This was my last year to teach Gauss’ Law early in the course

The Matter and Interactions textbook has it right by bundling Gauss’ Law and Ampere’s Law together near the end of the E&M section of the book. I don’t think either of these topics belong in the introductory course at all (actually I don’t even think E&M topics belong in first year period). But since my hand is currently forced, Gauss’ Law will be a topic for the last couple of weeks in my future intro E&M courses.

Time for me to embrace being less helpful

Last night I was wide awake in the middle of the night thinking about changes I will want to implement in my courses next fall. Eventually I started to think about the study resources I provide my students and started to realize how counter-productive some of them are. The two specific examples that come to mind are providing solutions in the post-class notes to the clicker questions and whiteboard work that we do in class, and providing solutions to practice questions for the weekly quizzes.

It’s time for me to embrace being less helpful (thanks Dan Meyer).

Virtually none of my students take notes in my courses and it’s been getting worse as the terms pile up. The main thing that I do in class is use a lot of clicker questions, supported by some whiteboarding. I use a tablet PC to ink up the clicker question slides as we discuss them in class. And then after class I go through and further annotate all the slides so that there is a clear explanation of the correct answer to each clicker question that I used. And then I post these notes for the students.

What a great idea! This makes sure that, when studying, the students have access to a correct and coherent solution for each clicker question.

What a terrible idea! Knowing that those solutions will be posted, students feel no need to try to take notes.

I have tried on multiple occasions to pause for a couple of minutes to give the students the chance to write down their own explanations to the clicker questions after the whole-class discussion, but I only ever get a very small fraction of the students that take advantage of this time. It only occurred to me last night that the issue isn’t that I don’t usually give them time to write down their own explanations. The issue is that almost none of them feel the need to write down their own explanations because I provide “better” ones to them after class. Considering how much I try to communicate to them the importance of being able to communicate their own understanding, this is quite the sabotage job. Oops.

And it also dawned on me that the solutions to the practice questions I give them are also shortcutting their learning. It makes it way to easy for them to scan those practice questions instead of actually having to reason and work their way through those questions.

The expectations are already set in my current “lecture”-based course, but in the fall I’m going to embrace being less helpful and provide only the answers to the clicker questions and practice questions.

Learning Before Class Strategies Part 2: Types of Resources to Provide Your Students

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on pre-class learning strategies, which can be used as part of the flipped or inverted class. In this post I will discuss some of the types of resources that you can provide your students to do their learning before class.

  • Part 1 focuses on some common types of assignments/assessments that you can use.
  • Part 2 is this post!
  • Part 2.5 discusses the types of video lectures in a bit more detail (this post was getting long)
  • Part 3 will discuss some tips and some issues that I have come across trying to implement learning before class strategies.
  • I also had a quick update post that pointed to some recent articles/blog posts by others on the subject of pre-reading assignments.

Photo by Kevin Dooley via Lifehacker

What I want out of these learning resources

To my mind, the purpose of most of the resources that I discuss below is to deliver some initial content to the students so that class time can be spent building on the ideas presented by that initial content. With this in mind, I don’t think that getting them to read the textbook is the most effective use of their time and can actually do some damage to any sort of buy-in that you have managed to generate toward the learning before class process. I say this because at their best textbooks attempt to be all of the following: (A) a resource to students on their first encounter with a topic, (B) a resource for students when working on their homework or studying for exams,  and (C) a reference for students after they have completed a course. I have yet to see a textbook that is structured in such a way that use (A) is clearly and consistently delineated from uses (B) and (C) so that it can be truly useful for use (A). I’m not saying it is not possible, but it would require a very targeted effort.
Like I said my use of learning before class strategies is so that my students show up in class ready to build on some initial understanding of the material.  It is not to help them develop their technical reading skills. And I don’t want them to show up feeling like they barely understood what was going on because of being overwhelmed by complicated derivations and examples that are more about symbolic manipulation than the underlying Physics. I will come back to this discussion in part 3, but since I am adding my $0.02 to the learning resources that I am presenting, I wanted to make my own personal take on the general purpose of most of these resources very clear.

Common types of learning resources to provide your students

These are types of learning before class resources that I have tried and I think is a fairly comprehensive list. Some of these are more well-suited to specific types of assignments (see Part 1) than others.

