Student opinions on what contributes to their learning in my intro E&M course

We are a couple of weeks away from our one and only term test in my intro calc-based electricity and magnetism course. This test comes in the second last week of the course and I pitch it to them as practicing for the final. This term test is worth 10-20% of their final grade and the final exam 30-40% of their final grade and these relative weights are meant to maximize the individual student’s grade.

Today I asked them how they feel the major course components are contributing to their learning:

How much do you feel that the following course component has contributed to your learning so far in this course?

This is a bit vague, but I told them to vote according to what contributes to their understanding of the physics in this course. It doesn’t necessarily mean what makes them feel the most prepared for the term test, but if that is how they wanted to interpret it, that would be just fine.

For each component that I discuss below, I will briefly discuss how it fits into the overall course. And you should have a sense of how the whole course works by the end.

The smartphysics pre-class assignments

The pre-class assignments are the engine that allow my course structure to work they way I want it to and I have been writing about them a lot lately (see my most recent post in a longer series). My specific implementation is detailed under ‘Reading assignments and other “learning before class” assignments’ in this post. The quick and dirty explanation is that, before coming to class, my students watch multimedia prelectures that have embedded conceptual multiple-choice questions. Afterward they answer 2-4 additional conceptual multiple-choice questions where they are asked to explain the reasoning behind each of their choices. They earn marks based on putting in an honest effort to explain their reasoning as opposed to choosing the correct answer. Then they show up to class ready to build on what they learned in the pre-class assignment.

Smartphysics pre-class assignments

A) A large contribution to my learning.
B) A small contribution to my learning, so I rarely complete them.
C) A small contribution to my learning, but they are worth marks so I complete them.
D) No contribution to my learning, so I rarely complete them.
E) No contribution to my learning, but they are worth marks so I complete them


The smartphysics online homework

The homework assignments are a combination of “Interactive Examples” and multi-part end-of-chapter-style problems.

The Interactive Examples tend to be fairly long and challenging problems where the online homework system takes the student through multiple steps of qualitative and quantitative analysis to arrive at the final answer. Some students seem to like these questions and others find them frustrating because they managed to figure out 90% of the problem on their own but are forced to step through all the intermediate guiding questions to get to the bit that is giving them trouble.

The multi-part end-of-chapter-style problems require, in theory, conceptual understanding to solve. In practice, I find that a lot of the students simply number mash until the correct answer comes out the other end, and then they don’t bother to step back and try to make sure that they understand why that particular number mashing combination gave them the correct answer. The default for the system (which is the way that I have left it) is that they can have as many tries as they like for each question and are never penalized as long as they find the correct answer. This seems to have really encouraged the mindless number mashing.

This is why their response regarding the learning value of the homework really surprised me. A sufficient number of them have admitted that they usually number mash, so I would have expected them not to place so much learning value on the homework.

The online smartphysics homework/b>

A) A large contribution to my learning.
B) A small contribution to my learning, so I rarely complete them.
C) A small contribution to my learning, but it is worth marks so I complete it.
D) No contribution to my learning, so I rarely complete it.
E) No contribution to my learning, but it is worth marks so I complete it


Studying for quizzes and other review outside of class time

Studying for quizzes and other review outside of class time

A) A large contribution to my learning.
B) A small contribution to my learning, but I do it anyway.
C) A small contribution to my learning so I don’t bother.
D) No contribution to my learning so I don’t bother.


Group quizzes

I have an older post that discusses these in detail, but I will summarize here. Every Friday we have a quiz. They write the quiz individually, hand it in, and then re-write the same quiz in groups. They receive instant feedback on their group quiz answers thanks to IF-AT multiple-choice scratch-and-win sheets and receive partial marks based on how many tries it took them to find the correct answer. Marks are awarded 75% for the individual portion and 25% for the group portion OR 100% for the individual portion if that would give them the better mark.

The questions are usually conceptual and often test the exact same conceptual step needed for them to get a correct answer on one of the homework questions (but not always with the same cover story). There are usually a lot of ranking tasks, which the students do not seem to like, but I do.

Group Quizzes

A) A large contribution to my learning.
B) A small contribution to my learning.
C) They don’t contribute to my learning.


Quiz Corrections

I have an older post that discusses these in detail, but I will again summarize here. For the quiz correction assignments they are asked, for each question, to diagnose what went wrong and then to generalize their new understanding of the physics involved. If they complete these assignments in the way I have asked, they earn back half of the marks they lost (e.g. a 60% quiz grade becomes 80%).

I am delighted to see that 42% of them find that these have a large contribution to their learning. The quizzes are worth 20% of their final grade, so I would have guessed that their perceived learning value would get lost in the quest for points.

