And while the practice itself is valuable without the need to do more beyond the retrieving act, I really like to add student discourse to the mix.

Today we did retrieval with a homework problem. I’ve also done something similar with notes from class. One of the keys in this activity is color coding.

My students were given an AP problem to work on over the weekend. When they arrived in class today I informed them we were going to discuss the problem but don’t pull it out! I proceeded to give students a blank copy of the problem. Students had 10 minutes to complete the problem using only their brains.

In phase two I had students discuss the problem within their table groups. At the beginning of the year I had put students in groups based on the scores of their cognitive reflection test. Students were initially in mixed groups with the hope that reflective ideas could spread. Unfortunately this backfired a bit as students on the lower end started taking passive roles. For this semester I put similar-scoring students together while also accounting for the personalities I’ve come to know. This means that I knew when I had students talking they were working in similar-ability teams. As students added or changed answers they highlighted the revisions with a highlighter.

For phase three I counted off students in groups of 4 so ideas could spread and mix. Again, students highlighted anything they added or changed with a second color.

Lastly, I went through the solutions formally, but because they had spent so much time on the nitty-gritty I was able to talk about the problem in terms of the big picture. Any lingering revisions needed to be coded in a third color.

When we finished I pointed out that the colors give them an idea of where their studies and focus need to be. Start with the first color: they have lots of resources to help them with those ideas. The second color required a spread of ideas and perhaps had a few more challenging ones in the mix.

Students commented on how they felt more confident about the work we are doing after this activity, and I just love that the paper creates a really clear visual of where they are. The best part is that this paper is just for them. No reason to feel shame because you’re in the middle of the learning process.

I have this lab I received from a colleague, it’s an iteration of a lab I’ve seen in other places. Basically an object goes down a ramp, gets caught by a paper catch/index card etc and students are looking for some iteration of work and energy.

In the version I have students are asked to find a relationship between height and distance. The cool thing about this is it ends up that height is directly proportional to distance and related by the coefficient of kinetic friction alone.

Student’s work looks like this:

Students are asked to complete the lab with a hot wheel car and then again with a small mass attached to the car. To students’ surprise the lines are not identical. This really bothers students until we discuss what we were actually looking for. See, the lines are still parallel, but the car with more mass is going to have a greater momentum at the bottom and will require a greater impulse to stop. It’s a fantastic conversation piece.

I really enjoy this lab because it requires students to consider a new problem and then apply that knowledge to a lab setting. Research has shown that students don’t really learn content in the lab, they learn lab skills. I was always a little frustrated with the disconnect between all of the work students put into the theory and then the lab results themselves. So this time I changed things up.

Instead of giving students the lab hand out and letting them work in groups, when students walked into the room they were put into visibly random groups. Visibly random grouping just means you create the random groups in front of students so they see it was truly random. I’ve been immersed in the book Building Thinking Classrooms and the research on this is really cool.

Once students are in their groups and at a white board that is vertically mounted, I’m in the middle of the room at a lab table with the lab set-up. I verbally explain the set up and that I want them to derive a mathematical model for the relationship between height and distance.

Vertical whiteboarding is really cool and has several advantages. First, students are standing which puts them into a more active position, this gets more of them working. Second, it’s really easy to just look around and snag ideas from other classmates. Third, since they’re already standing it’s really easy to move around the room and discuss with other groups. The first time I did this what astounded me was the sheer number of students talking. Instead of it being maybe 4 or 5 leaders it was nearly everyone in the room! There was so much collaboration and ownership of learning it was magical.

So I did this with the first part of the lab. Next, I asked them to sketch what the graph will look like with the two lines. Almost all of the students sketched the two lines on top of each other. I want them to have the experience of their data not aligning with their previous ideas and having to reconsider, so we left it at that. Then students were off.

I’m going to finish this lab this week, so I’ll have to come back to update this post, but I love this activity and vertical whiteboarding gets a 10/10 every time.

After over a week of work and various representations and practicing energy bar charts we finally dive into the math. We’ve already created mathematical models for spring energy and gravitational potential energy and I give them kinetic. Now we begin.