  1. Textbook – Despite everything I say above about textbooks (thus far) not being something that does a good job of being a resource for both first contact and reference, I do like Knight‘s intro physics textbook for being something that is quite readable for the student, even for first contact between the student and a new topic. Of course there are still many text elements (paragraphs, sections and examples) that I would ask the students to skip due to the amount of “mastering the basics” in class that is needed before this skipped content would be meaningful to any student other than the rare one that was determined to make sense of everything they they encountered in the textbook.
  2. Video lecture – These come in multiple flavours. Screencasting is becoming increasingly common, but there is also pencasting, highly-produced multimedia presentations like those found in smartPhysics, and video-recording a regular lecture. I will discuss each of these a little bit more in Part 2.5 of this series, but just comment on them as a group here. One of the strengths of the video lecture format is that it doesn’t take too much time to produce something coherent and of high enough quality that the students will find it useful. Anecdotally, I have found that students are much more willing to wrestle with slightly more challenging content in the video format than if I had just asked them to read very well presented notes on the same topic. Of course this is exactly why many (most?) students  are happy to attend traditional lectures, but would never think of reading the textbook covering the exact same content.
  3. Simulations – Inspired by Noah Podolefsky’s Global Physics Department talk on PhET simulations I have started basing some of my learning before class assignments on simulations. What I usually do is ask them to play with the simulation for 5-10 minutes and then send me 3 questions they had, things that they discovered or things that they found interesting in that time. After trying this type of simulation-based assignment out a few times I am finding that the students tend to generate questions that touch on most of the important points you would want to touch on, but instead frames the classroom discussions in terms of their curiosity instead of you telling them what’s important (even though it is the same actual content). The feedback I got from them indicated that they really seemed to like this type of pre-class assignment. If you don’t want to just let them play and tell you about it, you can try to focus their attention on specific things by asking them investigation types of questions like “what parameters affect X?”.
  4. Other targeted written resources – This is a grab bag category much like the video lecture one. This category includes
    • Your own written work meant to present the content at a level similar to a screencast or pencast that you would produce. A good example is the series of blog posts that Rhett Allain turned into Just Enough Physics;
    • Sections of textbooks that are targeted at a lower level than the given course. I often discovered when teaching Quantum that pointing my students to Knight’s discussions on the same topic would have been a goof “first encounter with a topic” resource or for intro physics I pointed my students toward physics for future presidents as an additional resource (before the book was published, all the chapter PDFs were available on that webpage).

    In many ways I prefer written resources to screencasts because (a) it is much easier to make small edits, and (b) I find it easier to piece together a few of them into a cohesive narrative. On the flip side, it is a lot less work to produce a screencast of acceptable quality than getting bogged down in writing something of acceptable quality. Or as Andy always say “I speak faster than I write.”

  5. Materials meant specifically to generate interest –  I have only tried it out once, but I was happy with how it worked out. You can give them a popular science or journal article, a chapter from a popular science book, a video, etc.  This one goes really well with the student generated question type of pre-class assignment (see Post 1 in this series) and then functions quite similar to the simulation-based pre-class assignments by letting the student questions frame the classroom discussion.
Overall I would say that I am the happiest when the combination of resource and assignment type allow the students to ask their own questions and then we can take those up in class. Like I said earlier, more often than not they ask the questions I was already planning on answering, but the difference feels huge between framing the discussion in terms of their questions and me telling them what I think is important. Yay!

Part 2.5 so very soon.

Learning Before Class Strategies – Quick Update

I am just about finished writing Part 2 of me Learning Before Class Strategies series of posts (Part 1 here), but I thought I would post links to a couple of recent posts on the subject of pre-reading assignments and an article from a recent UBC CWSEI Physics and Astronomy newsletter.

But first, here is a look at the relationship between exam averages and the marks my students earned for completing their smartPhysics Prelecture and Checkpoint assignments (marked for effort only) in my Fall 2011 introductory mechanics course. Not terribly compelling in terms of trying to sell my intro E&M students on the pre-class assignments. Fortunately Peter (see link below) gave me a bunch of good motivational ammo to pass on to them.

Sigh, the person that completed the least pre-class assignments had over an 80% average on exams.

Recent posts/articles of note on pre-reading assignments