Quiz Corrections

A) A large contribution to my learning.
B) A small contribution to my learning, so I rarely complete them.
C) A small contribution to my learning, but they are worth marks so I complete them.
D) No contribution to my learning, so I rarely complete them.
E) No contribution to my learning, but they are worth marks so I complete them.


In-class stuff

I am a full-on interactive engagement guy. I use clickers, in the question-driven instruction paradigm, as the driving force behind what happens during class time. Instead of working examples at the board, I either (A) use clicker questions to step the students through the example so that they are considering for themselves each of the important steps instead of me just showing them or (B) get them to work through examples in groups on whiteboards. Although I aspire to have the students report out there solutions in a future version of the course (“board meeting”), what I usually do when they work through the example on their whiteboards is wait until the majority of the groups are mostly done and then work through the example at the board with lots of their input, often generating clicker questions as we go.

The stuff we do in class

A) A large contribution to my learning.
B) A small contribution to my learning.
C) It doesn't contribute to my learning.


The take home messages

Groups quizzes rule! The students like them. I like them. The research tells us they are effective. Everybody wins. And they only take up approximately 10 minutes each week.

I need to step it up in terms of the perceived learning value of what we do in class. That 2/3rds number is somewhere between an accurate estimate and a small overestimate of the fraction of the students in class that at any moment are actively engaged with the task at hand. This class is 50% larger than my usual intro courses (54 students in this case) and I have been doing a much poorer job than usual of circulating and engaging individual students or groups during clicker questions and whiteboarding sessions. The other 1/3 of the students are a mix of students surfing/working on stuff for other classes (which I decided was something I was not going to fight in a course this size) and students that have adopted the “wait for him to tell us the answer” mentality. Peter Newbury talked about  these students in a recent post. I have lots of things in mind to improve both their perception and the actual learning value of what is happening in class. I will sit down and create a coherent plan of attack for the next round of courses.

I’m sure there are lots of other take home messages that I can pluck out of these data, but I will take make victory (group quizzes) and my needs improvement (working on the in class stuff) and look forward to continuing to work on course improvement.

My revised quiz reflection assignment and the new homework reflection assigment

One of my very first posts on this blog discussed the quiz correction assignments that I use in my intro calc-based physics courses. I have since renamed them to quiz feedback assignments to better represent what I want the students to get out of these assignments. I would actually prefer to name them reflection assignments, but I feel like too many of the first-year science majors would frown on a word which sounds as touchy-feely as reflection so I settled on the likely to be more palatable “feedback”.

Today Kelly O’Shea posted about her experience with test corrections before and after implementing SBG in her classroom. I’m still a year away from my own SBG implementation, but her post got me thinking about an overdue change in my quiz feedback assignments and about introducing this type of assignment for homework as well.

Not all quiz mistakes lead to productive reflections

My quizzes are dominated by clicker-like conceptual multiple-choice questions and short answer questions which require a combination of translation of representation and short answer questions which one could consider to be analogous to an important step in a longer problem. The issue on the short answer questions is that I see a decent number of clerical errors (missing units, silly arithmetic errors, etc) where the student gains no further physics understanding by completing the full process that I ask for the quiz reflection assignments. So I added a clerical error category to the assignment that asks them to correct their clerical error and show how it leads to the correct answer instead of doing the full-blown diagnosis and generalization that I ask for the conceptual errors. The handout that I provide for the students is included in the post if you want more details.

Reflection assignments for homework

For my 3rd year (first four chapters of Grffiths) quantum mechanics course, I am going to offer the reflection assignments to my students for their homework as well as their quizzes. My plan is to mark each part of each homework question according to the following simple scheme:

  • Correct (full marks) – The solution and/or requested explanations are complete and correct. You will not be penalized for one or two small mechanical errors such as dropping a negative sign or a factor of 2pi.
  • Complete (half marks) – The solution and/or requested explanations are complete, but not entirely correct.
  • Incomplete (no marks) – The solution and/or requested explanations are not complete. Examples include a correct solution without the requested explanation, partially completed solutions, and solutions which jump over important steps.
And then the rest of the process looks the same as for the quiz feedback assignments except I will probably ask them to submit a solution which is complete and correct from the point of their initial mistake on to go along with the diagnosis and generalization.

Quiz Feedback Assignment Handout

Quiz Feedback Assignment (Version 2)
Last updated Sept 1, 2011 (Joss Ives)

Our quizzes are designed to be both a learning experience and an assessment of your current level of understanding of the material. For both these reasons, I offer you the opportunity to learn even more and to improve your quiz score by carefully reflecting on your performance to learn from it. Completing this assignment appropriately within two days of the quiz being returned will allow you to increase your quiz score by half of the points that you missed. This is an all-or-nothing assignment. It is intended only for those students who are interested in making a serious effort to improve their understanding. If it is incomplete or not done well, you will not receive any additional points. Late quiz feedback assignments can be submitted any time up until the date of the final exam, but will only earn back one quarter (instead of one half) of the points that you missed.

