New Book Release: Honors Physics Essentials #physics #physicsed

HPE-Cover Honors Physics Essentials is an easy-to-read guide to algebra-based introductory physics, featuring more than 500 worked-out problems with full solutions and covering topics such as: kinematics, dynamics, momentum, impulse, gravity, uniform circular motion, rotational kinematics, work, energy, power, electrostatics, circuits, magnetism, microelectronics, waves, sound, optics, thermal physics, fluids, and modern physics.

This book is designed to assist beginning physics students in their high school and introductory college physics courses as an invaluable supplemental resource in class as well as a review guide for standardized physics assessments such as the SAT Subject Test in Physics, PRAXIS Physics, and CST Physics exams.

Honors Physics Essentials is integrated with the website, which includes online question and answer forums, videos, animations, and supplemental problems to help you master high school physics.  Check it out at

Teaching Students to Teach Themselves

girl_grad_study_mind_lg_wht As a high school physics teacher, I teach to a clientele that is, in the majority, college bound.  Very few actually plan on majoring in physics, and many will never need physics in their future careers.  So what can I offer these students, besides the obvious overview of physics and a slightly better understanding of the world they live in?

From my perspective, the most valuable asset I can give my kids is helping them learn to teach themselves.  In today’s society, success in any career requires the willingness and ability to become a lifelong learner, adapting to the changing scenery of today’s job market.  Due to the proliferation of the Internet, the information needed is readily available, though many times students are inexperienced in how to digest it.  My task, then, besides teaching physics, is teaching students how to teach themselves.

This is a huge asset in college courses, and even more important in real-world situations.  For example, I will never forget my freshman Chemistry II course.  Our instructor was hilarious, he would lecture to a hundred students for an hour three times a week on a wide variety of topics, none of which were even remotely related to our chemistry curriculum.  It was entertaining, but uninformative.  Nevertheless, our course exams still covered the standard curriculum.  If you wanted to survive, you had to read the book and figure it out yourself, a great learning experience early in my college career, even if not by the college’s design.

Physics is a terrific course for allowing students to learn to build their own understanding.

I don’t teach students physics directly.  At least, I avoid it as much as possible.  Instead, I set up learning experiences, resources, lab activities, and discussions that allow them to develop their own understandings.  Of course, we come back together to combine what we’ve learned in our classroom community, but students are expected to answer their own questions, with leading questions and directions from the instructor where necessary.

bobby_studying_lg_wht At the beginning of the year, this is very uncomfortable for many students, but as the course progresses, they build more and more confidence in their skills as I remove more and more of their "scaffolds" and assistance.  By early spring, students are ready for their first independent learning unit, in which I give them a set of pages to read in several books, point them at a web page or two from my APlusPhysics site, reference a couple of online video primers on Youtube or APlusPhysics, and provide them a couple problem sets and lab activities.  Then, they’re on their own for the week, coming to me only for additional resources or clarification.

It’s a scary proposition, but the students stretch to meet the increased expectations, oftentimes reporting not only a successful independent learning experience (verified by and-of-unit exam scores as well as analysis of lab reports), but a desire to engage in more of these activities in the last few months of the school year.  A success not only for physics content, but even more, a success for life skills that will allow them to exceed the reach of their teachers as they grow and develop.

teacher_reading_with_student_lg_wht A good teacher doesn’t answer students’ questions, a good teacher asks probing and leading questions that guide students to answer their own questions.  A good teacher doesn’t lecture hour after hour, a good teacher allows students to explore, develop, err, and reflect.  And most importantly, a great teacher doesn’t talk and talk and talk, but instead engages in conversations with students, listening, reflecting, and adapting instruction to the needs of the individual.

Keep these things in mind when searching for a tutor, regardless of subject.  If the tutor appears to be working harder than the student, something’s wrong.  The tutor should be asking the questions, allowing the student to struggle, make mistakes, and learn to recover.  Look for resources the student can use to answer their own questions, and make sure the student starts there.  The teacher should never be a student’s primary resource for knowledge.  Our job as educators is to create learning experience for students to engage in, not to spoon feed knowledge which will soon be forgotten.

Course Review Time – What Works Best? #physicsed

It’s closing in on that time… the dreaded end-of-the-year, when we finish our standard curriculum and begin to intermix “additional topics” of student interest in with review for our standardized final exam.  But how do you keep 25 to 30 students productively across various topics based on individual needs at varying levels of aptitude?

student_girl_reading_on_floor_hg_clr I’ve tried a number of techniques… we cut questions out of old standardized exams and paste them onto unit-specific pages, using these unit-specific pages for practice.  The students not only review the key topics, but also see the range of questions asked in previous years before diving into problem practice.

I’ve given previous exams, with students working through them at their own pace, scoring their exams, then working with me to jointly develop and execute an individualized action plan to attack their areas for improvement before repeating the process.

I’ve incorporated clicker question reviews.  I’ve had students develop their own questions.  We’ve jumped headfirst into hands-on lab exercises requiring knowledge of several “units” tied in together, and we’ve worked through projects to examine applications of physics in the real world.  Each week students perform a different online assignment on one of our key topics, coupled with video podcast reviews of 10-15 minutes in length, in a flipped classroom approach.

