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!

A New Kind of Physics Review Book #physicsed #Regents

New York’s Regents Physics curriculum outlines an introductory algebra-based physics course covering a range of topics from classical mechanics and electricity and magnetism to waves, optics, modern physics, and even touching on the Standard Model. Several commercial textbooks are available supporting this curriculum relatively well, but as the year comes to a close and students prepare for the formal culminating standardized Regents Physics Exam, review books focusing on problem solving make their way into the equation.

tim_studying_hg_clr Currently, there are several Regents Physics review books available which are quite well done and that I’m very fond of personally. Over the past few years, I’ve pointed students toward several of these books, and even supplied them for my students in some cases. What students have reported, however, indicates that in many cases they quickly become overwhelmed with the size and layout of the review books, especially given the time constraints they have for review before the exam is given. When most of these books contain a minimum of 400 pages, students begin to view the review process as a daunting endeavor, and therefore never begin. When the shorter books (~ 250 pages) contain hundreds of problems but no included solutions, students see a workbook instead of a resource, and become frustrated when they can’t check their answers and obtain immediate feedback. Regardless of the reason, if students don’t engage in the review book, however well written and complete it may be, its effectiveness is extremely limited.

Based on student feedback, input from other physics teachers, and requests from several of this year’s crop of Regents Physics students, work has begun on a review book designed to meet the needs of current Regents Physics students in a friendly, engaging, and efficient manner.

So what’s different about this project? First, the book is not intended as a textbook replacement, but rather a summary of just what students need to know to be successful on the Regents Physics Exam, without any extra fluff, similar to an SAT prep book or an AP prep book. There’s a time for pushing further into topics of interest, building deeper understandings, and refining analytical skills — all extremely important in a modern physics classroom, and well supported by a wide variety of modern resources. This book is designed to meet a different need — to assist students in achieving their highest possible score on the Regents Physics Exam in as efficient and straightforward a manner as possible, while reinforcing fundamental physics concepts in as simple and clear a manner as possible.

Second, this book is designed from the ground up to be high-school-student friendly. Target length is 300 pages, fonts are designed for easy readability, and hundreds of sample problems are included immediately following the concepts required, streamlining adoption and specific topic reviews in both traditional and SBG classrooms.  Detailed solutions (not just answers) are provided immediately following the questions, utilizing the problem-solving format required for optimal scoring on the Regents Exam. No external answer key required! Fun illustrations and clear diagrams abound throughout the text.

Third, the text is tied in to the website, providing students a pathway to obtain further problem practice with immediate feedback as well as receiving help on tricky concepts in the Regents Physics and Homework Help online forums.

physics_md_clr Target publication date for the APlusPhysics: Your Guide to Regents Physics Essentials is May 2011. Instructors interested in learning more and/or reviewing the text may contact the publisher directly by e-mailing or through the APlusPhysics website.

Mid-Term Review with High Engagement

If you’re like me, you absolutely abhor “review” time.  I’m not saying review of key material isn’t important, but trying to differentiate instructions to meet the needs of individual learners in large classes, while also differentiating across a fairly wide range of proficiencies can be a challenge.  Sure, doing it for a single class isn’t too bad, but accomplishing it over several days and several units of material is not only difficult, it’s also downright dull.

Of course, we try to mix things up to keep our review sessions as fresh as possible… we’ll work individually some days, in groups in others, attempt various types of problems, use computers, use clickers, use whiteboards, all with varying degrees of success.  Yesterday I thought I’d try something a bit different though… nothing drastic by any stretch, just several small tweaks that put together made for the highest level of engagement I’d seen for a review activity.


The Setup

To begin with, I rearranged the room and all the student desks and lab tables to make a total of six massive tables, with chairs and stools around each. One of the table was designated “belongings,” and students were asked to place all of their bags, books, etc. on the belongings table at the beginning of class, keeping only a pencil or pen with them.

At each of the remaining tables I placed a formula sheet, a few calculators, and a problem set of about 15 problems. Each of the five tables had a problem set from a different unit (Kinematics, Dynamics, UCM & Gravity, Impulse and Momentum, and Work/Energy/Power).  I also placed an answer key at each table.

Once everyone had huddled up, I provided each student with a blank sheet of paper and asked them to rank the topics we’d covered so far this year from strongest to weakest (we’ve been working on building meta-cognition skills sporadically throughout the year).  Once that was completed, detailed M&Mgroupinstructions were given.  Students were to travel to each “station” and complete five problems on the blank sheets of paper, showing all work as demonstrated in class, and checking their answers using the solution sheets as they went.  Once five problems were successfully completed, they could come to the front of the room, grab an M&M reward, and move on to the next topic.

Students in need of help had two options… they could ask their cohorts at the same station, or come to the “help desk” (aka teacher), who would provide help, but only by asking more questions.  Out of 100 students, only two came to the help desk all day.  Instead, they taught each other.


The Results

Our goal was to complete all five stations in our 42-minute period.  Many students succeeded in the goal, and a small contingent made it through several extra stations.  More importantly, I had students working diligently on problems for a solid 90% of our class time.  I saw students teaching each other patiently, explaining concepts and notation in detail, and checking for understanding as they went.  And as they left the class, a number of students mentioned how helpful an exercise this had been as they prepared for their mid-term.

I don’t know what was so magical about the lesson.  We’ve done practice problems with answers before, individually and in groups.  We’ve rotated through stations before.  We’ve re-arranged the room.  Maybe it was the M&M’s – I’m not usually a fan of external motivations, especially something so simple and benign as a single M&M for each five-problem set done correctly.  Whatever the reason, it appears the combination of changes did the trick, and not only did the students get extra practice in their areas of greatest need, I also gained valuable feedback by watching which stations had the greatest “pile-ups” during the lesson, allowing me to focus our next class on the areas of greatest need.

So simple, yet so effective… I’ll have to ask the kids why they thought the lesson worked so well!