We have a long weekend around President’s day so I’m trying to get back on the blog train. Some time ago I posted a midyear survey that I sent to my classes – admin asked us to do it as part of our midterm protocol this year. I’ve been teaching for 9 years and this is the first time I’ve actually done such a survey in the middle of the year rather than at the end, and it made me wish I had done so earlier! The student responses were really informative and immediately led to a few changes, and I think more are coming soon. If you don’t often poll your students on the features of your class, I hope reading my questions and responses will convince you it’s a good idea.

I was seeking feedback on three specific changes that I made to my classes this year. First, the homework logs. I incorporated a “choose-your-own-adventure” homework policy (a la Casey Rutherford) and wanted to ask for feedback on how that was working out for them. I was feeling pretty pleased with the program but I wanted to give students a chance to say how they really felt about it.

Second, I’ve continued to tweak my grading system. I’ve been working with a standards-based grading system mostly modeled after Kelly O’Shea for a few years, and I wanted to see how students were responding to the latest iteration.

Finally, I needed some honest feedback about the computational modeling portion of the curriculum. This has been the biggest adjustment this year and continued buy-in from the students is pretty key.

I also added some general questions at the beginning about the format of the course in general, and some of the responses there – to things I’ve been doing for years – actually surprised me more than any of the responses to the “new stuff”. That’s actually getting a separate post.

Below, I’ll provide some examples of student responses along with my thoughts and the changes I made. All the histograms are from two sections of Honors Physics. I had both sections take the survey on the same form so that I wouldn’t let my feelings about either section color my response to their answers.

HW Logs

(The scale was “complete waste of time” to “definitely improves my understanding”)

This is like an almost perfectly neutral response! Here’s some of the (overall) positive:

I like it because I like having the choice of what to do. It also forces me to review some of my notes from class which is helpful in retaining the information.

i’m not used to this system but i think it’s helpful

At first I did not but I am starting to enjoy it because it forces you to see if you understand the material or not

I like the system, gets us to do problems on our own

It is somewhat annoying to do every week but it certainly helps me to confirm my understand

Here are some more lukewarm to negative:

There are a lot of times when I don’t know what to do for homework and I wish we were assigned one packet we could do outside of class, but overall I think it pushes me to think and focus on what I need to improve in. Good preparation for self-guided learning in college.

I like that it forces me to practice my skills each week so I do not forget anything. However I often cannot find time to complete them because of sports or other projects, and other times forget about them until Thursday.

Worst part of the class easily. So time consuming and daunting. This system sounds good in theory but instead just serves as busy work.

Sometimes I feel like I do the problems over and over again and its a waste of time

Sometimes giving students too much power/freedom doesn’t work. Id prefer more rigidity

The students who have done a good job with their homework logs have done a REALLY good job this year! I have seen lots of explicit reflection on their own work and on class activities, and a lot of outside-of-class collaboration. Some students are clearly struggling to figure out how to use their time wisely. They feel like there are too many options and they don’t know how to get started. In response, I did two things right away: first, I shortened the weekly homework log from 2 hours to 1. I don’t want anybody feeling like they’re just “keeping busy”. (I know I could go all the way to not having a specified time limit, but I think having a benchmark helps people make practicing Physics a priority.) Second, I started making an effort to have specific parts of my packets available to students for HW log time. I’m trying to just point out more explicitly when students could start a problem set ahead of a class discussion, or finish some extra problems that we didn’t have time to get to in class. As a result, this week some students worked ahead on problems that they didn’t yet completely know how to solve and their problem-solving journals contained statements like “I need to talk to my group more about the direction of friction in problems like these when we whiteboard these tomorrow”. Kids setting their own short-term learning goals? I’ll take that as a win, even if not everyone’s doing it yet.

LO 1(scale was “This never happens” to “This happens all the time”)

LO 2(scale was “I am very confused” to “The feedback makes complete sense”)

Well, the skew of these histograms is promising, but I feel like as an instructor, you really want basically everybody to be 4’s and 5’s. Nearly half of my students are 3 or less on both of these. My conclusion is that we need to be talking about the learning objectives more. I’m making a concerted effort to increase the frequency of assessments as a result, and so we’ll be talking a lot more about what each objective means.

