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

Archive for October 2011

I think you can try to plan to implement Standards-Based Grading, but the first time through you really need to be flexible and open to change.  I didn’t start the quarter with SBG in place because I was coaching soccer and there was no time after school.  Not a good place to start, if anyone is thinking of doing the same thing.  However, once soccer ended, we were in full SBG mode.  Being that it was new for all of us, it took everyone a while to get into the swing of coming in for help and taking quizzes.

Right after soccer ended, kids started coming after school for concept quizzes.  I started throwing problems on paper, trying to get a pile of quizzes together, it was a mad-house at first.  Some days I would have 5 students all wanting different quizzes.  Each concept quiz consisted of two questions.  At least I kept a list of the problems I gave out.  It was chaos, I had to improve my methods.

I had been keeping the after-school quizzes in a pile.  One night I finally sat down at my computer and created two or three quizzes for each concept area.  I put a 31-day divider into a binder and put the quizzes in each section by concept number.  At work, I made several copies of each quiz and put them in the section behind the original.  Now when a student needs a quiz, I open the binder and pull out a quiz.  The front of the binder contains the weekly quizzes that cover from three to six concepts.  These are given sequentially every Friday.  Any of this material will be available to any teacher that requests it.  Feel free to borrow and improve, or just borrow – whatever works for you.

At first I kept their quizzes so they couldn’t share them with friends.  Once I got organized, I realized these were a valuable tool.  I created a folder for each concept and stored the quizzes in the folders.  This let me keep track of who took what quiz and what problems were giving the class trouble.

I soon realized I had to slow things down a bit.  Students would show and take another quiz after school, but not do any better on it.  I changed my method completely.  Now I make them explain the concept to me.  If they sound like they understand the concept, I’ll give them the quiz.  If they don’t, I insist on tutoring them on the concept before I’ll give them the quiz.  This has significantly increased their success rate.


The first SBG concept was Symmetry, the second was Domain & Range.  I still have several students that have not mastered those one or both of the concepts.  If I hadn’t switched grading systems, those students would have done poorly on the quiz or test and moved on.  They might have worried about the concept for the midterm or final exam.  Some of my kids have been working to learn Symmetry and Domain & Range for six weeks now, and they won’t give up.  Yes, I’m sold on SBG!

When I started this, I was really concerned about dividing the course into concepts.  I was hoping to find a concept list online, but I didn’t.  The key is to look at the big picture – not everything needs to be its own separate concept.  For example, the Power Rule is part of the Product and Quotient Rule.  You can’t do a product or quotient derivative problem without knowing the Power Rule, so it is tested sufficiently.  The book is organized well, we use Larson’s AP Edition of Calculus of a Single Variable.  So far, my concept list is:

  1. Symmetry
  2. Domain & Range
  3. Graphical Limits
  4. Algebraic Limits
  5. Continuity
  6. Infinite Limits
  7. Limit Process
  8. Product & Quotient Rule
  9. Chain Rule
  10. Implicit Differentiation

I closed out the list for the first quarter at number 7.  As I write this, we are about to start the Chain Rule and we have almost two weeks left in the first quarter.  We are adding roughly one new concept per week, most quizzes have six concepts.  I probably won’t update this post as the year goes on, but if you email me, I’ll share whatever you need to get this working for you.

I’m extremely happy with the results.  The kids are happy and they are learning calculus, not just trying to get through the course.  I think I’ve made the course a little tougher knowing they can come back and take the time to learn all of it.  I asked them today what they liked and disliked about the new grading system.  I asked them for changes, anything at all.  They unanimously said the loved the new system and didn’t want to change anything.

Personally, I’m struggling with not grading on a normal curve.  My class average is too high, but they have learned the material, really, deeply, honestly, learned it.

With weekly quizzes and so many additional concept quizzes, I was worried about the time it would take to grade everything.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how quickly I can get through a set of quizzes, it’s quick because I don’t worry about partial credit.

