Days 48-52: Model Summaries & Final Exam

We are on trimesters, so this week was the end of tri 1. We usually have a special schedule for final exams the last two days of the trimester, but, due to bussing issues, we followed our normal schedule. We also had a change in our grading policy to do away with cumulative final exams.

I still opted to give a modified practice AP exam covering what we’ve done in class so far. I usually spend 45 min on each half of the exam, so that made it easy to split the exam over two days with our standard 55 min periods. To meet the modified grading policy, I gave my students some points in the formative category of our gradebook for completing the practice exam. This is more in line with how I use the first practice exam, anyway. At this point, I mostly care about students seeing what a test is like and trying their endurance on something longer than our usual quizzes. I also use it to get a sense of what my students are doing well so far and what I need to make sure we keep working on. Even though their grades would not be impacted by how they did, my students took the practice exam seriously and I’m very pleased with how they did.

The practice exam is a good opportunity to review what we’ve done so far, and my favorite approach is model summaries. I gave each group a model that we’ve used so far this year, and asked them to put a scenario on their whiteboard where they could apply their model. Then, I had students add as many diagrams and representations of their scenario as they could. I explained this exercise to students as each model is a toolbox, and we were going to use these whiteboards to remind ourselves what tools come in each box. There were at least two groups whiteboarding each model, which worked out nicely since it’s pretty common that different groups will make use of different tools from the model, so we get a more complete summary with two groups.

Now on to trimester 2! Due to ongoing staffing issues, I’ll be adding two sections of regular physics to my current teaching load of one section of AP. I think a major theme of the next few weeks for me will be figuring out how to balance additional teaching with my responsibilities as a content specialist.

Days 113-117: Final Exams

This week wrapped up trimester 2. Staff and students alike are very ready for spring break.


We stuck with our usual structure of using half the final exam period for a lab practical and half the period for an individual written final. One of the interesting things is that while students have been struggling to collect high-quality data during labs, most groups had pretty accurate results on the lab portion of the final. I think a lot of students have been struggling to connect different representations in general, including how their lab data connects to the concepts and mathematical models we are using. If students see the labs as disconnected, why should they invest the effort to get good quality data? I think that’s become self-reinforcing because when few groups have good quality data, it is harder to see the connection between the labs and the models we are developing. The new trimester will be a good time to interrupt this cycle. I think we will try collecting data as a class for a lab so that I can model things like graphing as I go and re-doing data points that don’t match the apparent pattern. On the final, I think grades provided an extrinsic motivation for high-quality data. I don’t want to default to making data quality a part of a students’ grade in my current grading system, but I could provide other extrinsic motivation like stickers for being below a given percent difference from the accepted value.

AP Physics 1

Students took a practice AP exam for their final. I’m really pleased by how well students scored, especially I gave students the full multiple choice even though there are some topics we haven’t covered yet. On the free response, I noticed some students struggled with parsing what the question was actually asking for, which is not unusual. Especially once we wrap up content and focus on review, I think I need to make sure we spend time on reading strategies for making sense of AP problems.

Days 112-114: Tri 2 Reflections

This was a strange week. Monday we had regular classes, Tuesday we had a professional development day since several of our schools were used for primary elections, then Wednesday and Thursday were final exams. Physics did a traditional written test, followed by a lab practical and AP Physics took a practice exam. While students took those exams, I took some time to reflect on the year so far.

AP Physics 1

This trimester, I’ve had a lot of students working on other things during class. I think part of the issue is I’ve been doing less whole-class discussion on problems this year, which has lead to less sense of collective responsibility. Going in to trimester 3, I need to think about how I can do a better job of making it clear that everyone has something they can contribute and everyone should contribute.

I made some changes to my circuits unit this year. In the past, I’ve relied almost entirely on PhET’s circuit construction kit. This year, in response to some findings in my PhD research so far, I combined the simulation with some real world labs, which paid off with my students feeling more confident and having higher achievement. I tend to rely heavily on Pivot Interactives for circular motion and rotation, which we’ll be starting right after spring break, but I need to make sure I’m connecting those computer-based labs to things my students can touch and manipulate directly.


One of the things I’ve done this trimester that’s had the biggest impact on whole-class discussions has been giving students time in small groups to have preliminary discussions for most class discussions. I’ve done that prior to board meetings for a while, but doing that before problems, as well, has made students much more comfortable speaking up. That time also needs to be explicit; if I don’t set aside specific time for preliminary discussions, most students won’t initiate those discussions in their groups. Especially at the start of the trimester when some of the students are new to me, I need to make sure I continue to give students that time.

