The Science Learnification Weekly (April 24, 2011)

This is a collection of things that tickled my science education fancy in the last week or so. Another light week for posts to share; I was busy packing and moving to a new home.

Teach. Brian. Teach.

Brian Frank (Teach. Brian. Teach blog) has been on a tear with 10ish posts in the past couple of weeks. He posts about  learning and learning about the learning about physics. I find that he posts a lot about the (teaching and) learning of physics in a way that causes me to reflect on my own classroom practices and course planning.

Even more learning from mistakes

There were a couple of articles from the last issue of the Physics Teacher (same one as the newest Cramster article I discussed last week). These articles are only available to subscribers of the Physics Teacher.

  • “Find-the-Flaw” Problems:  Styer gives them problems that are too challenging for the point that they are currently at and asks them to provide simple reasons why all but one of the provided possible answers are incorrect. These answers are symbolic and the students is meant to look things such as units and behaviors in limiting cases to be able to show which of the provided answers are not possible. One of the main goals of this type of activity is to get them to be much more effective at the “evaluate your answer” portion of problem solving.
  • Teaching Physics (and Some Computation) Using Intentionally Incorrect Simulations: From the folks that brought you Physlets. They put some intentionally incorrect physics (such as wrong powers in formulas or electrostatic forces that depend on the charge of only one of the objects) and the students are asked to dig into the Easy Java Simulation code and properly debug it. This is meant to be a step easier than creating their own simulations, but in my experience debugging is unfun for most so I’m not sure if this is the kind of thing I would want to inflict on my students. I would lean more toward working them through the Matter and Interactions vPython tasks instead.

iPhone PDF annotation -> I Love (Heart) GoodReader

Just a little Garfunkel and Oates joke to start off the post.

GoodReader is only $5 and does a bunch of stuff that brings me iPod Touch joy (this list is just the stuff that I care about)

  • It does proper PDF annotation (notes, bookmarks, typewriter tool, drawing) that is written to PDF so that when you access the file on another computer, the annotations are still there. This managed to greatly reduce my need to get an iPad or something similar for reading journal articles and the like.
  • You can upload/download/sync files with your dropbox, sugarsync and googledocs accounts. And you can do this for entire folders instead of tedious old one file at a time.
  • It remembers where you were an the zoom level in a PDF when you close the program so when you come back you are right where you left (like any good reading program should, but not all do).
  • Has a folder structure of your uploaded (to your iPhone) files that you can manipulate (move files around, make new folders, etc).

One thing that I would like, that it does not currently feature, is some sort of  “two-column pdf” reading function. Most journal articles I deal with have two columns on each page so when you tap to advance you would typically like to go from top-left to bottom-left in tap steps, tap to jump to top-right and then go to bottom-right in tap steps. Any reader I have encountered only goes horizontally (when zoomed in beyond the page size like in comics) when tapped and then has a carriage-return type of motion when it gets to the horizontal edge of the page.

Goodreader also displays all the standard M$ office files, and if I understand correctly also plays music, videos and displays pictures. There is probably other stuff as well, but what I really wanted was a good PDF annotator and it works well for me.

I was using Aji Annotate before (same price) and the PDF annotations were not written directly to the pdf, and getting files into that program was a hassle. Yay GoodReader!

The Science Learnification Weekly (April 18, 2011) – Homework Special Edition

This is a collection of things that tickled my science education fancy in the last week or so. My internet was down for most of the week so this week it will all be on one topic, homework.

Cramster articles in The Physics Teacher

Over the past two months Michael Grams has published two articles on Cramster in the American Association of Physics Teachers publication The Physics Teacher.  Cramster is a website where students can go to get poorly worked out solutions to textbook problems (more on this later) or get live help from “experts”. It has a tiered membership where people have some access for free but have to pay to have full access.