Each problem gets one of four grades:

  • 4 – The problem is done correctly, no errors
  • 3 – The student understands the underlying concept but made at least one or more mistakes
  • 2 – The student is starting to understand the concept, but clearly isn’t there yet
  • 1 – No real understanding
  • 0 – No attempt at a solution

Grading in the grade book is simple.  Students get the highest score achieved times ten.  If they do worse on a quiz, nothing happens to their grade.  When they get the first 4 on a concept, they get 40/50 in the grade book.  Get a second 4 and the 40 becomes a 50 and they are done with that concept.  The kids love to write “MASTERED” on a completed concept.

I’ve set up a spreadsheet (Gradebook – names are removed) in Excel to handle the grades.  Each student gets their own block.  When I enter a quiz grade, I change the header grade and change the color to  orange to remind me to change their grade in the school system.  Blue means the concept is complete.  Red numbers means the grade came from an after school quiz and not a weekly quiz.

The students use a Concept Checklist to keep track of where they are on each concept.  Every week or so I cut up my spreadsheet and hand out the pieces to make sure their scores agree with mine.  I plan to start a new spreadsheet each quarter since I can’t change the previous quarter’s grades.  So far, this is handling my grading requirements.

Next post – Setting up concepts and creating quizzes

(This is a follow up to a previous post on Standards-Based Grading.  I’m so pleased with the success, I started writing and created a monster post.  I’ve gone back and broken it into bite-sized chunks to scare off fewer readers.)

The first quarter is almost done and I’m incredibly pleased with my conversion to Standards-Based Grading (SBG).  I’m glad I started with Calculus, the kids have been an understanding group and open to trying something new.

I began by setting up the scoring, each concept was worth 10 points.  The only other grade they have is a weekly WebAssign grade.  Those are usually worth between 15 and 25 points.  I found the WebAssign was too heavily weighted and the concepts didn’t have enough impact, so I did some analysis last week and seven weeks into the first quarter I changed the concepts to 50 points.  I printed grade reports and noticed that the point change lowered everybody’s score.  I expected an outcry, but it didn’t happen.

I explained that with three weeks to go in the first quarter, any new concepts will get entered into the second quarter.  Since I will not have the option of going back and changing their first quarter grade later in the year, I needed to give them enough time to master the early material.  What I explained to them is that their grade report showed the lowest possible grade for the quarter.  They all have three weeks to bring their grades up to an ‘A’ and they all can do just that.

Suddenly it clicked and the kids are coming in during their study hall and after school.  The rule is they can take a single concept quiz each day; plus we have a quiz every Friday in class.  At first they were dreading the quizzes, now that they understand that a quiz can only improve their grade, they love the quizzes (well, maybe not love – I do make them rather challenging).

The students are motivated to learn the material, they finally feel like they have control over their grades.  I know this is creating a positive learning environment.  All of my calculus students that have me for physics asked me to switch the grading system in physics.

Next post – The Grading System

My two robotics classes have been working on an obstacle course.  I made it challenging, but it seems to be too challenging – not because the kids aren’t trying but because the robots do something a little different every time.  I’m confused.  I called LEGO Education support and they told me the motors are accurate to one degree per rotation.

I’m seeing errors much more than ten times that number.  I can’t seem to find a way to solve the problem.  We are using yellow RESET block, light green MOVE blocks, and orange rotational WAIT blocks.  We have a spot carefully marked on the floor for the start and way points.  Starting at the same spot may have the robot as much as an inch off within about 10 rotations.  The total motor error should be about 0.17 inches.  I can’t determine if it’s a problem in NXT-G or the motors.

I’ve searched the NXT books, blogs, web sites, and books, and I can’t find any references to the inaccuracy issues.  Has anyone else seen these problems?  How do I fix this?

What’s New in 2013/2014?

Every year brings a change, this one is no exception.

I will be picking up the sophomore honors Algebra II class to keep them separate from the juniors. This should help accelerate them and put them on a stronger track towards Calculus. Looks like there will be only one section each of Physics and Calculus, but still two of Robotics & Engineering.

Hot topics this year are going to be the Common-Core Standards, Standards-Based Grading (SBG), improving AP Calculus scores, and somehow adding Python, maybe as a club.

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October 2011
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