Sunday, November 29, 2020

Our tests are the problem, not the students

The “progressive” physics teacher

You have just finished teaching a unit of physics. Great fun was had by many. Many struggled. Everyone seemed to see some level of success. There was a lot of feedback and interaction between students and each other and students and you. They explored, explained, solved, presented, discussed, and applied. You have a pretty good idea who is going to do well on the test and who won’t. You usually do, because you have a pretty good idea every time. You are fairly well dialed into your classes by the nature of your approach, including robust formative assessment.

You have students take the test. They all sit down with a pencil and a calculator and try to solve the same problems and answer the same questions. You have different versions for each class, but it’s mostly just different numbers and graphs. Some of them get extra time because they have IEPs. 

You are nice enough to allow retakes until students see success or give up. The retakes are different questions, which is a fair amount of work to create, but they are testing in the same way, so it’s a justifiable replacement grade. You are focused on growth, after all, not trying to punish them for their first attempts.

You use standards-based grading, or maybe a hybridized version of it. Much of what they do is performance tracked to content standards. Students can work on showing mastery of a standard until they achieve as high as they want. Again, it’s about growth, and this gives every learner a chance to continue working on something until they get it. You have an array of content assessment items for each standard ready for use as assessment.

I think that probably describes the system of a lot of good physics teachers. Those teachers are working hard to do what they think is best, creating a system in which students can thrive and grow at their own pace without the common overwhelming stress an unfairness of a more traditional system with one-off timed tests that just get entered into a grade book and everyone moves on.

These teachers tend to have classes full of fun inquiry and are well-liked by students. They are highly collaborative with other physics teachers in sharing and adopting ideas and tools for making the process make most sense.

The problems with this model

The root problem (not what this post is really about)

While I have great respect for the teachers who use systems similar to those as described above, and I have taken many great ideas from them, I believe the systems they use are highly flawed, enough so that I would label them ableist and unjust. 

The root problem is in the use of course content retention and mastery as the metrics for success. I have other blog posts about why I think the goal of standardized content evaluation through performance testing is an awful way to determine grades. I won’t rehash all of it. Summarizing it — students won’t remember a long list of content items after they leave our courses. There are no compelling reasons for them to do so, and the brain doesn’t even work that way. So why do we base their grades on their ability to do that? It’s not useful to them. The content details are not the greatest take-ways from a good course, so we should not be ranking and sorting them based on how well they remember those.

Let’s pretend like a lot of physics teachers disagree with my assessment of the root problem with our courses, because I think they probably do. They would possibly come back with obvious questions like, “You want me to teach physics but not grade based on how well they learn physics? What are we teaching physics for then?” 

That is good question. I also have a handful of blog posts about what I believe to be the answer to that. We should be teaching transferable skills using physics. Physics is just the fun delivery vehicle in which we happen to be experts at making opportunity for exploring the nature of science and the skills needed to be successful as a technical learner.

Let’s pretend like we don’t see eye-to-eye on the root problem, which I understand, and I think that can be okay for now. I’ll go forward with the rest of this assuming I can’t change your mind about what matters most as course take-aways and that grades should be based on those. There still are major problem with many of the systems that more progressive teachers are using, and they are problems inherited from traditional systems.

“Take as many attempts as you need.”

The assessment problem

All students show “mastery” in the same way on the same assessments by themselves without resources, and their grades are heavily based on their performance on them. That’s a problem in most classes. I believe it tends to stem from assessing the wrong things, but that might not be the only reason. Why is this a problem?

It’s a problem because it’s ableist. 

It’s a problem because it’s racist. It benefits the privileged the most. We are all aware of the socioeconomic disparities associated with race in this country. Any system that benefits the privileged much more than others is racist. 

It’s a problem because it doesn’t involve the skills needed to be successful in situations outside of the classroom. It’s just the warehouse model of “education” take from large colleges and universities and applied in smaller settings.

Are we trying to see how well they can do our assessments, or are we trying to measure how well they understand material? Creating opportunities for students to repeatedly assess in the exact same way rewards only the students who have the abilities to be successful on those type of assessments in those settings.

You know who tends to do well on those assessments? The kids without ADHD. The kids who don’t have trouble writing and drawing. The kids who don’t have anxiety. The kids with families who can afford tutors. The kids who don’t have to work jobs to help support their families so they have time to practice those types of assessment. The kids without stresses of life not knowing if they will have food to eat, or a roof over their head. The kids in the schools with the most wealthy populations where they have all of the resources and teachers and experience.

Why do we do it then?