With all these methods, implemented in a variety of configurations, I still haven’t found a review method I’m thrilled with.  Nor even satisfied with.  Without fail, the students who least need the review get the most out of the time, and the students who are in dire need of review find ways to avoid strong engagement.

One proposal for this year is to have all students take a practice exam, which is graded with separate scores for each key topic (in the vein of SBG).  Students in need of extra help in any unit are assigned chapters to read along with a problem set from either the APlusPhysics review book or a stand-alone question set.  Students most in need of review are assigned the most work, and students with the least need of review can finish up their work assignments more quickly, leaving the instructor more time with the struggling students.  Each week students engage in another practice exam, again working to build familiarity with the questions, with classes interspersed between online question reviews, practice exams, and instructor-led topical review discussions and guided practice.

I don’t expect to find a magic bullet that addresses all situations, and talking to other teachers I find this to be a very common issue as well.  I’d love to hear what you’ve tried – what’s worked, what hasn’t, and open this question up to the experience of others!

Keys to Growth: Assess, Implement, Reassess #physicsed

In a late-night tweet, physics teacher, colleague, friend and education reformer Frank Noschese questioned his exploration of the Khan Academy, in line with his recent work on the coined term “pseudoteaching,” developed jointly with John Burk.  According to Noschese and Burk:

Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.”

In many ways, recognizing pseudoteaching can be perceived as “trolling” or casting a negative light on the work of others, therefore such explorations must be waded into carefully and with tact in mind.  Further, as Burk is quick to point out in the pseudo-teaching FAQ,

“We think pseudoteaching is something best discovered by oneself. And there’s something about glass houses and stones.”

The key point in the definition of pseudoteaching is that the lesson results in minimal learning.  In many cases, the lesson itself may be flawed, but it’s also important to realize that the flaw may be in the lesson’s application to the specified audience, not the lesson itself.

As educators, I’m sure we all realize that entire classes, as well as individual students, have widely varying personalities.  My AP-C class loves Walter Lewin’s OCW lectures, and have reported that they learn best when given a set of resources (textbook chapters, practice problems, and references to specific Lewin lectures) and allowed to explore and work through the material at their own pace.  And their scores prove this out!  Yet, when Lewin delivered these lectures at MIT, Noschese reports in his Action-Reaction Blog that “attendance at his physics lectures fell 40% by the end of the term and an average of 10% of students failed Mechanics and 14% failed E&M.”

bobby_studying_hg_clr So why was this successful with my AP-C students?  I would surmise that after an entire year of working with the students, building independence, and teaching them how to actively teach themselves, they’re finally becoming comfortable with reading a technical textbook for understanding.  They know how to actively listen to Lewin’s lectures, and they watch the lectures as a team, pausing, working through the practice problems themselves, discussing connections to the over-arching concepts – in short, they’re turning a passive learning experience into an active learning experience that works for them.

Providing the same materials to my 9th period Regents Physics class, however, would have considerably less than stellar results.  Is the lesson itself flawed?  No, the lesson itself has its time, place, and audience.  The application of the lesson to the appropriate audience, however, is key to success.

In the same way, I believe the Khan Academy videos, flipped classroom strategies, and similar offerings all have value when used appropriately and with the right audience.  I wouldn’t begin to teach a course in physics where the entire year was spent watching videos, then expect students to have a full and complete understanding at the end of the year.  Rather, I would expect this to be a disaster.  However, using videos as a resource to introduce or reinforce concepts or applications, in conjunction with active learning methods, student inquiry and exploration activities, would likely merit much stronger consideration.

As another example, the Regents Physics review book I’m finishing up, APlusPhysics: Your Guide to Regents Physics Essentials, is designed as a guide to performing well on the standardized NY Regents Physics Exam.  It reinforces standardized physics problem solving in line with a specific test.  By itself, I would certainly NOT recommend it for use as a classroom’s primary text, much like I wouldn’t propose  an SAT review book in lieu of an entire high school student’s curriculum.  These can be valuable resources, however, when used appropriately for the appropriate audience and in conjunction with other resources.

Physics education, and indeed, a vast majority of substantive topics in our world, aren’t black and white.  What is valuable and effective in certain circumstances may be considerably less effective in others.  Pseudoteaching, therefore, may not always be indicative of a flawed lesson, but in some cases, may be indicative of delivering a strong lesson to the wrong audience in the wrong circumstances.

What makes Noschese’s work so valuable to the physics education community is his willingness to take risks and question everything, including his own work.  His late-night tweet questioning his previous comments is profound in that it highlights his ongoing self reflection.  It is this ongoing process of assessing the status quo, implementing changes based on that assessment, and then critically examining the results to repeat this loop that is the foundation of authentic growth.  Isn’t this, in effect, the basis of our scientific method?  These questions we’re discussing and debating have no simple answers, and no absolutes.  As long as we continue to question ourselves, open our minds to alternative thoughts and methods, and take appropriate risks to try new pathways, our teaching will continue to grow, evolve, and most importantly, improve.