  • Cramster: Friend or Foe (free article)? Grams discusses the website, and what some of his previous students and fellow educators think about it. He also sets up his experiment which is discussed in the second article.
  • The Cramster Conclusion (not a free article): His research question is “Could giving students the answers to their assigned homework problems be an effective way of teaching them physics?” His students were provided with both a full membership to Cramster, and two days after homework assignments were given, the full textbook solutions to those problems. The homework was never collected nor graded, but an in-class quiz consisting of a numerical problem similar to one of the homework problems was given to follow-up on each assignment. He used common diagnostic conceptual surveys (Force Concept Inventory in his Mechanics sections and Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism in his Electricity and Magnetism sections), administered some exit surveys on their use of the solutions and had some follow-up student interviews. The most interesting findings (to my mind) were (1) that students greatly preferred the textbook solutions over the Cramster ones, and (2) the students with the best performance on the conceptual diagnostic surveys typically focused a lot of their attention on the “reasoning” part of the textbook solution when they used these solutions, where the students that did poorly on the conceptual diagnostic surveys completely ignored the “reasoning” parts of the solutions and just focused on the mechanical steps of the solution. The students found that the Cramster solutions often had errors, huge gaps in logic, and lacked any sort of reasoning steps, which is what made the textbook solutions their preference. This article really would have benefited from using graphs as its main method of communicating data instead of gigantic tables and endless numbers within the body of the article.

More challenges to standard assign and grade homework practices

  • The Grading Dilemma: What’s Effort Worth? Shawn Cornally (Think Thank Thunk blog): “You can stop grading things. You can alleviate your students’ performance anxiety and points addiction by allowing them to engage with things purely for the fun of it. I’m so angry right now for how hippy-dippy this must be coming across.” Go read it.
  • What does education research really tell us? Alfie Kohn (author of The Homework Myth and many other books) talks about three traditional teaching practices: behavior change through rewards, assigning homework, and teaching by telling, and discusses research which challenges common practices and/or findings from smaller previous studies. When looking at influence of homework on learning when factoring in other things such as instruction and motivation, researchers found “Homework no longer had any meaningful effect on achievement at all, even in high school.”

Randomized numbers in pencil and paper assignments (or quizzes/exams)

  • DIY personalized, randomized assignments: Ed Hitchcock ( blog) discusses how he uses some standard M$ office programs to make student assignments that have randomized numbers so none of the students have the exact same question, meaning that their discussions of homework can focus more on the process than only the solutions. This randomization is common for online homework software such as Mastering, WebAssign, LON-CAPA, etc, but it’s nice to see a quick way to take this into the pencil-and-paper question realm.

The Science Learnification Weekly (April 10, 2011)

This is a collection of things that tickled my science education fancy in the last week or so. They tend to be clumped together in themes because an interesting find on the internet tends to lead to more interesting things.

The blogosphere was filled with posts on the Khan Academy again this week. Too many to link to, but one of the big points being made by the education bloggers is that Khan Academy should be trying to hire more educators to get involved instead of more programmers.


  • I need to teach reading comprehension: Mylene and I chat about how to get students to read and make sense of their textbooks. It turns into a discussion of my sort-of-implementation of JiTT (Just-in-Time Teaching) and some compare and contrast of student textbook reading vs. screencasting. Mylene took some of comments and incorporated them into a post on student preparation for class. Mylene had an insanely busy blogging week with 7 new posts (and she even got fresh-pressed) so make sure to check out some of her other posts from the week.
  • Textbooks: not just for memorizing anymore: Terie Engelbrecht has two major points to make about textbooks: (1) textbooks should be used as just one of many resources for knowledge acquisition and (2) textbooks should be used to help students learn how to read and understand informational text.

Chatty me on some “not from this past week” posts

I had some great conversations with other bloggers over on their blogs this week. Ones with Mylene were discussed above.

  • Gaming the classroom: Bret Benesh and I start strategizing how to gamify our classes in a way that would give rewards with classroom value in exchange for “advancing in the game” or “gaining experience points”. These rewards included ideas such as no longer having to demonstrate basic skills (such as integration by hand in upper-division physics courses) or gaining access to new types of assessments. We have now taken the discussion over to a collaborative document between the two of us and will report back when we figure out some more of the details.