Days 56 & 57: Finals & Reflecting on Tri 1

This week, we had finals on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday was scheduled as a professional development day, but an early blizzard meant we had a remote work day for term transition, instead.

AP Physics 1

For the final exam, I had students take a modified practice AP exam. As usual, students did much better on the free response than the multiple choice. I need to give some thought to what shifts might address that. I’m also giving some thought to shifting how I use the formula sheet. Typically, hand out copies of the formula sheet they’ll get on the AP exam pretty early in the year and provide those on all of my assessments. This year, I have more students than usual trying to memorize equations, which tells me they aren’t seeing the formula sheet as a useful tool.

Bigger picture, I’ve been using some of the strategies for improving groupwork that I worked on in Physics last year, and I’m seeing good results, especially in my larger class. This year in general, I’ve been seeing more competitiveness than usual, but it’s been especially pronounced in my smaller class. The small class also has only two girls out of eleven students, and the girls have been vocal that it’s frustrating to often be the only girl in a group. I’ve got some students switching hours and both sections will have a pretty even gender distribution next tri, so I’m hoping that will help shift the tone in my smaller class.


We continued the two-stage final exam, where students complete a standard written final, then do a lab practical in small groups. I saw a lot of mistakes that I think are related to students struggling to differentiate different quantities and to recognize when a letter represents a variable and when it represents a unit. I need to give some thought to how I’ll help students distinguish those concepts moving forward.

My classes have been much quieter than usual this year, both in small group and whole class discussions. Over the course of the trimester, I’ve used some strategies, like giving more opportunity for small group talk before a whole-class discussion, that have helped. Over time, students have gotten more comfortable with each other and I’ve been able to cut back on the pre-discussions, but enough students are switching between hours for next tri that I’m going to go back to those strategies for at least a while as part of re-building the class culture.

Another aspect of the term transition I’m thinking about is the fact that around half of my students next tri will be coming to me from the other physics teacher. While we work very closely together and use the same materials, I consistently find many students do not transfer skills between our classrooms. I feel like I’ve got a good grasp on how to help students transfer skills like collaboration; I treat the start of the trimester the same way I treat the start of the school year and go back to building routines, norms, and a class culture with my students. I can back off quicker than in September, but it’s no less important than in the fall.

Where I feel stuck is with students who struggle to transfer physics skills between classrooms. I periodically hear from students that their class never learned a fundamental skill like drawing free-body diagrams or even entire topics, like balanced forces. Its tricky to coach a kid through that when I haven’t had a chance to build a relationship or get to know their strengths yet, so I tend to end up either helping to the point of giving answers or coming across as harsh about what students “should” know, neither of which is a good start. We’ll be starting tri 2 with unbalanced forces, so I’m giving some thought to how I can navigate these moments more productively. I want to try some open-ended approaches, like sketching a problem scenario I know was used in both courses and asking students very broad questions about what diagrams they might use. I’m also wondering if there are some ways I could involve other group members in these conversations to help them become more productive.

Day 161: Final Project Presentations, Lab Final, & Nuke Whiteboarding

This will probably be my last post of the year. Today was the last day for seniors, so my Physics and AP Physics 1 classes wrapped up today. My Chemistry Essentials class is mostly juniors, which means they will continue through the end of next week, but I’ll miss out since I’m going to the AP Physics reading.

This year, I’ve been doing a lot of work to try and build a strong whole-class culture and, compared to previous years, I had a lot more students talk about how they’ll missing being in their specific hour of physics, suggesting there was a strong sense of community. That was a really exciting element of my last day for the year.

AP Physics 1: Final Project Presentations

We finished up final project presentations. There was one group that designed and built a rig to reliably launch a hockey puck to measure the stopping distance along various surfaces in order to determine toe coefficient of friction. For the final, students were given a spring with a known spring constant and tasked with finding the mass of a mystery object.

phys lab final

Physics: Lab Final

Students did a lab practical for the second half of their final exam. There was lots of great conversation as students worked through the problem and it was a lot of fun for me to see students using so many of the skills we’ve been working on this year.

Chemistry Essentials: Nuke Whiteboarding

We did a quick refresher on nuclear decay using the whiteboards before taking the quiz on nuclear chemistry.

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Day 160: Final Project Presentations, Final Exam Part 1, & Mistakes Whiteboarding

AP Physics 1: Final Project Presentations

We started presenting final projects. I have each group prepare a presentation, but am pretty lenient on length. I have a couple of students on the trap shooting team that presented today on their examination of the recoil on a shotgun. I hadn’t realized the shotgun barrel is above the center of mass, so there is an upward recoil in addition to the backward recoil.