Why do we insist on using the same individual assessments for each student? I think there are many answers. 

Many would say because that’s how its done in college. But colleges do it because it is economical. It greatly reduces person hours in grading. They do it to save money, not because it’s better for students.

Others would claim it’s for data. The physics education research (PER) community values all students taking the same assessments, because they have universal data to use. They can get survey data from students too, about how well the students feel they learned and performed. They can compare groups and subgroups. This ignores the fact that making decisions based on unjust methods for determining outcomes is a horrible idea. The survey asks students about how well they think learning something and being assessed in a pigeon-holed manner went for them.

Others might claim it’s fair. Every student has the same opportunity so they take the assessments. Anything else would be unfair. This ignores the fact that every student is not the same. They have different  abilities and interests, so it’s not the same opportunity. Nothing about what they do for class up to the day of the test is the same for each student, including the assessment.

All of those answers for why we do it are rooted in the assumption that it makes sense for every student to approach learning and assessment in the same manner. That is not true, nor is it just. But we still do it, and what we end up doing is ranking and sorting them by social class.

“Let’s talk about how you might go about this.”

What do we do instead?

Give students the opportunity to explore your subject in the way that makes most sense for them, and assess them accordingly. I have a collection blog posts about how one might take constructivism to the level of meeting students at their abilities and interests. I’m not sure if any of the ideas are best or even good, but they are at least attempts to create a system in which every student can thrive and succeed. They still require great effort and are designed to challenge each student. They incorporate student interest and choice, with protocols and opportunity built in for teacher feedback to make sure the methods and assessments are relevant and robust.

If my ideas don’t seem that great, then ask your students ”How would you like to explore this topic? How would you prefer to show mastery?” You might get some blank stares if they aren’t used to being asked that. But provide them with some guidance and examples, and help them understand their own interests and abilities, and you might just stumble on a system that works for every student.

The job as the teacher can then become one of a coach, with constant feedback to make sure what they pursue is appropriately challenging and relevant. They will need a teacher with expertise in the subject, and they will need help developing and using methods for evaluation, for evaluating themselves and for evaluation by their peers and teacher. 

In summary

I believe we focus on assessing the wrong things. This tends to push us to assess in the wrong way — the same way for each student. Whether or not most people agree with me about what we assess, and whatever we decide to assess, most of us don’t do it in a fair and just manner. In order to accomplish this it is important to meet students where they are, both in terms of ability and interests. I don’t have the answers for this. I have some systems in place that might be a good start, but the real answers are in the students.

Scott @BrunnerPhysics

Friday, November 27, 2020

Pathways for Physics

In my classes I have artists, athletes, coders, writers, robotics engineers, theater players, musicians, graphic designers, video producers, gamers, movie buffs, history buffs, and fiction authors. In the past, for reasons that had more to do with me and less with them, I didn’t let them use those interests as much as I could have to explore physics, knowing full well that if they did they would get so much more meaning out of the experience.

The purpose of this post is to share what I am trying with my introductory physics classes to allow for pursuit of physics understanding through student interest channels. It is a work in progress, a pilot of a program I have the feeling will become the main outlet for student exploration in my classes, if it works. I’ll share my initial design of it as well as my reasoning and what I am giving my students. I’ll write an update post about how it’s going and reflections on the first round.

The purpose of Pathways is to give students a chance to make more meaning in their experience, allowing them to explore pathways of interest in their project-based learning. Rather than have all students working on the same project, like mousetrap cars or spaghetti bridges, students develop their projects based on interests and/or strengths. With regular feedback from the teacher and peers they make sure their projects are closely tied to the skill growth goals for class and the class topics. 

One pathway for learning

In evaluating all of the aspects of science which I try to incorporate in my classes I identified these, and I call them Pathways.

  • Art

  • Engineering

  • Computer Science

  • Educational production

  • Pop culture analysis

  • History

  • Writing

These are some of the relevant Pathways for exploring physics which I try to include in the experience for my students. They are the connected options for exploration that seem to fall outside of necessary and fundamental to physics learning. Analytical problem-solving and inquiry are fundamental and essential so I don’t consider them optional Pathways. It is always a struggle to find a balance that includes them all in crafting a learning experience. Different pathways get prioritized different years depending on many factors, but often time those decisions are made by me.

In writing down the pathways I had a thought -- what if students chose which Pathways they use to explore physics with projects, instead of me trying to juggle all of them? I could just make it my job to make sure what they did was relevant and challenging. 

