Walking the interactive classroom walk right out of the gate

Executive summary: This year I’m going to get my intro mechanics students to make motion diagrams and we are going to play “match the graph” games with motion detectors on the first day of class. This is going to happen instead of me spending the whole class period telling them how the course is going to work and then actually starting in with an interactive classroom on day 2. How novel!

First day of classes = kind of awkward

One thing that has bugged me about my courses over the past couple of years is that my first class ends up being a mostly administrative/logistical introduction to the course, with lots of salesmanship and my regular level of being silly on top. I spend most of the time that day talking and there is a huge disconnect since what I’m talking about is all the ways that they are going to learn that don’t involve me talking. Yuck!

Part of why I do it this way is because I am a big advocate of pre-class assignments/some sort of flipping of my classroom (using reading assignments, screencasts or other multimedia). I have touched on these things before (here and here). In terms of consistency, it seems inappropriate to stomp around telling them that I want them to ALWAYS come to class prepared to build on the concepts from their pre-class assignments, and then start trying to teach them Section 1.1 on the first day outside of my regular flipped framework.

But in terms of an interactive classroom, day 1 is me talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

My new plan is to jump right in

But this morning I decided I’m going to change it up this year. I’m going to introduce myself, tell them that I (heart) the interactive classroom and jump right into something fun and learningful (I’m allowed to make up these types of words).

I think they think the students are supposed to show up already having a physical feel for motion

Most introductory physics textbooks jump into 1D motion right away, perhaps with a preceding chapter on units, vectors and other physics-support stuff. But what they don’t do is try to spend some time helping the students develop a feel for motion. Perhaps students can quickly go from from an x-t graph to a v-t graph, but have they developed a physical sense of what sort of motion something is undergoing if they see a parabolic v-t graph? Knight does a decent job of some of this. He spends time on making motion diagrams (the picture that you be created if the moving object dropped a breadcrumb once per second, similar to a strobe image). But it is ultimately up to the students to develop a physics sense of these motion quantities and how they interact with each other, and most textbooks don’t even try set the students up to do this; they just treat this physical sense as developed from the get-go. By the way, I am using smartPhysics as my text this year (as I discuss here) and their text is no different in this way.

It is interesting that, under my new plan, it is almost better that the textbook doesn’t try to help the students develop this physical sense of motion. That means that I can jump right into some “developing a physical sense of motion” activities on day 1 without undermining my usual structure of doing some learning from the text before class and then coming to class to refine and build on that learning. Thanks textbooks.

The actual jump right in activities I am mulling over

Motion diagrams – The first thing I am going to do is to walk across the front of the room at constant velocity, saying “now”, once per second and ask them to whiteboad a picture that represents where I was each time I said now. Then through some combination of whiteboarding, clicker questions and me running around at the front rhythmically shouting “now” we explore what the motion diagrams look like if I am speeding up, slowing down, going in one direction vs. the other or just standing still. In the middle of all of this I can introduce the idea that velocity can be represented by an arrow drawn from one dot on the motion diagram to the next. Perhaps Dan Meyer’s WCYDWT basketball shot will make an appearance.

Games with motion detectors – This is super fun and a great way to help students develop a physical feel for all the motion quantities and how they are related. Put them in front of a motion detector and give them an x-t, v-t or a-t graph and ask them to move their bodies to reproduce that graph. Through this process they get to relate their own physical motion to all three graphs and how they are related. Note that I have never actually done this in my own classes, but have done it as a participant at a workshop and loved it!

These would be tough for a student to reproduce by running around in front of a motion detector. They are from throwing a basketball up in the air and then catching it again.

Generating buy-in by walking the walk

I believe that generating student buy-in is the single most important factor in running a successful interactive classroom. And jumping them right into whiteboarding and learningful clicker questions (instead of starting with “what is your major” clicker questions) seems like it can only help to generate buy-in.

