Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

How Do I Simplify My Life?

Posted on: January 25, 2010

This is not a rhetorical question.  I am clearly making myself crazy.  When I started teaching robots using the  CMU curriculum, the students handed in 800 papers to grade in a little over a week.  Two nights grading until 1:00am … yeah, I put a stop to that right away.  But I keep doing this to myself and I need advice.  How do I keep the kids working, doing their own work (not copying from friends), and yet not bog myself down with endless grading, paperwork and prep work?

I’m looking for those little nuggets of gold, advice that came from your own hard work or maybe a supervising teacher or friend.  I don’t care where it came from, I want to know what you are doing to make your teaching life easier.  Here is what I’m currently doing; some of it is good, some, not so good.

  • In my Physics classes, I give assignments and simply check that it was attempted.  90% of the students attempt all of the problems.  I give the answers with the assignments so they know if they got it right.
  • In Conceptual Physics, those students copy from each other.  I tend to collect their work (when they actually do it).
  • This year I no longer take late work.  That has greatly reduced my workload since I’m not going in circles constantly grading the same assignments over and over again.
  • I do keep an Excel grade spreadsheet in addition to the school grade book.  Yeah, double work, but Excel is so much faster and more flexible.  I can assign each student a code and then post grades with their code and not their name.  I carry my data on a USB drive and can highlight, add comments, change color and do all the sorting and reporting I need.  I also keep past quarters and years, something I can’t do easily with the online system.
  • My midterm exam this week will be physics problems with multiple choice answers using Scantron.  I don’t have a choice, I have about 24 hours to grade 100 exams.  This feels wrong to me, I like partial credit and seeing their thinking process.
  • I use ExamView software that comes with our textbooks.  This software lets me use provided questions and create my own to generate tests.  I always do two tests and then alternate rows.  The kids know the person next to them has a scrambled version of the same test and copying is a waste of time.
  • The carbonless lab notebooks have been a big help, so we now do more lab work.  That certainly didn’t lessen my grading load.

What great wisdom can my readers impart?  I’m tired.


10 Responses to "How Do I Simplify My Life?"

This has been my question for the last week or so as well. I spend more time doing paperwork than actually teaching. I’ve been asking around to some of the other teachers that I respect at my school, but no one seems to have a great system.

I find I am the most bogged down with my regular physics class who finds little intrinsic value in knowledge and keeping up (i.e. has to have a million assignments to actually do anything).

Here are a few things that have helped some, but I’m still drowning:

-With my honors class I use the Quest homework site. It’s not as good as WebAssign, but it is cost friendly (they have just started charging and it’s only $150 or so for the whole school to use….I’m the only one here who uses it but oh well). The site randomizes the numbers so that each student has the same problem but different numbers…it promotes collaborative problem solving without letting them copy each others since everyone has a different answer. I give one assignment for the unit (two to three weeks) and it is their responsibility to be working on it over the course of the unit. Some do wait until the night before and curse physics, but it’s a good adjustment for college life. The system grades the problems and I record them at the end of the quarter.

-For my regular class it infuriates me to check HW because I know the kid in the back is just copying from his neighbor. To help minimize this, the students drop their HW in the basket at the beginning of class. I check it while they get started on something else and then pass it back and we go over it.

-I also don’t curve test grades (just one more thing to do and most of my kids don’t deserve it…i.e. for the most part the ones who do poorly do not engage themselves in class). The students know that if they don’t do the class assignments (even the ungraded ones) they won’t do well on the test. Also, amongst the other multiple choice questions, I put questions that relate to the conclusions or graphs from the labs, demos, and activities. This keeps me from having to grade every single thing they do.

The increased paperwork in education in the name of accountability drive me crazy also. (mainly due to the fact that any additional mandates or initiative are usually given w/out the time built in to accomplish them) Now that I am done complaining here are some possibilities:

Partner or group labs-grade one for the group, if it becomes apparent that one individual is doing all the work, change groups, give a lab quiz or “randomly” select a group to hand in individual reports.

Grade or give a check problem from a practice problem set or worksheet, as opposed to grading all the problems. (Post solutions later so students can check work)

Have the student keep activities, handouts and other items in a notebook and check it periodically for specific assignments. (This still takes time but is better than having an in basket full of papers)

You do not have to grade everything but the students should understand everything has the potential to be graded.