The comments show that despite not having any other class that works this way in their high school experience, my students are really enthusiastic about the general premise of SBG (that your grades reflect your state of understanding on specific objectives, and new grades replace your old ones instead of averaging).

I like it because on tests we are not afraid to go with what we think instead of being scared of the grade

I really like this system and I think it’s easier to improve with it in place

I honestly like this system just because physics problems are so multifaceted that if you screw up one little calculation at the beginning it can screw up the rest of your problem. To complete the rest of the problem correctly and not be penalized for a petty mistake is very encouraging.

I appreciate that my grades reflect my understanding instead of how correct I am because in other classes I often find I do not perform wel in tests but felt I understood the material (and just make some careless mistakes)

And here’s some cooler feedback, with one very gutsy kid who admits they think I grade too easy?

The learning objectives are a little confusing because I don’t know what exactly is expected of me to improve on. For example what part of the problem needs to be fixed

I like this system because it encoruages me to improve my scores instead of focusing how I don’t know it and merely movingly on. Sometimes I feel like the grade doesn’t represent what I actually know however (in an inflated way)

I do wish there was more flexibility in the available grades. My mom can look at my powerschool and interrogate me as to why I got a D- on something; it makes me want 7s and 9s just for added flexibility. I understand that it’s not meant to be a D-, but that’s what it’s interpreted as. Getting 6’s doesn’t motivate me to do better, it makes me feel hopeless in ever getting a 10.

I like it, but maybe 9’s should be an option! Just since I think it is very accurate, but can be bad if you don’t understand and get 5s or 6s

i like the feedback but i do not like how it is translated into grades. the grading system is restrictive in that you can only get certain numbers, which is not really realistic.

(You probably recognize the 5-6-8-10 system the kids reference in these comments, because it is yet another thing I cribbed from Kelly.) It’s funny how the last three are really not complaints about MY SYSTEM, they’re more complaints about the requirement that feedback be converted into an accountability score, and the fact that we constantly judge kids based on their grades. I’m not so sure what I can do about this within my own system, but I’m considering implementing a system where I display scores but wait to calculate the quarter grade until the midquarter, when there have been enough assessments for that calculation to be meaningful (right now I went with PowerSchool’s default setting of calculating everything right away).

Having already taken some steps to make the learning objectives more understandable and more a part of the classroom dialogue, I’m also a little concerned about the kid who thinks that they’re getting good ratings but not understanding. Wish this one wasn’t anonymous so I could ask for more details! Maybe having this issue raised will help me notice when other students feel this way.

Here’s the last set of questions – about the computational modeling aspect of my course this year…

Pyret 1

Pyret 2

Pyret 3

Womp womp. To be honest, these were some of the least surprising responses for me, because this is the first year that I’m teaching programming as part of a physics class, and I could tell during many of the lessons that I was whiffing pretty hard. This is probably the single riskiest thing I’ve ever done as an educator, and the class didn’t totally fall apart nor did the kids completely stop doing it, so I’m going to count it as a win even though there were a lot of failures. I think my experiences with computational modeling in the high school classroom are going to be worth, like, a few of their own blog posts later on in the year, so stay tuned. Here are some heartening comments though, for any of you who are thinking of trying this stuff in your own room:

As time went on the correlation between what we were learning and the pyret activities became more evident.

I think my problem solving skill improve because pyret makes you apply what you learned in class to the computational modeling

I started this year fearing programming. I think I understand how everything is meant to connect and how literal and step-by-step it is.

As my abilities in pyret have grown, I have been able to conceptualize the motion needed to satisfy new problems. I don’t enjoy it, but I coexist peacefully. I feel like I have the tools to build onto my knowledge.

Like I said – a HANDFUL of kids had a positive response and that’s enough to keep me going until I can improve this part of my class in a future iteration.

So, I highly recommend asking your students specific questions about new stuff you try in your class, because their words can spur concrete changes. I usually only make changes to my major class structures in the fall when I’m feeling fresh, but the armpit of February is actually an excellent time to shake things up a little, and having kids tell you what they think provides motivation to do so. Plus, when I rolled out a few of these changes to my students, the immediate effect was that they were surprised and grateful that I was taking action in response to their words. That kind of give-and-take in the student-teacher dynamic does so much to help students feel like they have a voice.


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