I want to press on the students that there isn’t an “equation” for energy problems that they are looking for. They need to determine thee equation from their bar chart and physics they already know.

We will start with another example problem and generate the equation through the bar chart. Students then have the opportunity to try a bunch more iterations on their own. This is about the time I will do the hopper popper lab energy style.

In AP I will open the following day a step further by giving them the problem below as a warm up (students do NOT have the bar charts provided!)

Students are first asked to create the bar charts because there’s no point in trying to write equations and solve for anything until the bar chart is correct. In the first part most students will neglect to include friction. In the second, students will say the ball only has potential energy at the peak, forgetting that the horizontal component stays constant!

The purpose of this exercise is twofold: first, it’s a great opportunity for interleaving. Second, it demonstrates to students they need to be ready for anything!

This year I’ve been incorporating vertical white boarding from Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics and it’s been truly amazing. After this exercise we went to vertical boards where students had two more problems, one was straightforward with friction while the other was solving for the height of a ramp needed so a ball can just make it around the loop.

The following day students engage in my conceptual whiteboard challenge where I help scaffold an expert approach to problem solving.

Next up, what my mathematical lab looks like for energy. Time to bring out the toys!

Turns out I also have a lecture video for this one (thanks COVID!)

We move into energy conservation pretty quickly. Similar to our introduction to work, I pull on prior student knowledge. How many energy forms can you name? As students list them I copy them on the board, sorting them into mechanical and non-mechanical forms. Once we’ve exhausted this list I give them the category names and also the definitions of potential energy as energy of position and kinetic as energy of motion. We discuss how potential energy requires a position that can be measured within the system.

One of the best ways I’ve learned to support students is to teach them to create bar charts. I’ve seen many iterations of this, in the modeling community these are LOL charts. I, personally, haven’t been convinced to continue to use quite as much time on the systems part as many in the modeling community do (literally for the sake of time) but the key feature here is that we are taking concepts and translating them into a kind of visual, mathematical model.

So this is what we do first. We do a few examples (it’s like a checklist!) and then students are on their own for some samples. Emphasis is placed on the process:

Identify your initital and final states

Sketch a picture of each state

Identify your system

Identify which energy/ies are present

If there is a change between initial and final then we need to include work.

Double check that you have, in fact, accounted for any possible external forces that may have done work.

I show students how defining different systems can still get you to the same answer and WOW! Work done by gravity is the same as the potential energy due to gravity… the difference is the system.

I actually have the COVID-lecture version of this video when I wasn’t able to run this lesson with the whole class. While you’ll notice I do go into the math here, it’s really not an emphasis until later. In my regular class I don’t touch it at all until the next day

Interestingly enough the work and energy unit/chapter has become my litmus test for whether or not I’m going to invest time in a resource. It was what spurred my frustration with The Physics Girl’s AP review series (although I’ve learned that when you’re actually commissioned by someone like PBS you have to bend to the whims of the corporation).

So what’s the litmus test? Open the resource to the first page of the Work & Energy chapter. If you see “work is defined as force times distance” close it and move along! First of all, let me be totally clear, that was me early in my career. I taught that work was the dot product of force and distance, we did a lot of different calculations and then we defined energy and did conservation of energy. My frustrations began with the fact that students were not transferring the idea of work over to conservation of energy. They deepened when upon reflection I realized my angst was because the core idea is not just that “energy is conserved” but that work causes a change of energy in a system.

I start by asking students to name types of work. The list looks something like this:

Homework

Housework

Yardwork

work work (a job)

Wood working

and so on…

Then I ask students what is shared amongst all of those ideas. I’m looking for two answers, that they all require effort and that they all end in a change: Do your homework and your brain grows, work a job and you get paid… and so on.

So then I give students a list of tasks: lifting your backpack, holding your backpack, dropping your backpack, walking with your backpack (at a constant speed), climbing the stairs with your backpack, and I ask students which of the following are an example of doing work. We don’t share answers quite yet because I don’t want to participate in “expose and shame” where we trick students into marking the wrong answer. After they come up with this list then we formally discuss work as “a change in energy of a system due to the application of forces”. I emphasize the change which is in alignment with our original definition and “application of forces” which is the “effort” part they mentioned earlier. We go back through the examples and have a discussion about which are work and how.