Hope some of the ideas help!

This is a difficult question to attempt to deal with and I think a lot of teachers come across it. How do we give students the feedback they need without wanting to pull all of our hair out?

A lot of the ideas listed above are very good, and I may be trying some of them. I don’t grade homework…and I don’t even call it that. I call it practice. Students are assigned practice to take home and complete. I do not check to see if they completed, but I do give them answers and I do allow them a few minutes at the beginning of each class period to ask me questions on it. If it’s extremely important and I can tell that many of them tried and had no idea how to solve the questions, I will spend more time.

Generally, though, I’ll give my students little “mini quizzes” in order to test to see if they understand how to answer the problems. The mini quizzes consist of one of two questions and, while this is a lot of paper, it is a quick check to see if they know what they are doing. It can be used at any time during the class period. Usually, I will do them at the end or at the beginning though.

As far as multiple choice questions goes, I feel the same way with wanting to see their thinking process. What I do is I provide them with a separate sheet with the numbers listed out and then a space. Any work that they do for the problem I ask them to write it there and turn that in as well. My multiple choice distracter answers are chosen to address common misconceptions associated. So, if all the students answer “B” instead of “C,” I know that I probably should spend more time on x. I also ask them to write on their side sheet if they just guessed on a problem. Surprisingly, many of them aren’t afraid to tell me.

With labs, I use the lab notebooks and students must write all of their work in those. I collect them after a couple of weeks and just do a quick scan check. I already have some good idea of what they are recording as I walk around and help them during the investigation. Very rarely do I have them actually write a report and, when I do, I have them write in partners AND I let them choose their partners. This way it is their responsibility to pick someone responsible to work with.

I hope my rambling helps out at least a little and I gave you something in all that jumble. Hope it helps!

I teach in a small rural school. Just be glad you don’t have 6 different classes to prep for like I do! I don’t have as much grading to do since I have fewer students (average class 12-15).

I’ve got no advice unfortunately 😦 but what did you think of the Physics Teachers’ Pet Peeves? Accurate?

Andrew is referring to his online comic strip at Andrew is a deeply disturbed physics nerd, that is why he is hanging out here with us. It’s okay Andrew, you are welcome here, we feel your pain.

As for your comic: I will go with #4 and #2. I don’t get anywhere near #1, and #3 requires too much thinking for my students.

My left handed kids love the right hand rule (#1). They can work the problem and do the right hand rule at the same time! The other kids have to keep putting down their pencils or they forget and do it with their left hand.

Do you put your exam-view quizzes online? You can mix in multiple choice, matching, and a few fill-in the blanks, so most is autograded for you and you just have to check the ones that require your input. If you have promethean software, using activoters as a quick check for comprehension helps too (yes, they do cheat by passing answers, but if is just formative assessment, it isn’t that big of a deal). You can divide your grades up by weighting them, I usually make labs, projects, & tests 60%, “work study skills” 10% [as in did it: yes/no], and everything else 30%.
Yes, it is a lot of work. Just be glad you don’t teach Language Arts and have to read 180 essays at a time…:oD

Heather, things will have to be really bad for me to move down to middle school, they just aren’t people yet. I don’t currently do any assignments online, not all of my students have computers. I am heading that way, we have some technology issues at the school that I am trying to address with a few other teachers. I will probably post that because it’s a real problem for everybody everywhere. We need to brainstorm some solutions.

The Scantron multiple choice mid-term went better than I expect, I was pleasantly surprised. I still prefer to see what they are thinking, but time was an issue.

I’ve gotten away from categories and percentages and I went back to straight points. If you do the same thing every week, all year long, I can see using a weighted system. I just don’t work that way; one quarter I’ll be project heavy, another I’ll be lab heavy.

I am lucky because I have an army of community service students that make my life bearable. I really enjoy having science notebooks that I can grade out of. Almost everything goes into the notebook. Whatever I give the kids goes on the left and their reaction/summary/activity goes on the right. I stamp a great deal of problems if they are right and that saves me grading time and helps my students get instant gratification. I am amazed at how much my students will work for stamps. Maybe that might help.

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