Physics: Final Exam Part 1

Seniors are done tomorrow, but we’re on a standard schedule both today and tomorrow. To accommodate that, we split the physics final exam into two parts. Today, students took a pretty standard written final.

Chemistry Essentials: Mistakes Whiteboarding

I showed students a table to organize their work on half life calculations, then we did some mistakes whiteboarding on yesterday’s problems. The table made the problems much easier for a lot of students, which was great.

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Day 157: Senior Skip Day & Mistakes Whiteboarding

AP Physics 1 & Physics: Senior Skip Day

Today was senior skip day, so only a few of my students were in class. Most of the AP students opted to work on their final project and some of the Physics students started reviewing for the final.

Chemistry Essentials: Mistakes Whiteboarding

We did some mistakes whiteboarding with problems for nuclear decay. I had a few students ask how we know alpha particles are always helium-4, which got me wondering if there’s a better way I could introduce the types of nuclear decay we study than just giving some notes on the types of decay we’ll be using.

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Day 156: Final Project Work & Whiteboarding

AP Physics 1: Final Project Work

Students continued working on their final projects. One group is working on how the speed of a basketball affects the rebound of a backboard. They were working on some energy bar charts today and came up with some interesting notation; they labeled their kinetic energy blocks with “H” and “V” to keep track of how the components of the velocity were changing and how that fit with the energy.

Physics: Mirror Calculations Gallery Walk

Students did a gallery walk of yesterday’s problems. My sub from yesterday commented on how well they’d collaborated on the problems, so I was surprised that my students felt very lost on the problems. Once we started whiteboarding, it was clear they knew how to do the problems, but just weren’t confident yet.

I’ve also been randomly assigning groups almost every day, and I’ve come to enjoy the first few minutes of whiteboarding. Students immediately start comparing answers and approaches with the other people in their group and have lots of great conversation about similarities and differences in their work.

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Chemistry Essentials: Nuclear Notation Gallery Walk

Students whiteboarded yesterday’s problems translating between different representations of an isotope for a gallery walk. Afterward, we started working on some problems writing out nuclear reactions for alpha and beta decay. I wish the decay problems started with some where the nucleus is reasonable to draw to help make identifying the products of the decay more concrete.

chem nuke.jpg

Day 110: Final Exams

Today was day 1 of final exams. The classes with odd hours met today and the rest will meet tomorrow.

AP Physics 1: AP Practice Exam

Students took a practice AP exam from the College Board. They did the free-response earlier this week, and the 90 minute final exam period was perfect for the multiple choice. I really pushed that I’ll be entering this into the gradebook very generously partly because the AP exams tend to have low percentage scores and partly because I want to use it very formatively. My two goals are for students to experience an (almost) complete AP exam and for me to see what topics I need to make sure we revisit before the real exam.

Physics: Lab Practical

For the first half of the exam, students took a fairly traditional individual final. For the second half, they worked on one of three lab practicals; every station asked students to find the mass of an unknown object, but we came up with stations using three different models. While all of the lab practical stations were related to labs we did in class this trimester, I got a lot of questions about how to use the LabQuests. The other physics teacher and I are thinking about what it might look like to have students build themselves a reference for key probeware skills. I also think this would have been a fun one to whiteboard and share results since groups were figuring out the same thing three different ways.

Chemistry Essentials: Lab Practical

Similar to the physics class, the chemistry students took a pretty traditional individual final, then completed a lab practical. This tri, I had students identify a liquid based on the density. I was really pleased by how many students naturally used other observations to decide whether their result made sense.

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Day 109: Free Response & Mistakes Whiteboarding

Today was our last day of regular classes before final exams.

AP Physics 1: Free Response

For my tri 2 final, I like to give most of a practice AP exam. Since our final periods are 90 minutes long, I had my students do the free response portion today. I took out the problems on circuits and rotation since my students haven’t seen those topics yet. Students seemed to feel pretty good afterward; I think they are internalizing that its okay not to nail the problems.

Physics: Mistakes Whiteboarding

We used some problems from the final review for mistakes whiteboarding. Students in this course have really bought in to the value of mistakes whiteboarding and I end up saying very little during these discussions. Its a lot of fun to listen to students during these discussions.

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Chemistry Essentials: Mistakes Whiteboarding

We used some problems from the final review for mistakes whiteboarding. A lot of students were having some trouble focusing, which is not unusual for this course at the end of a tri; I think a lot of them are anticipating spring break and the start of the next trimester. My co-teacher and I made some changes to how we talked about particle diagrams this tri to emphasize them as a thinking tool, and it was a lot of fun to see some of that work pay off during the discussion today.