Please make sure to attach your quiz paper so I know what you are talking about. You can write or type your quiz corrections, but please put them on a separate sheet from the original quiz.

Types of Errors

For the purpose of this assignment I have divided the common types of errors into conceptual errors and clerical errors. These require slightly different correction processes, and these process are explained below. If your error seems to lie in some grey area between conceptual and clerical error, treat it as a conceptual error.

Conceptual Errors

These errors represent mistakes in your thinking, mistakes in setting up the problem, mistakes in translation of representation or incomplete understanding of concepts. Translation of representation is when you need to take information from one representation (such as word descriptions, graphs, motion diagrams, symbolic equations) and translate this information to another one of these representations. Incorrectly labeling a negative value as positive, grossly misreading a value off a graph or accidentally swapping your initial and final conditions are all considered conceptual errors in the translation of representation category.

To receive credit for your conceptual error feedback, you need to address the following two phases for each question or problem for which you did not receive full credit. See detailed description of each below:

1) Diagnosis Phase (DP) – Identify what went wrong.

In this phase you need to correctly identify your errors, and diagnose the nature of your difficulties as they relate to specific physics principles or concepts, a problem solving procedure, or beliefs about the nature of science and learning science.
Please note that an incorrect diagnosis or a merely descriptive work (such as simply noting the places where you made mistakes) is unacceptable. You need to analyze your thinking behind your mistakes, and explain the nature of these difficulties. Hence, in this phase you need to identify why you answered the way you did, where your understanding might have been weak, what you found difficult, what knowledge or skills you were missing that prevented you from correctly completing the solution, etc.

Poor Diagnosis – No description of thinking behind difficulty

  • “I was confused.”
  • “I thought it would be 5 N.”
  • “I picked the wrong equation.”
  • “I didn’t remember to use F=ma.”

Good Diagnosis – Focuses on reasons for actions

  • “I thought that the larger velocity would mean the larger force.”
  • “I knew it was angular momentum, but I didn’t apply it correctly – I neglected the angular momentum of the ball about the pivot point of the rod.”

2) Generalization Phase (GP) – Learn from your mistakes by generalizing beyond the specific problem.

In this phase you need to identify what deeper physics understanding you have gained from your diagnosis. By carefully thinking about the particular aspects that were problematic to you in approaching the question/problem, and correlating them with the correct solution, you should develop a better understanding of the basic physics principles. In your writing you should identify this new understanding and describe how it will prevent you from having similar problems in the future. Please note that merely stating the correct solution, by copying or paraphrasing another student’s solution for a question is unacceptable. You are expected to generalize beyond the specific problem to discuss the general principles of physics.

In your writing you are very welcome to identify not only your understanding of your mistakes, but also your appreciation for the aspects of your thinking that were already correct and successful in your original attempt. It is hoped that you will hold on to the good elements you already have and add new good ones by completing the feedback.

Poor Generalization – Focuses on generic activity

  • “I learned to read the question carefully”
  • “I learned to pick the right equations before solving a problem”

Poor Generalization – Focuses on the specific problem

  • “I learned that the amount of work from A to B is the same as the amount of work from B to C.”

Good Generalization – Generalizes beyond the specific problem

  • “I learned that the acceleration does not depend on the velocity. This is consistent with Newton’s Second Law which says that the acceleration depends only on the net force and the total mass.”

Clerical Errors

Clerical errors are those where you answered the question incorrectly in a way that was not due to a lack of physics understanding and where it is not reasonable to expect that you would be able to improve your physics understanding or mathematical fluency by learning from your mistakes. Examples of clerical errors include: your answer being incorrect due to a silly math error (accidental extra factor of 10 from a unit conversion, obvious arithmetic errors), forgetting to include units on your final answer, or making a mistake due to not reading the question carefully. These are errors where completing the Generalization Phase seems unproductive because the only thing sensible to write would be something along the lines of “I learned to read the question carefully” or “I need to be more careful of my arithmetic and always double-check my solutions.” Remember that errors in translation of representation are not considered to be clerical errors.

For clerical errors I ask you only to do one phase, the Correction Phase (CP). In this phase you identify your clerical error, how it led to your incorrect answer and how the corrected clerical error leads to a correct answer.

Acknowledgements: The quiz feedback assignment was originally developed by Charles Henderson (Western Michigan University) and Kathleen Harper (The Ohio State University) and much of the wording is theirs or is based on theirs.

