SBG Reflections 3/4 Through the School Year #physicsed #SBG #flipclass

What I’ve learned by implementing Skills Based Grading (SBG) in my physics classroom this year…

  1. The skills required for success on the end-of-year state Regents Physics exam are but a small subset of the skills I teach in my class. I had hoped this was the case — every teacher wants to think they teach beyond the minimum requirements of the curriculum, but having it in front of me in black and white reinforced this, and also allowed me to pick a topic or two for a “deep dive,” without fear of shorting the students on material they need to be successful on their final exams.
  2. Students who take the time to “shore up their learning” and reassess in an ongoing manner quickly learn how to learn in my class, and rarely need the opportunities for continued reassessment. After a few weeks of the SBG program, those who “drink the SBG Kool-Aid” learn exactly what they need to study and execute on their assessments, and therefore are better prepared for the initial assessments with no need to undertake reassessments.
  3. Students who slack during the first part of the year and dig themselves a hole have considerably less success in reassessing a multitude of skills later in the year… at this point the SBG system becomes an exercise in grade improvement instead of learning.  Next year, I plan on putting a two-week limit on reassessments to both save my sanity in grading as well as encouraging students to avoid this situation.
  4. Grades hg clrNot all assignments need to be graded. Many of our labs and hands-on projects serve to build understanding, but a full rigorous assessment of these multi-faceted projects is complicated in an SBG system.  After struggling with this the first half of the year, I realized that I could assess these projects based on a single skill, or at times, not at all.  It’s important to keep in mind the ultimate goal is student learning and understanding, NOT grading.  The more I embrace this fundamental change in thinking, the more freedom I enjoy in designing activities to allow students to build their own understanding.  Grades are NOT the goal, learning is.
  5. Automated scoring / feedback systems for exams is a huge timesaver. Last year I invested in Remark OMR software, which allows me to set up exams and have the results automatically scanned and tabulated, providing separate feedback on any number of skills from the same written assessment.  Without spending hours and hours grading, I take the time to set up a quality assessment up front, program the software to give me the information I need, and the actual grading takes minutes.  Further, by taking the time to set up these assessments now, I’m building a library of assessments I can pull off the shelf in the future.
  6. The flipped classroom videos I created to help students who missed class for various reasons provide an excellent introduction to topics. Toward the second half of the year I began assigning students to watch the videos as homework to introduce and / or reinforce the basic problem solving skills required for the topic under study.  Since I began this practice, activities and labs have gone more smoothly, students have become more independent in their problem solving, and the quality of questions and discussion in the classroom has gone up tremendously.  I would surmise that because students feel more comfortable in the “standardized problem solving” after having watched these videos, they feel more open to taking the next step and pushing their understanding to the next level.
  7. Students who didn’t do their work in the old system didn’t do their work in the new system. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but the SBG system is not a silver bullet.  Regardless of assessments, classroom styles, etc., I can’t force students to learn.  Only by active engagement and hard work is anything worthwhile undertaken successfully, and my physics classroom is no exception.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
  8. My time allotment with students needs more thought. In the words of a colleague of mine, you can take the horse to the water, then hold its head under the water until the liquid soaks through its pours and it ingests the water forcefully.  I’ve tried this brute force method with a few students who I just couldn’t seem to engage this year.  I’ve pulled them in for (in)voluntary extra sessions, hounded them both in class and out, and all but pushed the hand holding the pencil, with mixed success.  In some cases the students have pulled through and improved, but I’m not certain the effort is being focused on the right students.  When I do this, I spend 80% of my time with the bottom of my class — is this really fair to the remainder of the class, those who are engaging and interested?  Further, am I instilling a total hatred of science and physics and school in the students I’m trying to pull along?  This definitely requires more thought.
  9. There is still a place for the “drill and kill” method of problem solving practice. I love inquiry-based activities, and students building their own understanding, utilization of the modeling cycle, but learning how to solve standardized problems quickly and efficiently is also a requirement in our school system, and there really is no substitute for just diving in and practicing.  I’m not advocating this as a “day after day after day” strategy, but without fail, my students’ assessment scores and understanding levels go up when they’ve had the opportunity to work through problem sets and receive feedback on their work.
  10. I am 100% certain I want to continue utilizing SBG in my Regents Physics classes next year. I feel the methodology has clarified our course objectives, reduced student stress, and helped emphasize learning while de-emphasizing grades in our classroom.  Students get detailed feedback on strengths and weaknesses, and those who utilize the system correctly develop individualized learning plans tailored directly to their needs — individualized self-directed differentiation.  Of course, I see many opportunities for improvement in the classroom, things I want to change next year, and items I’m still not sure how to best attack — but implementation of SBG this year has helped both my students and myself, and it has also emphasized my primary goal for students each year: teaching students to be independent learners.

