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Writing in Intro Physics

June 20, 2012

My experience teaching this summer has led me to re-think many things. Here is just one thing on my mind I don’t want to forget about:

I’d really like to include more writing in the physics curriculum. By that, I don’t mean more lab reports or more independent projects with papers, which we do have. I’d like students to have opportunity to practice formulating written explanations of phenomena and evaluating explanations and arguments. I want to give them feedback on that writing, and I want to hold them accountable to learning to do it well. Now, I have been having students write a lot online as part of pre-class reading assignments. I’ve been sharing a lot of what students do write in posts. In many cases, students are asked to make predictions and explain their reasoning, or students are asked to make some observation and have to try to explain what they observed. Some of the time I’m asking them to begin with their everyday thinking, while other times I am looking to see if students are framing their explanations in terms of physics concepts. None of that is graded or given much feedback. I use it to inform what I do in class in a JiTT-style. In class, as well, we discuss clicker questions, which often involve forming arguments, listening to arguments, responding to arguments, and reconciling competing ideas. While we do all this to learn, I’m beginning to be concerned that these aren’t explicit learning goals–ones that students practice, get feedback on, and are held accountable for being able to do.

I know there’s a lot of literature out there on writing in the sciences, and I’m tasking myself with reading up on it and beginning to formulate a plan on what might work at our institution. The truth is that I am more interested in helping students to use physics concepts to explain the world around them then to solve problems (which is our primary way of assessing students right now). I’m not saying that problem-solving shouldn’t be assessed, I’m just saying that right now it’s given way to much attention–in the substance of the course, the practice students get, the feedback they get, and the ways in which they are assessed.

Anyway, I’d appreciate any ideas, papers, blogposts, strategies, etc. There’s a lot to think about, and I could certainly use some help.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2012 2:24 pm

    I love this, and have been thinking about the exact same thing. My challenge has been that grading student writing tends to be very tedious, and I can easily fall behind on it. One thought I’ve had is putting together reasoning exercises that give students partial or wrong arguments and then have them evaluate and revise those arguments so that the reasoning is more complete. Extra bonus if I could find a way to easily share the the responses each student wrote with the class, and then get feedback. Could this be some sort of blog?

    I’m also wondering if one couldn’t simply expand the interpretation of standards to include being able to create and evaluate written arguments about a particular concept. For a standard that might ask one to solve a problem using kinematics concepts, a fully valid question might be to take a written solution from the teacher and then make a screencast explaining the solution.

  2. June 21, 2012 1:53 am

    I think you know my answers already — letting students find the sources they write about, and peer assessment for clarity, cause, coherence. If students summarized and evaluated a source by writing a blog post, other students could assess in the comments. (Because I don’t have enough computer access, I do this on paper using the “rubric for assessing reasoning” worksheet). One really useful consequence of this is that students realize that I seriously want them to “pass judgement” (in a well-reasoned way) on _published experts._ I mean, the nerve…

  3. Theron Cross (@torquedu) permalink
    June 27, 2012 3:22 pm

    I’m working on an implementation of Argument-driven Inquiry ( in my conceptual physics course this year, as a supplement to Modeling Instruction. Each of our students has a blog that they post any lab or project write-up to. The ADI site has some nice rubrics for both peer and teacher assessment, but I’m trying to figure out a way to ‘crowd-source’ the assessment, possibly with the inclusion of parents.

  4. June 29, 2012 7:15 pm

    One of the next books I’m going to read is Student Writing in the Quantitative Disciplines by Patrick Bahls who blogs a lot on writing. My quick paging through the book shows that he covers both the informal writing-to-learn you’ve been doing, and the how-to-teach-them-how-to-write-if-you’ve-never-taught-writing-before stuff, with lots of practicalities on how to give enough feedback without getting overwhelmed, assignment ideas, and so on. My precalculus class was based entirely on papers and presentations this year and it went well but I am hoping the book will help me get ideas on taking it up a notch.


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