I then had the realization that it might make more sense to have them choose multiple pathways, developing projects where they intersect or overlap. Staring at a single pathway of infinite applications might not make identifying project ideas much easier, but finding areas where multiple pathways intersect might. It might also allow them to make connections between pathways we otherwise might not have the opportunity to.

Multiple pathways for learning

The idea is to give them a bit more guidance than, “Hey what kind of project do you want to do? Figure it out. If you can’t, I have some ideas.” I want them to start in some areas in which they already have interest. That interest could be based in things they are currently pursuing in other classes, extracurricular activities, hobbies, or simply something they want to explore more.

Here is some small paragraphs I quickly wrote up about how each pathway is tied to physics. They are by no means comprehensive or even that good, but I wanted something there to explain a bit. They could be easily improved and modified for use in other subjects.

Art and science are closely tied together, especially in physics where physicists often see beauty in symmetries. Expressing and understanding of physics concepts and connections through art can be done with theater, music, drawing, painting, sculpture, animation, graphic design and other forms of media, accompanied by thorough explanation of the meaning and physics behind your creations.

Engineering is problem-solving with applied science, often with physics. The engineering design process is a fun dynamic way to solve problems with science -- designing, prototyping, testing, and iterating (redesign).

Computer science is the future of everything. It is hard to find a current field of scientific research that does not involve heavy use of simulations and computational code. Coding can be a fun way to craft creative solutions to problems and simulate natural phenomena. You can code simulations, games and even art.

Educational production -- Explaining a concept is one of the most effective methods of actually solidifying your understanding of it. With technology this can take on fun creative forms like videos with effects and podcasts with quality editing.

Pop culture analysis -- Exploring the physics of things around us is a natural and fun thing to do. You can analyze the physics in video games, movies, shows, memes, and sports, often using video analysis tools.

History -- Physical science has a rich history of discovery filled with intrigue, confusion and excitement. It can be fun to explore timelines, milestones, the effects of discovery on society, historical context, and even recreate important discovery labs. 

Writing -- Science journalism is quite important to society as we strive to keep people informed and battle disinformation and pseudoscience. This requires reviewing research and technical writing and reporting skills. Writing for science understanding can also include writing realistic science fiction.

I shared the following with students to give them some guidance as to the appropriate process for designing their pathways project. The topics from the two different classes are the columns on the right.

Pathways for Physics


Once you have established your pathways you need to develop a project that incorporates elements of each pathway as well as the physics skills and concepts we are exploring in class. Your project should become a creative outlet to explore, develop and demonstrate your understanding of physics fundamentals, connecting what you are learning to the real world in ways which match your interests. It is also an opportunity to further hone skills, both the skills we all work on in class, as well as some more specialized area(s) of interest of yours.

The biggest reason for going the route of pathways projects is to give you an opportunity to make meaning in your education. The more freedom you have to craft your path through learning with your own creative design, the more chance you will remember and understand what we are learning long term.


Part of your project can be collaborative, but the real idea is to give you an opportunity to explore your own interests.

The Process

Physics Honors topics

Light/Sound/Waves topics

  • Choose pathways of interest (two or more)

  • Brainstorm ideas 

  • Choose a project idea and rationalize it for pathways, course topic(s), and class skills

  • Specify an outcome

  • Develop a method of measuring your level of success

  • Lay out your steps to success

  • Document the process along the way with regular reflection

  • Publish and share your result

  • Acceleration

  • Projectiles and free fall

  • Forces and Newton’s Laws

  • Momentum

  • Inertia

  • Energy

  • Collision

  • Pendulums

  • Simple harmonic oscillators

  • Friction

  • Air resistance

  • Tension

  • Block and tackle (pulleys and masses)

  • Circular motion and rotation

  • Wave interference

  • Wave reflection

  • String wave speed and tension

  • Periodicity

  • Speed of sound

  • Echoes

  • Pitch and frequency

  • Resonance and standing waves

  • Musical instruments

  • Light speed

  • EM spectrum

  • Light rays and optics

We discussed an example I put together. The example project is based on an actual tangent exploration I went on recently with ping pong ball drag force and Python code. I took it further imagining I was a student and had time to intersect my idea with a couple other pathways. They get a project planning template to help guide them through through the process.

Much of the rest is up to them, but there will be a constant stream of feedback from me to guide them in areas of relevancy and technical challenges.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. The adventure is about to begin. It was introduced to students before Thanksgiving break, and there was already many ideas and excitement popping out before I even expected them. I’ll let you know how it goes. Feel free to borrow what I have, just don’t publish as your own.

-Scott @BrunnerPhysics