Videos, Khan, and the Flipped Classroom #physicsed #edtech

The past couple years have brought about a flurry of excitement, energy, drama and debate in the world of physics education, and in K-12 education in general.  A lot of great information has been shared, and a lot of misinformation has also been distributed.  As a teacher learning my way in this dynamically charged environment, I think it’s worthwhile to try and distill down some of the hotly-contested topics into what they mean for my classroom.


Let’s begin by taking a look at what is being said about some of these topics.  First, the Khan Academy has been receiving substantial notoriety as of late, largely fueled by Bill Gates’ sponsorship.  The Khan Academy began as a project by Sal Khan to create videos to assist his niece in her classes.  In and of themselves, the physics videos can be a helpful review… if you look closely, you can, of course, find a number of opportunities for improvement as well as statements that may lead to misunderstandings, but there is definitely value here when used appropriately.

Second, the “Flipped Classroom” movement has been gaining notoriety of late, even though the concept has been in practice in many classrooms for many, many years.  In its current implementation, the popularized version of the flipped classroom infers teachers creating video lectures for students to watch as their homework assignments outside of class, leaving more valuable in-class time for hands-on activities, active engagement, problem solving and practice where the teacher is available to coach and guide, etc.  This, of course, has been a standard practice in literature classes for many, many years (read the book at home, discuss in class), but the implementation version with teacher-created videos is becoming more and more popular as the technology to create and share videos becomes more accessible.  Further, the independence with which students can access differing information on their own timeline opens up further options for Mastery Learning, which can move the classroom toward an environment where students learn at their own pace.

Search the Internet and it doesn’t take long to find a wide variety of stances on these resources and how they are used.  Taken to the extreme or over-popularized by the media, the true intent of these resources can quickly become distorted.  As an example, some are calling for the use of video lectures to take the place of trained teachers in classrooms, “streamlining” education for all.  This is a dangerous path to take, particularly in the realm of science, as “teaching is really about creating experiences that allow students to construct meaning,” according to Frank Noschese in his Action-Reaction blog, and backed up by volumes of physics education research (PER).

This does not mean, however, that the videos don’t have value.  They can be a resource, a tool, to be used in conjunction with a number of other tools, methods, and strategies to optimize education for each and every student.  Do video lectures by themselves build true understanding?  Of course not!  I think it’s obvious to anyone who has worked in education that building meaningful understandings and connections isn’t facilitated by a passive observation of a lecture, whether delivered through video or in person.  However, using a short video to highlight key “take-away” concepts, reinforce basic applications, facts, formulas, and vocabulary, demonstrate problem-solving methodologies, or to provide a review or synopsis for those who need a refresher or missed a class or two can be a very effective way to individualize instruction to a student’s needs.

