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Revisiting Intro Physics for Pre-service Teachers

September 8, 2013

Two of the classes I teach for our pre-service physics teachers are 1-credit content workshops called “Physics Licensure I & II”, which students take after completing introductory physics. Some in their sophomore year and some in their junior year. Initially there was just one course, and it was intended to sort of be a review to help students prepare for the Physics Praxis. Now we have two courses and there is less focus on Praxis Prep.

The first courses covers kinematics, forces, momentum, energy, and rotational dynamics. The second courses covers electricity and magnetism. I’d like to have room for optics / waves and thermodynamics, but that’s not happening at the moment.

Course Goals

  • To deepen conceptual understanding and reasoning in introductory physics
  • To provide exposure and familiarity with research-based curricular materials
  • To begin developing some knowledge of student difficulties and to engage in practices of interpreting student thinking.
  • To strengthen and broaden problems-solving approaches
  • To introduce students to structure of AP physics courses and AP exam problems
  • To develop an awareness of what productive group work feels like and to become aware of and practice specific talk moves that can support productive group work.
  • To practice articulating one’s reasoning “on the fly” and practice listening in order to make sense of other learner’s attempts to express their reasoning.
  • To practice writing up solutions to physics problems in an organized and clear manner that mirrors the needs of professional teaching.

These goals are important for lots of reasons, but here are two specific things about our situation that makes these courses and goals especially relevant.

(1) Although our introductory physics courses have many reform-elements in place, there is still insufficient opportunity to develop conceptual understanding. There is too much emphasis on plug-and-chug approaches to solving problems, and our labs emphasize verification too much. As such, students leave their introductory physics courses very underprepared in terms of conceptual understanding, even if they got A’s.

(2) Many of our physics majors, and almost all of our pre-service teachers, go through the algebra-based physics course. The problems isn’t that it’s algebra vs. calculus. Rather, it’s more about the difficulty and rigor of the kinds of problems that students have to solve. In the algebra-based courses, there aren’t enough challenging problems where students have to draw from multiple different big ideas in physics–use energy, momentum, and projectile motion for example. Or enough force problems where students have to contend with multiple algebraic equations coming from multiple interacting objects. Most of our students would not be able to pass the AP exam coming out of our introductory sequence, but it’s a course they are likely to teach.

Course Structure

The course has been structured so that anyone in the department should be able to teach it. For now, I’m teaching it, but I want it to be a course that can easily be taken over. This is how we are currently working toward supporting the course goals while also making it possible to handoff the course in the future.

(1) Students work through Tutorials in Introductory Physics curricular materials. Students do all the pieces–taking online pretests before class, work through the tutorial in groups during class, and do weekly tutorial homework. Right now, this is the main part of the course, and is what really makes the course “handoff-able”.

(2) Students have readings about the Praxis Test and the AP Physics Course. Right now I’m doing a lot with this beyond assigning the readings. We don’t have a lot of time in class to discuss, and I’m already assigning a fair amount of homework. But I’d like to have some part of the class in the future be about summarizing / consolidating someof the stuff from the reading.

(3) Students are assigned AP physics exams problems, and must turn in solutions that meet specific criteria for professionalism.

(4) On days where we don’t use all 90 minutes to go through the in-class tutorial, we end the day by examining and discussing example student responses to the pretest they took. I think I’d like to push the class time to 120 minutes, so we always have time for this, but it is only 1 credit class. I’m grateful to the folks at the University of Washington (particularly Peter Shaffer) for providing these example student work and getting my set up with the online pretests. I have been really amazed at the Office tool called “Mail Merger”, which they showed me. I think it was originally intended to take a “participant list” and write template letters that were addressed to each participant. But you can also use it to take “student responses” from an online quiz that are in an excel spreadsheet and re-embed the responses in a template that looks like how the online test looked. This way you don’t have to store “100 student responses” in word files, you store 1 template in word and an excel spreadsheet. When you are ready, you can have mail merger put them together, and have a bunch of different student responses to hand out.

(5) During the tutorial time in class, I try to do a lot of scaffolding, modeling, and giving feedback on group work. I even give very specific talk moves I want them to practice like. For example, I have them practice when somebody gives an answer that you agree with to not just say “Right,” but to say “I agree…” and give a reason why you think so as well. I also have them practice noticing when and if someone hasn’t said anything a while and to ask, “So-and-so, what do you think about this question?” So far, I’ve been doing this on the fly in an opportunistic fashion. I do it deliberately, but I should think more carefully about how to make sure this goal is being met. This, at the moment, is the least hand-off-able.

Other tidbits:

Right now I have two pre-service teachers returning as “undergraduate teaching assistants”. The day before class, we go through the tutorial to prepare for class, but we also go over students’ pretests responses. They help facilitate group work, and I think this is a real valuable experience for them.

A lot of the grade is based on participation–doing the pretests and being engaged in the tutorial. But both the tutorial homework and AP homework is graded for correctness. There is also a final that will consist of some tutorial-like problems and an AP-style problem. The final is only worth a little bit, enough to make it difficult to get an A from just participation and homework alone.

The first semester course (Physics Licensure I) is now a pre-requisite for taking “The Teaching of Physics”, which is more about pedagogy. This will guarantee a minimum of conceptual understanding, exposure to research based materials, and the beginning of knowledge and practices of interpreting student thinking. I’ve decided, however, that non-teaching physics majors with a late interest in teaching can take the teaching of physics course, but only if they can perform well on the FMCE and take Physics Licensure II as a co-requisite.

Changes for Next Time:

* I want students to write up after the tutorial something about what the learning goals for the tutorial / what they learned.

* I want students to go back and revisit their own pretests after completing the tutorial and looking over and discussing student mistakes. They will have to not only make corrections, but explain what was wrong with their thinking and what they know now that will help them not make that mistake in the future.

* I want to have an activity where we look at example teacher solutions to problem and collaboratively come up with a rubric for assessing the quality of their own solutions.

Thoughts, feelings, suggestions, questions, concerns? I’d love to hear about it.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 6, 2013 6:02 am

    Hi Brian. Based on something we are going to try this in January with our TAs, I have an alternate suggestion for reflecting on the tutorial afterward. Have your students reorganize into groups where none of the people were in their group for the original tutorial. Then have the each new group develop their own TA guide for tutorial based on their experiences working through the tutorial and reflecting on their original pretest. This TA guide would then be a composite document of the troubles they each experienced when working through the tutorial as well as some reflecting on their original thinking when coming into the tutorial.

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