum Question” from Seeing Science in Children’s Thinking: Case Studies of Student Inquiry in Physical Science by David Hammer and Emily van Zee. [Video portion discussed in class on first day]

Week 2:

“The virtues of not knowing” from The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning by Eleanor Duckworth.

Teaching of Physics Readings:

Week 1:

“The sun goes around the earth–Goals of Science Education” from An Inquiry into Science Education: Where the Rubber Meets the Road by Richard Steinberg

“Student Inquiry in a Physics Class Discussion”, in Cognition & Instruction, by David Hamme

Week 2:

Selected sections of “Chapter 2: Rectilinear Kinematics” from Teaching Introductory Physics, by Arnold Arons, paired* with “Building the Constant Velocity Model” over at Physics! Blog! by Kelly O’Shea.

Every student will read one of the following papers and with a group give a brief presentation of the research, its findings, and discuss how a PBI problem they did earlier seems informed by this research.

Teaching and Learning Seminar:

Week 1:

“Unpacking the nature of discourse in mathematics classrooms” in Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, by Knuth & Peresseni

Week 2:

“Questioning and Discussion” from Teaching Secondary School Science: Strategies for Developing Scientific Literacy, by Bybee, Powell, and Trowbridge.

Week 3:

Reflective Discourse: developing shared understanding in a physics classroom” by Van Zee and Minstrell. (1997)


* An explicit goal of mine in teaching of physics to pair readings–one that is closer to the trenches of teaching and one that is closer to research. Both of these reading are fairly close to teaching, but Kelly’s writing is like your are in her classroom, and Arons writing is a bit more distant.

Blog at

Up ↑