Three years ago I began creating videos for my Regents Physics classes, having completed a set of 80+ videos this year covering the entire Regents Physics curriculum (  My goal wasn’t to replace my classroom instruction or activities, but rather to provide another tool to help students be successful.  These videos allow students who miss classes for various reasons to come back to class with a head start on their catch-up work.  They also allow me to divert some of the less-effective (but occasionally necessary) direct instruction to “at-home” time, providing more in-class time for activities which build deeper understandings, such as our catapult projects, building of iPod speakers, and water bottle rockets, all which allow students to make connections across concepts and subjects, explore and analyze data to come to their own conclusions, and perhaps most importantly, foster confidence in independent learning.  Finally, students have fed back that these videos can be a great refresher as material gets stale, or at times provides a different look at a given subject, helping solidify areas of confusion.

Last night, for example, I was floored to receive a letter in the mail from a student I’ve never met.  In the letter, the student stated:

“Your videos helped me understand the questions we went over in class. I used your site to study for my midterm… and [now] more fully understand the topics.”

These videos, and others like them, are certainly not “the answer.”  But receiving this unsolicited letter from a student in a district I’ve never visited affirmed for me that they can be a valuable resource, and even if it’s only helping out the occasional student, isn’t that really what our jobs are about — finding a way to reach as many students as possible?

There is no magic bullet in education.  Effective instruction is a constant struggle to best meet the needs of ever-changing individual learners in a constantly changing society.  Strategies that are effective one year may not be effective next year.  Or methods that reach one student may not work for another student.  It is our challenge to try and meet the needs of as many of our students as we can on a day-by-day basis, working to help all of our students reach their potential and succeed.  Research has shown repeatedly that active learning and meaning-making provides deeper, longer-lasting understanding.  History and experience have also taught us that there is a time and place for direct instruction, though few would argue it is a but a small component of a highly effective classroom.

Videos can be used effectively to help meet these needs in different ways for different students, and are in and of themselves neither completely good nor completely evil.  Instead, they are yet another resource in a teacher’s arsenal.  Given the tremendous variety of students and challenges we face every day as educators, I want access to each and every resource I can get my hands on.

Physics Videos Posted #flipclass #physicsed #edtech

Man behind studio camera hg clr

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated my blog, but with good reason.  Starting roughly two years ago June, I began work to create short overview videos of all major topics covered by the NY Regents Curriculum.  Last night, 87 videos later, they were finally complete (  But allow me to explain further.

These are not meant to replace in-class instruction, or act as a substitute for reading the textbook, or supersede much more effective active learning techniques.  However, for the student who has to miss many days of school, or feels overwhelmed and would like the key concepts distilled down into the very basics, or wants a quick refresher before an exam, they can be a resource of great value.  I strongly believe in video instruction, but not in the vein of Khan Academy or others, in which video lectures take the place of quality instruction, but rather as additional resources to assist students in building a more complete understanding of the topic being explored.

Further, I am hopeful these will be of benefit to readers of my book “Regents Physics Essentials.”  Sometimes seeing sample problems walked through can be infinitely more valuable than reading a solution in a book.  I have also posted the videos on Youtube, and have received a very positive response through some 30,000 views.

So if you thought I’d dropped off the face of the Earth… no such luck.  Still here, I was just focusing on completing the videos before the next big event in my saga’s family — birth of baby girl #2 is imminent at any moment!

For those who have been wondering what comes next from an APlusPhysics perspective, here are a few of the projects I have on the docket:

  • Creating a set of PDF problem sheets for each unit in Regents Physics Essentials
  • Creating a video guide explaining how we use the APlusPhysics system for personalized, differentiated review
  • Converting Regents Physics Essentials into an iBooks2 interactive textbook format
  • Optimizing / Cleaning Up the Semiconductor Technology Enrichment Program (STEP) materials
  • And eventually, I want to try my hand at a speculative fiction novel (been planning for almost a year now!)

Best wishes to all, and thank you for your patience and understanding.  Make it a great day!

Summer is Over – Projects Done and Undone

Well, it’s back to school tomorrow and, like each summer, I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I had hoped, but probably accomplished more than I should have expected.