Quiz Correction Assignments


Students typically don’t take the time to learn from their mistakes on quizzes and exams, but there is a huge learning opportunity just sitting there. We can get them to learn by having them look critically at their own mistakes on quizzes and exams, and of course attach some marks to it so that they will actually do it. Quiz correction assignments benefit the students in two ways. First, they reduce student frustration by allowing them to earn back some of the marks that they lost on a quiz. Second, they provide the students with a learning opportunity by encouraging them to look at what they did wrong on the quiz, and to reflect on the thinking that led them to their wrong answers. This post will discuss quiz correction assignments and why I like them, and subsequent posts will discuss student opinions of the quiz corrections and discuss evidence for the effectiveness of these quiz corrections as a learning activity for the students.

What are they?

I first encountered the idea of quiz correction assignments in the summer of 2009 at PERC09 [1] during a targeted poster session. The poster  [2] was presented by Charles Henderson (Western Michigan University) and Kathleen Harper (Denison University), and there is also an article in the Physics teacher [3] by the same authors. Harper and Henderson’s implementations of the quiz correction assignments differ from one another. They also differ from the original implementation, by Bob Brown at Case Western Reserve University, upon which their implementations are based. My implementation was most similar to Henderson’s.

For the 2009-2010 academic year, I gave a 10-20 minute quiz each Friday in my introductory calculus-based physics courses. The questions on the quizzes were the same type and difficulty that the students would encounter on their term tests and final exam: conceptual multiple-choice, explain your reasoning (University of Washington Tutorials), short calculation, and end-of-chapter-style problems. I would “correct” the quizzes over the weekend and return them on Monday. I say “correct” because I didn’t need to give any feedback on their answers other than a mark with a very brief justification for the mark since it was their job to sort out exactly what they had done wrong. I would post the solutions to the quiz on the same day that the quiz was written so that they would have these solutions to help them with their assignment.

By completing the quiz correction assignment they would earn back half of the marks that they lost. So a 60% would become an 80% after quiz corrections. This was an all or nothing mark, and I would occasionally have to ask the students to redo the assignment if they wanted to earn the mark.

The quiz correction assignment consisted of two steps, which were taken directly from Henderson’s implementation: Diagnosis Phase and Generalization Phase. In the Diagnosis Phase they were expected to identify what went wrong in their answer. In the Generalization Phase they were expected to learn from their mistakes by identifying where they had gained deeper physics understanding through the process of correcting their mistakes. Typical student responses for each of the phases were two to three sentences per phase per question answered incorrectly. As with any type of assignment, some students did the minimum possible to earn the marks and some students seized the learning opposrtunity, thought deeply about their own thinking, and tried very hard to put their thinking into words

For silly mistakes such as forgotten units or obvious math mistakes, I didn’t expect them to write anything more than a very short sentence explaining what they did wrong. I was equally lax on egregious sig fig issues, but upon reflection realize that they should really be doing a good job of the two phases for sig fig issues.

Why I like them

My biggest reason that I like the quiz correction assignments is that they (try to) get the students to learn from their own mistakes. And this (learing from their own mistakes) is a thing that very few of even the most dilligent students will do.

Second, based on my observations the student stress associated with the quizzes is greatly reduced. Most students failed at least one of the quizzes, but they did not appear to find this too stressful. Instead they knew that they could turn any failing grade into a passing one by completing the quiz correction assignment. And when a student made what they perceived to be a silly mistake, they seemed to laugh it off instead of trying to endlessly barter to get their marks back.

Third, there is less total marking for me since the students do the hard part of explaining their own mistakes. I just identified the mistakes on the original quiz and handed them back and then checked that they did a decent job of setting themselves straight on the quiz correction assignment.

Future Posts

I am planning on one or more two more parts to this post. I will discuss student opinions of the quiz corrections and discuss evidence for the effectiveness of these quiz corrections as a learning activity for the students. The student opinions will be a summary of the feedback that I solicited from the students on the quiz corrections via a “minute paper”, a few sentences written on an index card and handed in anonymously. I’m still playing around with the data that I have to determine if I have any good evidence for the effectiveness of the quiz corrections.

For the second term there was a group component to the quizzes and these group quizzes were administered using IF-AT (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique) [4], a scratch and win multiple-choice sheet that lets students instantly know if they got the correct answer. The students would rewrite the quiz with their table-mates after handing in their solo quiz. The group quizzes and the IF-AT will be discussed in a future posts (Update Sept. 1, 2011 – My post discussing group quizzes and the IF-AT can be found here).


[1] PERC09:

[2] Poster:

[3] Henderson, C. & Harper, K. A. (2009). Quiz corrections: Improving learning by encouraging students to reflect on their mistakes. The Physics Teacher, 47 (9), 581-586.

[4] Epstein Educational Enterprises:

Note: References [2] and [3] are from Henderson’s publications page (

Bribe the students (with marks of course) to sit down and figure out what they got wrong and look at what

actually look at what they got wrong and figure out how