More learning from mistakes

  • Leading with mistakes: Oops, missed this one last week in my collection of learning from mistakes post links. Mark Hammond talks some more about getting students to find mistakes that were made purposely by the teacher and discusses the evolution of mistake-prone characters that he and Kelly O’Shea use in their classes.

One of my favorite circuits questions as a lab practicum

  • Circuits Lab Practicum: Geoff Schmit posts one of my all-time favorite questions to give to students (usually on quizzes or exams) as a lab practicum. It’s the one where they have to figure out how a bunch of light bulbs are connected to a battery by unscrewing and re-screwing each of the bulbs and observing the behavior of the the other bulbs.

Global Physics Department

The Global Physics Department is the name we have given to the weekly physics education chat (9:30 EDT on Wednesdays) that got started through twitter. Lots of great things come up in our discussions there. Here are a few links of things that came up:

  • Tweetment of twitter in the classroom: At this past week’s chat/meeting John (JT) Miller gave a presentation on his use of twitter as part of his courses and he has a nice big collection of relevant links.
  • Report on our “conquest of cold” experiment: In the discussion that followed Miller’s presentation, John Burk pointed us to his post where he discusses the back-channel he had going while students (2), some fellow faculty, and his father-in-law watched the PBS’s Conquest of Cold from their respective homes.

Two-Stage Group Quizzes Part 0: Poster Presentation from FFPERPS 2011

This is Part 0 because I am just posting a link to the poster, as I presented it at FFPERPS 2011 (Foundations and Frontiers of Physics Education Research:  Puget Sound):

Click me to get full poster

Part 1 of this planned series of posts is where I go into some detail about the what, how and why (the intro section of the poster).

I am scheduled to present on this topic at the forthcoming April 13, 2011 Global Physics Department meeting, which takes place at 9:30 EDT. Please come join us in our elluminate session if you are interested (the more the merrier). We also have a posterous if you’re interested.

Children’s Games #1: Truck Cards

Note: helping children develop healthy attitude toward science is one of the things that I feel is my responsibility as a science educator. This post talks about the first reasonably-well thought out science (counting) activity that I did with my son back when he was nearly 3-years-old.

I’m helping my colleagues in the math department plan entertainment for the  the Grade 8-12 math contest kids that are coming to my university in a month. One of my students that is helping me plan some activities suggested this vector-teaching race-car activity. I built the track and tried it out with my 5-year-old son and it worked pretty well. It got me the thinking about all the boardgames (=board/card/dice games) I have played with my son and I thought I would share some.

Truck Cards: my son’s first boardgame

Truck Cards was the very first game I sat down and played with my son. We started playing when he was almost 3-years-old.

Truck Cards

Some examples of truck cards that I made.

Making your own copy of the game

  • Grab a pile of index cards, and a six-sided die (d6 for all the nerds).
  • Draw a bunch of pictures of something your child likes: dinosaurs, tea parties, or in my case vehicles.
  • Draw a die on each card showing one of the die faces. My son always got a kick out of how I had the vehicle hauling the die or had incorporated the die into the picture in some other way.
  • I suggest making 18 or more cards to start. Our stack is very large as you can see in the picture.

Playing the game

  • Lay all the cards face-up on the table.
  • Your child goes first and you alternate turns.
  • On your turn, you roll the die and pick up a card that matches your roll. You start with lots of cards so there are plenty of choices at first.
  • We have played the end-game two different ways. Version 1 is that if you roll the die and there are no cards left that match, your turn is over and you pass the die to the other player. Version 2 is that if you roll and there are no cards left that match your roll, you continue rolling until you get a match.
  • There is no winner.

Skills your child needs to have to play this game

  • Counting up to six or at least being able to pattern-match the dot patterns on a d6.
  • That’s it! The rest of the skills involved in this game are ones that are meant to be developed by playing the game.

Skills developed by playing Truck Cards

The whole purpose of this game was to help my son develop some of the skills that he would need to play boardgames as he grew up. In addition to boardgame-specific skills, most of the games I have played with him involve counting and other basic math skills.