Note: We’ve already discussed systems when we did forces, so there is a review of this idea as well.. the concept of systems is critical to student understanding of work and energy so if you’ve not done systems yet you need to hit this hard!

I’m going to include a few of the sample problems we work together in class to hit different ideas:

I ask this question right after our intro to work. I let students come up with lots of ways to reason the answer. The “correct” answer is that the force is perpendicular to the displacement, but this is also a good time to discuss that a “before” and “after” snapshot would also look identical, or that with each orbit the displacement is zero!

I ask this question in two ways: first as presented, then I ask them how the ranking changes if they were asked about the work done on the OBJECT. This is also a good place to discuss what negative means in the sense of work (positive work ADDS to the system while negative work takes away from the system)

Also of note: in AP I tell them that any time they get a graph they should ask themselves “does the slope tell me anything, does the area tell me anything” slope is essentially dividing the properties while area is multiplying (I know this is a major oversimplification, but it’s an algebra based course). I show them a graph of force vs displacement and ask how they find the work done (area!) they have a few practice items with these.

We run the spring lab where students discover Hooke’s Law and then I ask them to determine the amount of work done on the spring. Most students are able to get to the idea that its 1/2kx^2, but I do always have a few groups that want to just sub in kx for force and end up omitting the 1/2. This is a great conversation to have in a board meeting.

In my regular classes I run this great desmos activity I found by another teacher (try it out here).

First, students move the sliders to make the graph match the scenario…

Then that graph is reproduced on the next slide so students can use it to perform the calculation

This familiarizes students with graphical representations and the idea of how positive and negative work affect the system. I added one last slide to the original asking students to review what they learned in the activity and predict the work done by the spring in their lab

When we are ready to move to energy, I open with the following question:

A ball is dropped from rest.

Define the system to be just the ball. Sketch a diagram showing the ball and the earth and identify the system by drawing a dashed circle around the objects in the system. Include any relevant forces. Is work being done on the ball? Explain your answer.

Define the system to be the ball and the earth. Sketch a diagram showing the ball and the earth and identify the system by drawing a dashed circle around the objects in the system. Include any relevant forces. Is work being done on the ball? Explain your answer.

This is a great way to talk about how the same situation can describe work or not. The gravitational force is clearly inside of the system in #2 and therefore is a NON example of work.

We’ll discuss how I move from work to energy another day!

At some point while considering equitable grading practices, I found myself searching the archives of TPT looking for some ideas regarding retakes. While I appreciate the idea of an honest retake, my experience has been that it is simply more time and effort on my part, and minimal effort and a hope to just “do better this time” on the part of my students. I ran across Jeff McManus’ article regarding the “box score” (“Retests”: A better method of test corrections)

In short, when the students turn in their exam, they receive a blank copy of the exam and they get to redo it, using any resources. If the redo is perfect, their old score gets a bump on the square root curve. I liked this notion, but had a dilemma—my exams in AP Physics are taken from secure college board documents which are not to leave my classroom. Additionally, I knew that certain groups of kids would work together, while others would not take the initiative to join a group, attempt to work on their own, and not reap as much of the benefits. Not wanting to lose the integrity or security of the exams I needed to make a modification on the assignment.

I informed students of the opportunity to do a retake. Since they needed time to really work the exam, I offered them a “collaboration day” during lunch (our students have a shared lunch hour). The retake would be the following day at lunch as well. (Collaboration day came and I was enthralled. Two thirds of my students came (this has increased to as high as 80%) , received a blank copy of the test, and started talking and working together. Large groups of students formed around white boards to tackle problems, the energy was palatable and the camaraderie was invigorating. Since the students had no number to form an idea how they had actually done on the exam, there was a wide range of abilities in the room.

One of my best students commented to me after collaboration day, “I thought I did really well, but I realize there was a lot I didn’t know” The need to score a perfect in order to obtain an increase in points also motivated students to grill each other for explanations until they understood and could reproduce the work themselves.

