On the eve of the first day of school, I felt that I better capture my thoughts on AP Physics 2 last year. My perspective may be different than other’s (at least different than the vocal minority(?) on the AP Teacher Community).
I started last year eagerly anticipating the new AP Physics 2 course. For the past seven years, I had taught some type of a second-year physics course. For most of that time, I taught what we called Advanced Physics, a one-semester course after which some of my students would take the AP Physics B exam. For a couple of years, I taught an official, year-long, AP Physics B course. I felt that the AP Physics B course had too much content to cover well, even as a second-year course. This was compounded by the mismatch between the groups of student that enrolled in the course. About a third of the students had previously taken our General Physics course, and two-thirds, Honors Physics. The Honors Physics students had studied additional units not part of the General Physics course. As a result, for some “review” units in AP Physics B, the pace was much too fast for those from General Physics and much too slow for those from Honors Physics.
The new AP Physics 2 course contained less content. In addition, the emphasis shifted towards deeper conceptual understanding of physics rather than numeric or algebraic problem solving. As a result of these changes, I felt that I could at last integrate much more of Modeling Instruction into a second-year physics course. I wasn’t too concerned about the shift towards deeper conceptual understanding since I had been moving my course in that direction for the past couple of years based on student performance on the AP Physics B exam. My students had done extremely well on the free response portion of the AP Physics B exam; therefore, I had adjusted class to focus more on conceptual understanding since the greatest area for growth was on the multiple choice portion of the exam. During the summer of 2014, I attended an AP Summer Institute to learn more about the new course. As a result of all of this, I started last year much more excited than anxious.
Reflecting back on AP Physics 2 last year, it was my favorite year teaching a second-year physics course. That said, while many aspects of the course worked well, there are definite areas for me to improve this year.
Peer instruction was very effective at developing students’ conceptual understanding. Of all the various types activities done in class, students ranked peer instruction as the most helpful (over 75% of students agreed with the statement “Participating in peer instruction of conceptual questions helped me understand the material.” on the end-of-year survey). The manner by which I conduct peer instruction is strongly influenced by the research of Stephanie Chasteen who writes at sciencegeekgirl. The questions I use are a combination of Paul Hewitt’s Next-Time Questions, the end-of-chapter conceptual questions in Knight’s College Physics text, and those in clicker questions banks from CU Boulder and OSU.
The number and variety of lab activities also worked well. Some labs were informal stations, some typical Modeling Instruction paradigm labs, some lab practicums. With less content, we had time for more, and deeper, labs. Some of the labs and skills involved went beyond that required by the AP Physics 2 curriculum, but some of these were the students favorite. We will continue to explore computational modeling, build more advanced circuits on breadboards, and explore particle physics.
What Didn’t Work
Building my standards, and grading, on the Enduring Understanding defined for each Big Idea did not work well. While my goal was for students to see the connections between the various content areas and appreciate the Big Ideas, students shared that organizing the standards and grades in this manner didn’t help accomplish this. It did result in a lot of extra work for me. After the fall semester, I mostly abandoned this approach. Below, I’ll explain my approach for this year.
Whiteboarding homework problems did not work well. My approach was for six groups of students to prepare and present whiteboards based on assigned homework problems. This didn’t work well because too few students had done the homework problems in advance of whiteboarding. As a result, most of the group would watch those who had done the problems prepare the whiteboards and didn’t really understand the solution. This issue was compounded when whiteboards were presented. Too few students had struggled with the problem in advance to result in a good discussion. This wasn’t the case every time, but much too often.
What I’m Trying This Year
My attempts to prepare students for the free response portion of the AP Physics 2 exam fell somewhere between working and not working. I overestimated students’ ability to write clear, concise, and correct free responses. As a result, I didn’t dedicate sufficient time to practicing this skill. What did work well was using Socrative to share student responses and peer critique these responses. We will do this much more this year.
While my attempts to reinforce the Big Ideas by structuring standards and scores around Enduring Understandings didn’t work, emphasizing the AP Science Practices did work well. Inspired by Chris Ludwig’s work with portfolios and our discussion at NSTA earlier this year, my students will create a lab notebook and portfolio on their own Google Site. The notebook will capture all the labs and the portfolio will be a curated collection of labs that demonstrate their performance of the various AP Science Practices. I hope to share the details of this soon.
To improve the value of whiteboarding, I’m making several changes. Instead of six groups preparing and presenting six problems, groups will prepare and present only two problems. Each problem will be prepared by three groups. The problem won’t be assigned as homework. Rather, we will spend more class time as each group works together to solve the problem. A randomly selected member of each group will be responsible for presenting the whiteboard, and the class will focus on comparing and contrasting solutions between the various groups in addition to the solution itself.
The average AP Physics 2 scores were about a point lower than the previous year’s AP Physics B scores (3.344 vs. 4.484). However, as I considered the standards and expectations for AP Physics 2 compared to AP Physics B and carefully considered each of my students, their scores were what I expected, except for a few.
I’m thrilled with the new AP Physics 2 class and excited about teaching this course for the second time. All that I miss from AP Physics B is a huge collection of exam questions from which I could build my own assessments. My one wish is that the College Board releases additional questions as questions in the style of the new exam are very difficult to create. I hope that the changes that I have planned for this year help students to develop an even stronger and deeper understanding of physics and proficiency in science practices than last year’s. If you are interested in more detail about my approach last year, my 180 blog focused solely on AP Physics 2.