I had a chance to meet and network with a number of physics teachers in the area, making some new friends in the process.  I spent quality time with my daughter, including a trip to Sesame Place outside of Philadelphia, a family reunion at my folks’ riverhouse, and quite a few fun days at the zoo.  I taught a few classes at RIT, worked with Rochester City School District teachers on developing and training in Problem-Based Learning (PBL), and even found a few spare moments to read purely for entertainment!

One of my major goals this summer was to get a good start on the “Honors Physics” book. Last spring when APlusPhysics: Your Guide to Regents Physics Essentials came out, I received lots of great feedback, especially from students, but also heard from a number of physics teachers in other states asking about a version of the text that wasn’t limited to the NY Regents curriculum, but was generalized for a typical Honors Physics class.

Initially I had planned this follow-on book to be a guidebook for the AP-1 program when the AP-B course was split, but after several years of fuzzy timelines and fuzzier details, I decided to start on the physics review book I had initially wanted to write. Taking input from those who were kind enough to give me feedback, as well as targeting the book as a rough attempt at hitting the AP-1 targets with what tentative details I could scrounge from the powers that be, I finished my outline up in the spring.

What I found, however, was that this undertaking was considerably slower than the Regents review book. Why, you might ask? Well, to begin with, the Regents Physics curriculum is a “minimum” aptitude test, in my opinion, which makes it fairly shallow. Further, the test is well established and in the public domain, providing oodles and oodles of questions to pull from, both for tailoring of instruction, as well as for inclusion of examples. Finally, after having taught 10 Regents Physics sections in the past three years, I don’t think it would be a stretch to state that I could recite the curriculum in my sleep.

Migrating to the new book, I have the distinct advantage of starting with the baseline material from Regents Physics Essentials. However, the outline I’ve written significantly expands the scope of the course, with the goal of providing Honors Physics instructors the ability to pick and choose chapters and sections to fit their courses. This has led to many, many hours scouring the Internet for state and district standards both near and far; discussions with physics teachers across the country about what they want from such a book, what they don’t, and some hard decisions about what compromises and cuts have to be made to provide a resource that will be of the greatest value to the greatest number, while maintaining my personal goals for the book as well as keeping the page count in check so as to maintain an acceptable price point. Of course, I’d love to keep everything, but the problem with a 700-page review book is three-fold: first, the cost becomes prohibitive; second, students won’t read it; and third, that’s starting to move into textbook territory, and there are already many terrific physics texts available for this level.

But, I’m proud to state that the first draft of the review book is coming along fine, with more than 200 pages in fairly strong shape.  I’ve been spending a lot of time working on rotational motion, attempting to streamline basic concepts such as rotational kinematics and torque in a way that follows logically and highlights the parallels of translational motion, without getting bogged down in confusing terminology and unnecessary depth.  This should nearly complete the mechanics section of the text.

I’ve also done initial work on some of the additional chapters, such as fluid mechanics, thermal physics, semiconductors, and cosmology.  Besides initial outlines and some basic illustrations, I’ve been especially focused on the semiconductor chapter… not many introductory courses go into semiconductors, and I’m thrilled at the opportunity and challenge of providing basic semiconductor physics review at this level, consistent with the work I was involved in a few years ago developing the Semiconductor Technology Enrichment Program (STEP) with Rochester Institute of Technology’s Microelectronic Engineering Department.

So, as school starts up again, progress in the writing department will, of necessity, slow down.  I’m excited to meet this year’s class of students, jump into Skills-Based Grading (SBG) for the first time, utilize a number of short videos for concept review, increase the amount of inquiry in my classroom, reduce the amount of lecture time, learn more about physics modeling, and on and on and on.  But I’m setting aside specific time each morning to keep working on the book project, and I continue to value whatever input and guidance you can provide in this endeavor.  And, of course, the website continues to grow — tutorials, videos, projects, forums, and blogs are all ongoing projects!

Thanks for the continued support, and best wishes to you on an amazing 2011-2012 school year!