Retake day arrived and I had a full house. Students were able to finish their previously 40 minute exam in 20 or less because they knew how to attack the problems and most students were able to perfectly answer the problems.

I struggled, however, with the notion that students might memorize steps to a solution, rather than it being truly valid. I added a reflection component to the retake. Students needed to explain to me what they had previously misunderstood that now they comprehended. The reflections were telling. Students who had obtained 100% on the exam could clearly indicate their faults in either concept or problem-solving approaches. Students who were unable to obtain 100% were unable to adequately reflect on what they misunderstood.

I have continued this practice, in particular with the energy exam, for the last 5 years since I first came across the article. It is not my first or only method for re-assessments, but it is certainly a powerful one. A few changes and observations I’ve made over the years:

To avoid the memorization piece, instead of testing next day, we test 5-7 days after the collaboration day in order for students to “forget”

I had a really hard time not bumping a student who earned a 60% and then got all of the FRQ right and missed one MC. So I do a half-bump… so if the full bump is 10*sqrt(60) = 77, the half bump is 77-60/2 = 8.5 60+8.5 = 68.5, which I’ll likely round to 70 out of generosity.

I’ve had one instance where a student with extreme anxiety and perfectionism this was problematic. I made alternative arrangements for that student ahead of the retake (they got 100 anyway).

Did you come here from a schoolology link? I’d love to know how you’re using this post! Feel free to contact me!

That time between AP exams and summer break is weird and special all at the same time. (If you’re looking for review ideas, here’s what I do before the exam) Depending on when your year starts it’s also possibly extensive. Watching movies and playing games is really only fun for about a week. If you are in all AP classes it gets old pretty fast when the whole day is mind-numbing for the next four weeks.

To use the time productively, and enjoyably, I assign a “physics of project”. I was actually inspired to do something like this after seeing Professor Gordon Ramsey continuously bring his undergraduate students in to Chicago Section AAPT meetings to present their original research. Most memorably I recall a project on music. The student who played saxophone in marching band, make a sax out of PVC and compared the tonal quality to a real sax using the same mouthpiece. He also did an acoustical analysis of his playing vs Professor Ramsey’s playing (which was really cool to basically see the differences between a “novice” marching band player vs an experienced improvisational player).

The prompt is simple: students are asked to research the physics behind anything they want.

The only real parameter is that whatever they choose they need to be able to collect and analyze data. If they cannot directly collect data then they need to find a way to come up with assumptions for measurements (analyzing videos, researching quantities) or find a way to model what they hope to research.

That’s it.

Ok, ok… I provide a little more structure than that, because we all know if given 2-4 weeks to complete a major project most students will put in 40 hours of work the 2 days before the deadline.

Here is what I provide:

Your task: In a group of 1-3 people:

Pick a topic to study the physics of. This can literally be anything, but it needs to be something that you can find a way to either physically model and/or otherwise collect data.

Research the topic and collect data. You may collect data inside or outside the classroom. Inside the classroom you have access to all probeware and software. If you are wondering if I have something, ask because I probably do. Outside the classroom your cell phone is your largest asset. Additionally, I have 4 iOLabs from the University of Illinois that can run nearly all of the data collection as my Vernier probes can. You may check one out for 2 consecutive days at a time. A sign up will be available next week.

Present your results in a 10-15 minute presentation. Come prepared with either a poster or slides because physics is visual!

When you present, you will be asked questions about the physics of your project and considerations to make it better. Be sure you’ve considered all of the assumptions you’ve made carefully and intentionally!

The first assignment students must provide me with is a project proposal. They need to have a concrete plan for how they plan to measure and analyze their data. This is submitted to me within the first week of the project. I provide students with feedback regarding their plans and suggestions as appropriate.

Next, I ask them to do some background research. It’s like a super watered down literature review. I want them using sources and learning a bit about what they are planning to study before they dive in. I ask for just a page.

The following few weeks they have a simple check in: what have you accomplished, what challenges are you running into, what do you need to do next. These check ins hold them accountable. All of the smaller assignments are included in the final grade.

The final product is a presentation and a paper. The paper is effectively a large lab report.