Since I usually spend an entire class period talking to them about the course structure, there must still be a bunch of stuff that I need to communicate to them early in the course, if not on day one. And this is very true. I’m just not going to front load it. What I am now planning on the first day is not going to show up on their first homework assignment (partially true, they probably will have to translate between x-t, v-t and a-t graphs), so I can wait until the second day to talk about homework. Their first quiz isn’t until day 5 so I’m sure I can wait until day 3 to talk about that. I’m going to embrace the 5-minute maximum that screencast.com has imposed on the world and not talk, for more than 5 minutes at a time, about anything related to course logistics.

A last note

Just in case you think it is ridiculous that I seem so handcuffed to and by my textbook I want to state my position. If I am using a specific textbook for a course, I like to try to follow its sequencing and notation/conventions as much as possible. If I am going to ask them to try to do some initial learning out of the textbook, I don’t want to make their lives more difficult by making them jump ahead 4 chapters to a place where they vaguely mention ideas that came up in the 4 chapters that we jumped over, and then jump back 3 chapters to cover the stuff that we skipped later. Same thing goes for the notation and conventions: if they are going to see something written in their book umpteen times while trying to make first contact with an idea, I don’t want to further add to their cognitive load by completely switching up the notation and conventions.

A second last note

This post was supposed to be short. I have no idea what my problem is.


10 Comments on “Walking the interactive classroom walk right out of the gate”

  1. bretbenesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    It is funny—it sounds like you worked today on reducing the amount of administrative stuff for your first day. Today, because of your previous post, I worked on INCREASING the amount of administrative stuff (in the form of “selling the course”) for my first day.

    And there is nothing wrong with long posts.

  2. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    One word (really two, put together): Awesomesauce.

    I love the move to doing things in the first class. Because of my flipped class model I’ve done similar things to what you’ve described on the first day and felt similarly frustrated. Of course, sometimes I’ve risked touching the third rail of teaching by getting them to do stuff before the semester starts.

    I love your 5-minute rule for administrivia (cool word, huh?). I’m going to try to adopt it,though saying “this comes from a super-cool guy named Joss” will cough up a few seconds every time.


    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Andy,

      Administrivia is a good word and it is not terribly hard to say. I think I will make a slide that just says Administrivia on it and point to it every time before I get into it.

      I think I’m going to be able to pull off the “jump right out of the gate doing stuff” in my quantum course as well because there is some review stuff that I know that I have to take care of in the first week or so and I should be able to get into some of that without “touching the third rail”.

      Careful when you whisper my name because they might think you’re buddies with Joss Whedon and want to know all about the forthcoming Avengers movie.

  3. I like getting the students moving during the first day. Can you have volunteer students doing the running around to demonstrate the motion detectors rather than doing it yourself? That will establish a pattern that volunteers get to do cool stuff before everyone else.

    • Joss Ives says:

      I wish I had enough motion detector setups so that each table (3 students) go do the motion graph matching activities, but I only have the main setup. So I will get volunteers to come up and do it, but not everybody will get the chance.

  4. Scott Thomas says:

    Hey Joss,

    I do something similar to Frank (http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/the-tower/). On the first day, I give my students 1 sheet of white paper, 1 sheet of colored paper, 30 cm of tape, and a pair of scissors. The white paper is for sketching or making a practice tower. The group with the tallest freestanding color paper tower at the end of class wins (tape can only connect paper to paper, not paper to desk). I then put on the board the height of the tallest tower from each class and the school record (set this year 1.272 m). I had a group get just over 1.3 m the first year, but I didn’t write down the “exact” number. I do the andministrivia the second day.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for the comment. I have tried some cooperative nature of science activities on my first day in the class and been really happy with them. They establish a precedent for the students that they will be working together throughout the term and that it is OK for the classroom to be insanely loud when productive work is being done.

      Part of why I want to jump in with both feet on the first day is that I want the students to experience, on the first day, how they will spend most of their time in my class that term. From this perspective, both the content and the types of activities are important which is why I want to get them learning mechanics content right away instead of doing a nature of science or team-building activity.

      Next term I will have most of the same students for E&M and that will be an excellent opportunity to do a nature of science activity since they will already know what I’m about, how my course runs, and we will have already built up some mutual trust.

  5. Becca says:

    I love this idea. As a current college physics student, I know I would definitely enjoy a first day of class like this, and it would get me excited for the rest of the semester. Good luck!

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