The title of this post is written in the style of standards that I use in Standards-Based Grading. This post, though, will be more about how I teach than about how students demonstrate learning.
For a number of years now, I’ve given up lecturing in order to make my classroom as good of a learning community as it can be. You can read about my evolving philosophy at the posts tagged “screencasting.” Why screencasting? Because I took a lot of what used to happen in my “lectures” and put them online in the form of short (<5 minute) screencasts.
I’ve really come to appreciate this approach to teaching, especially for upper-division courses where the material can be dense and new to the students. My classes are now filled with activities designed to get the students to roll up their sleeves and really dig into the material. They now do things in class that I used to hope they’d do outside of class, only now I’m there for those moments that used to lead to beating their heads against the wall.
In my fantasies, students read the book and use the screencast resources I put up so that, when they come to class, they’re ready to engage in the material. My goal isn’t to have them be solid with the material. Rather, I want them to have the vocabulary (in the most general sense of the word) down and to understand the big picture – basically why we’re studying this stuff in the first place. With that as a baseline, the class can tackle the hard problems and issues related to the material together, as a learning community.
In my reality, my scasts are watched a ton, just not often before class. In class, the preparedness of my students is a mixed bag. Some read the material, some watch my scasts, some do both, some do neither. In the old days (before Standards-Based Grading), I would put some points towards that preparedness. Really, this post is my current thoughts about how to get more out of our learning community in class by pondering changes to the expectations outside of class.
Two major things have gotten me as far down this path as I am right now. The first is my good friend Joss Ives. He’s really done some great thinking (and blogging!) about what he’d like students to do before coming to class. The second is mentioned in his post, a recent Global Physics Department meeting with Noah Podolefsky about the PhET simulations. (By the way, you really should join us in the Global Physics Department, Wednesday nights 9:30ET/8:30CT online)
Ok, here’s my current plan for next semester: For each day of new material (what I used to call a ‘lecture’), students will be given access to a simulation somewhat related to the material. They will be expected to produce a ~1 minute screencast describing, basically, the various buttons of the simulation. The PhET simulation on capacitors, for example, would have been a fantastic thing to use for the day earlier this semester when we covered bound charges and dielectrics. The notion of having them produce the screencast was discussed a little in the meeting with Noah, but really crystalized for me a couple of days later when a chemistry colleague of mine was looking for some technical help on an assignment she wanted to use. She wanted the students to provide the narration for this video about mass spectroscopy. “How cool!” I thought.
How is this useful for the class? Well, as Noah put it, they get to play around with something to get a sense of the physics going on. Then, in class, they can start to explore more of the issues involved. I don’t think my class time will be significantly different, especially considering that the majority of my class don’t watch my current screencasts prior to class anyways. However, I intend to bring the class together in the last few minutes to carefully articulate the issues/derivations/examples that they’d like me to create screencasts about. I’ll still be producing them, just one day later than I have been, and this time, it’ll be in response to the needs of the students, instead of in what I guess their needs will be.
But what about SBG, you ask? It seems like I’ve gone back to requiring (translate: giving points for) something that isn’t directly connected to a standard. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and, as you might guess from the title of this post, I think I can make a standard out of this. Of course, you can turn anything into a standard, like attendance, say. However, I think standards should be things that practitioners in the field would deem appropriate. And here I think I might be ok, since being prepared for things and helping to set the table for a good learning experience are things students should learn to do. I know, I know, I’m reaching, but that’s why I’m typing this up, so you can straighten me out.
How would I assess it, you ask? Easy: Every class day, I’ll randomly call up one of the student-generated screencasts. We’ll watch it (remember, it’s ~1 minute long) and then assess it on a binary scale. Here’s the kicker: that score will supplant any previous score. Since I’ll do it randomly, the students can never sit back and assume they’ve got that standard done. And as long as there are far more students than class days, everyone will have to do it a few times, even if I’m totally random about it.
Things I like about this: I really think having the students “play” with a simulation will get them learning the vocabulary and at least asking about the big picture stuff. I also hope they’ll come to class with some good questions (some of which, of course, I hope we’ll have already started dealing with in our backchannel).
I also like the focusing of my screencasts. Right now, I look at what I think is hard in the book and take a stab at providing further resources to help them. With this plan, they can tell me what they get and what they don’t.
What I’m nervous about: I don’t know if I can come up with a simulation for every class. Certainly I can whip up some of my own with the awesome Manipulate command in Mathematica, but, still, there might be some days that just don’t work. I’m also nervous about having this fit into the SBG philosophy (as noted above).
I’m sure I’m forgetting about all kinds of other issues involved, but I wanted to get this down to help me start focusing on next semester’s class (it’s a mid-level Physical Optics class, by the way).