Students are given the following outline (dates were when we used to end on Memorial Day)

Student Products

Student projects are AMAZING

I will have many students analyze real data they’ve collected like this student who looked at the oscillations of her dog drying himself

Or I will have students analyze the physics of something they maybe cannot capture data directly, but they find ways to make estimates. Like this project on the physics of Nathen Chen

These projects have spanned everything from “is it possible?” in the movies, to students analyzing themselves in their own sport, to topics like rainbows that we don’t cover in AP Physics 1.

Students regularly report that this is their favorite activity the entire year, and the activity they are most proud of. (It also gives me a great story to tell in rec letters!)

When students give their presentations I want to run this much like if they were presenting research. I expect them to talk about what they might do or change if they did it again, or if they wanted to explore further. I ask them questions about their methodology and assumptions. During this process we also open the discussion to the whole class to brainstorm ideas as well.

Grading. Feedback. Oh how we want it to be effective, but too often our time is not exchanged for valuable student learning. When the focus is the grade, rather than the learning, and the grade is “final” with no opportunities to grow, why would students care about the feedback? They look at the grade, make a judgment of themselves as learners of physics, and toss it. Not only do they miss out on the growth opportunity, they miss out on all of the things they did correctly.

I always love when students come to me and we have one on one conversations because these are really fruitful, but there’s literally not enough time in the day to do this for 100-200 students.

Besides, as a high school teacher my lasting lessons need to be the ones that will carry them through college and beyond. None of those have to do with properly using F=ma.

Recently in my regular physics classes I’ve worked to make the process more transparent. We do regular “check-in’s” (yes, they are quizzes) that are focused on 1-2 objectives, but the other piece I’ve added is having students self-evaluate their work in the same way I evaluate their work.

This is not about providing solutions (yes, it’s part of it). It’s about making the students go through the process in a non-threatening way so they can look for trends and patterns in their work.

Here’s what it looks like

Currently we are wrapping up reflection. I want students to be able to do ray tracing and mathematical calculations.

One of the changes I made years ago was to ask students to do the ray diagram first, making it roughly proportional, and then work the math and verify the two answers check out with one another. I proclaim to students they won’t need me to ask if they did it right, they should know.

Historically I’ve had the solutions available at my desk for students to check the work. But you know what they do? They look at the final answer and move on.

My biggest problem? Students just will not draw that image in on their ray diagram! I also have a problem with students not putting arrowheads on their light rays. Now, from a student learning objective process, both of these omissions are not problematic if the goal is to locate and describe the image. However, for a student who is struggling, these omissions can make it really difficult. I don’t want to punish students who clearly know what’s going on, but I don’t want to settle for incomplete work, either.

Enter the self-evaluation.

I create a checklist for students to go through, and I have them go through this checklist for each question. I reproduce the checklist for each question so students are required to look at each piece of their work rather than trying to summarize everything from the start. Why do I do this? I want them to see patterns in their work.

Here’s what it looks like for ray diagrams

Here’s what the math check list looks like.

I ask students to evaluate their answers with my solution guide. I also ask them to give themselves a score. 2 points if everything is right. 1 point if something is right but there are things missing or incorrect. 0 points if nothing is correct. Their score out of 4 gives them an idea of the letter grade they would earn from the work.

So the whole document looks like this:

I explain they might notice they are marking “no” over and over again. When they notice this, that piece is the piece they now know they need to work on.

To make sure students are self-aware, I asked them to summarize what they did correctly, and what they did incorrectly or omitted.

I will be honest, part of me expected students to kind of half-ass the assignment. But something magical happened: students who hadn’t finished the assignment evaluated the ones they did… and then they worked the rest of the problems and corrected themselves!!!

We will see how the test goes next week, but I’m really hopeful!

As a general rule I kind of hate reviews. They make the students feel good, but I’m not sure how much they actually get from the traditional review session a day or so before the test. I do a lot of problem solving work with my students all year long, using different strategies to help maximize their efforts on both the multiple choice and the FRQs. So by the time we are two weeks from the AP exam I want to build their confidence, let them have some fun and have some meaningful conversations along the way.