When I came up with this game, these were the skills that I was hoping it would help him develop (and it was pretty successful at developing these skills):

  • Taking turns.
  • Counting: at first he recognized 1-4 on sight but had to count the pips every time he rolled a 5 or 6 and would then pattern-match with the numbers shown on the cards.
  • Good sports/gamesmanship and coping with disappointment: this one ended up being really important and is why I used version 1 of the end-game. I wanted there to be some turns where he did not get a card and had to accept that and hand the die over to me and then cheer for me to get a card. He did really well with this, but at first he always had to take a deep breath and put on a strong face when he handed the die over to me without getting a card that turn.

Some last thoughts

I have now drawn a very large number of truck cards and sitting down to draw truck cards was his favorite activity for a long time. He would dream up a vehicle and I would draw it and he would be thrilled. It was also a really great time killer at restaurants.

Most of the boardgames I will talk about in future posts are commercial games with perhaps some simplified rules. I will list the required skills and my suggestion of age. My wife runs a small daycare from our house so I have had many opportunities to play boardgames with children other than my son so my suggestions of age can be taken as broadly applicable. The games that I will discuss will all have some educational value, which is usually math-based.

Some examples of truck cards that I made.

The Science Learnification Weekly (April 3, 2011)

This is a collection of things that tickled my science education fancy in the last week or so. They tend to be clumped together in themes because an interesting thing on the internet tends to lead to more interesting things.

I was busy this week helping run the regional science fair so I didn’t manage to find much time for blogging. But there almost always seems to be enough time for the Science Learnification Weekly. Spoon!

Random Standards-Based Grading Stuff

I’ve said it before: Standards-based grading (SBG) is a pretty hot topic in the blogosphere (SBG gala #5) and on twitter (#sbar). There’s a nice short overview of standards-based grading at the chalk|dust blog.

  • Khan Academy and SBG: Dan Anderson blogs on his “A Recursive Process” blog a nice little list of what SBG is and isn’t to him:

    SBG did not change the how, it only changed the measuring stick.

    I will leave the Khan Academy stuff alone. If anything, it has managed to get a lot of people talking about education in a way that they weren’t previously doing. If you’re interested in some of the heavier discussions related to Khan Academy, you can check out one of Frank Noschese’s recent posts or follow him on twitter (@fnoschese) since he is getting involved in a lot of Khan-related discussions and tweeting about it.

  • Violating the Laws of Grading: A Repeat Offender’s Story: Terie Engelbrecht (@mrsebiology) recently started blogging and there was much rejoicing. In this post she talks about some of her problems encountered in implementing SBG, and reminds us of the laws of grading at the high-school-level (which get downgraded to rules of thumb of grading at the University level):
  1. Law of Right Answers: I get all right answers, I get A…right?
  2. Law of I Can’t Get a B Because I Always Get an A: The “oh man are they in for a surprise when they get to university” law
  3. Law of GPAs: chewing gum and ruining lives

Flipped/Inverted Classroom

Learning From Mistakes

This was a delightfully hot topic this week.

  • Proof of concept: could students learn more if Kahn made mistakes? John Burk (Quantum Progress blog) shows off a screencast of a worked example with a purposeful mistake in it and a nice discussion about using this as a learning tool for students follows. I even propose a study in my own courses in fall, but it’s not yet fully fleshed out.
  • The Mistake Game: Kelly O’Shea (Physics! Blog!) takes the above idea one step further and gets her students to embed mistake(s) in their presented whiteboarding solutions in response to them being bored with seeing the correct solutions all the time.

Shared Labs

  • Shared labs: Andy Rundquist (I’m not watching TV blog) talks about how he manages to get multiple groups using the same experimental apparatus by having one group write-up procedure and theory, the next week another group takes the data, and on the third week yet another group does the data analysis. So each group gets exposure to 3 labs over this period. I wonder in the comment how this model can be adapted to self-directed labs.