An Experiment That Didn’t Quite Work

I don’t always talk about it, but I like to conduct simple experiments in the classroom. This semester, I decided to conduct one in which students kept track of their own assessment progress. Teachers are often expected to do most all of the work in a class, including keeping detailed records of student performance. Keeping such records is important, but since I’ve recently moved the responsibility of learning directly onto students why not also move the responsibility of recording learning progress onto students too? It could be risky. A student might decide to not keep such records. The records might be lost or even destroyed. In case of a grade dispute, I would need to produce evidence for one side or the other.

My request to students was simple. When an assessment is returned, record the performance rating in a notebook or better yet, take a photograph of the entire thing with your phone’s camera. Of course students who don’t have phones equipped with cameras can’t do this and for them, simply recording the ratings for each assessment somewhere safe if a fine option. That was it.

I didn’t reveal to students that I was keeping records on my end. I really wanted them to assume THEY were completely in charge of documenting their progress. Throughout the course, I would tell them they only needed to reassess on standards for which they had not yet demonstrated proficiency. When a student would ask which standards he/she needed to reassess on, I would refer them to their records, sometimes having to remain expressionless as they told me they had been keeping records. I hoped that after a few times of me doing this they would really get the idea. For the most part, I think many students did indeed take on this responsibility and I think those students took it seriously. I did get a few (not necessarily unexpected) surprises though.

One student said he recently got a new phone and lost his photographic records in the transition from the old phone to the new one. Okay, that’s bad but he recovered quickly by going through the archives I’d been keeping all semester. However, more than one student (I’m counting all three sections of introductory astronomy here) indicated that they’d not been keeping records and had no idea of their current standing. A few even tried to convince me that they weren’t aware they were supposed to be keeping track of their progress, which is strange given that we discussed this at length during the first week of the semester.

So here’s my plan for future semesters.  At the first class meeting, I will hand each student a folder containing the obligatory courses documents (syllabus, explanation of standards based grading, learning expectations, etc.). This same folder will be used to make a learning portfolio as the course unfolds. All assessments will be kept in the folder and in order to be eligible for reassessment, a student must present the entire folder to me for inspection. All past assessments must be in the folder. I’ll probably include a printed calendar page and ask that the date, standard(s), and proficiency rating for each assessment be recorded on this page as a quick visual tool. Ultimately, I think it would also be great step in moving away from a transcript-style record of “learning” to clear documentation of what precisely was asked of students and how they measured up. I can even see my calculus-based physics students benefiting from this as they could also perhaps create a catalog of representative problems/projects that accurately reflect what I hope is an innovative and intellectually stimulating course experience.

Do you think this will help students? I’m certainly open to suggestions on effectively implementing this.


Conceptual Understanding in Introductory Physics XXII

This question was prompted by the treatment of energy concepts in traditional introductory textbooks. Most such treatments tend to share an error in reasoning when it comes to applying energy principles to systems consisting of more than one particle. I may need to come back and edit the question so that it more accurately articulates what I’m trying to get across. So here it is.

Consider the system consisting of a macroscopic object acted on by a single force. If the system is reduced to a point particle, we can speak of its translational kinetic energy. However, if we treat the system as a multiparticle system, we can speak of other manifestations of energy. Within the context of this specific example, explain one way this can happen. 

I hope this question makes sense.