We dedicate a day to each of the topics on the AP exam. Each day there is a new challenge. (Links to activities provided!)

Last year for day 2 we did a long forces FRQ practice. We had 25 minute classes in SY 2020-21, so I did not have time to do the practice as I described in this post until finals week. My practicum asks students to determine coefficients of friction using only a meterstick.

For UCM I focus students in on rote practice drawing force diagrams and writing sum of forces expressions for multiple scenarios.

Work and energy has so many cool opportunities for a lab practicum. I have students choose their own adventure from one of several Pivot Interactives videos

For momentum I give students a random ziploc bag of stuff (beans, pennies, highlighters…literally anything I can find)… and I ask students to come up with two methods to determine the mass of the bag!

I believe firmly in the power of deep conversations. The challenge is making those conversations into something cohesive and reflective. Each year I move further away from “traditional” review. At some point we have to trust that we’ve done the best we can as their educators and that at some point we have to let them fly.

The folks on the writing committee for questions must get really excited about writing interesting questions for the long FRQs… the issue, however, is that students generally suck at them.

Here’s the thing though: I know that in a non-testing environment, my students should be able to perform way better than these national numbers. However student responses in an exam setting tend to be long-winded, lacking a clearly defined direction and often taking too much time down useless avenues.

So how do we correct this?

Firstly, I believe it is more important to give students the confidence that they can tackle these problems than insisting they do tackle these on a unit exam. Mindset makes a major difference.

Also, given the suggested time of 25 minutes, it’s not fair or appropriate to put one of these on a unit exam because it means the students grade will mostly be based on the question type, rather than their actual mastery.

To build student skills and prepare for the exam I set a few days aside during the year to specifically practice the long FRQs. Sometimes it’s the lab question, sometimes it’s the quantitative reasoning problem, but I try to do it at least once per unit.

Here’s the cycle:

Round 1: Skim and annotate on your own (5 minutes) I want students to have the feeling of sitting down for this question cold, with only their brain available to them. However, I also want to build their testing strategies and problem solving skills. For English we teach students to skim the passage and annotate the text by making a note of big ideas for each paragraph (I’ve worked as an ACT tutor). Why shouldn’t we do the exact same thing for these items in physics?! In fact, sometimes there are some easy points nestled in at the end… or… we can find the meat of the problem doesn’t show up until part c or d. Students often sit at the problem and begin at the begining and work until the end. While this is ok for homework, on a high stakes exam they are possibly leaving minutes and points to waste.

Round 2: Friends No Pens (10 minutes) you may have seen me talk about this strategy before a test. Many folks comment about how this reduces anxiety. I see friends no pens serving two extremely valuable purposes. First, it helps students organize their thoughts by saying them aloud. Second, it forces students to clearly and accurately communicate with their peers. By doing this, they will write more succinctly when it comes time to do the work.

Round 3: Individual Work (10-15 minutes). I explain to students they’ve already had 15 minutes to “work” the problem, so they should only need 10 more to finish. I ask them to complete as much as they can in the time.

Round 4: Discuss in a group: Sometimes I omit this phase and give them the scoring guides immediately. Other times I let them discuss their solutions in a group. When I do this, I mix up the groups from the students they talked with during friends no pens. Students are asked to make corrections as needed

Round 5: Self-score: Lastly I give students the AP scoring guidelines. This is a really important piece because they should see exactly how they are evaluated. A student noticed today “Ms R… there’s no point for the answer” NOPE! It’s all about the work. Other students noticed how stating momentum is conserved is worth points. At this time in the year we’ve pretty much covered all of the physics and now I want to work to maximize the points they can earn on the exam so their score reflects what they are actually capable of.

Sometimes (especially the first one we do) we debrief afterwards about the activity. Sometimes I have them turn these in for quiz points. Sometimes I let them keep the assignment. Sometimes I skip friends no pens. I will have them annotate, then solve the problem then discuss. I ask them to give themselves a “my score” grade and a “with friends” grade so they can see the difference between the two. Much of our conversation is focused on identifying big ideas and writing in a conscience manner.

How do you tackle preparing students for these items on the AP exam?