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Peer Instruction with NearPod and iPads

This year with my AP Physics B class, I’m trying a number of new ideas. One is peer instruction. This appealed to me because historically my AP Physics students have struggled on the more conceptual questions and peer instruction addresses these types of questions. While peer instruction is often associated with some sort of a “flipped” classroom, I want to be clear that I’m not flipping anything. I’m using peer instruction as a formative assessment tool and an opportunity for students to refine their conceptual understanding through thought and debate.

The particular methodology that I’m trying is best described by Stephanie Chasteen in her post “FTEP Effective facilitation of clickers workshop. She referenced a paper either on her blog or her podcast which described how a specific peer instruction technique was the most effective. The key elements are:

  • students register their answer individually
  • instructor shows distribution of answers but not which answer is correct
  • students discuss, debate, and defend their answer; preferably with students who choose a different answer
  • students register their answer again
  • instruction show the distribution of answers and explains why that answer is correct

The research showed that this final step was critical.

In another post, Stephanie shared several resources for these types of questions for physics. I have found that Paul Hewitt’s Next-Time Questions also make excellent peer instruction questions as long as I post them in advance for students to consider outside of class with sufficient time for consideration.

I started the semester using Turning Technologies clickers, which I already use in some of my classes when administering exams. These worked fine. A colleague of mine showed me the NearPod app on the iPads, and I decided to try that for a change. While creating a presentation on the NearPod web site takes more effort on my part, I and my students have found using NearPod for peer instruction is better than the clickers. Because each student views the question on their own device, I can show more content-dense questions than I can when projecting on a screen in the classroom. In addition, NearPod allows me to create questions where students respond by drawing or annotating. This is perfect for graphical and diagrammatic answers. The only feature I miss when using NearPod is the lack of a countdown timer to remind students they need to submit their answers.

I have continuously been impressed with the level of engagement and the quality discussions that I observe during peer instruction. I’ve heard students devise novel and clear explanations when justifying their answer to other students. I’ve seen students leap into the air when they were in the minority but their answer is the correct one. I consistently receive very positive feedback about this element of class.

I hope to find a way to incorporate peer instruction into my Honors Physics class next year.

Preparing for New AP Physics B Course

I will spend a lot of time this summer preparing for a new AP Physics B course. For most of the past five years, I’ve taught an Advanced Physics course which was a third semester of physics after Honors Physics that covered fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and modern physics topics. This class wasn’t officially an AP Physics B class, but many students took the AP exam and were well prepared.

However, this new course replaces Advanced Physics, will be a two-semester course, and is open to students who have completed either Physics or Honors Physics. So, the students will have covered different topics and approached physics from different perspectives. For example, the Honors Physics class covers a superset of topics but the Physics class emphasizes the development and understanding of Models. Due to this diversity, and now being an official AP course, I’m taking the opportunity to develop new class materials and try a few new approaches.

Topic Sequence

We will briefly review or cover all AP Physics B topics in this course. Topics that are review will be used as opportunities to perform more sophisticated labs and explore new representations such as computational models. In addition, there are certain topics that I believe should be part of a college physics class and that are of great interest to students but are not part of the AP Physics B curriculum. We will cover those as well.

Fall Semester

  • Special Relativity
  • Kinematics
  • Statics and Dynamics
  • Fluid Mechanics
  • Work, Energy, Power
  • Thermodynamics
  • Linear Momentum
  • Oscillations and Gravity
  • Waves
  • Capstone Project

Spring Semester

  • Electrostatics
  • Electric Circuits
  • Magnetic Fields
  • Electromagnetism
  • Geometric Optics
  • Physical Optics
  • Particle Physics
  • Atomic Physics and Quantum Effects
  • Nuclear Physics
  • Cosmology

Components of Each Unit

I’m going to try a few new ideas in most units. Some of these are driven by methodologies that I have wanted to try for a while (e.g., computational modeling and peer instruction). Others are driven by new technologies available to my students (e.g., Canvas and iPads).

Topic Summary

I’m currently writing an AP Physics B review guide as an iBook. I wanted a review guide tailored to my students’ experiences and the structure of the class. The review guide is organized by topic but focuses on the models applicable to each topic. In addition to a description of the relevant models, the graphical, mathematical, and diagrammatic representation of those models are included as appropriate. I want students to explore an additional representation of the models to reinforce their understanding and have been very impressed with John Burk’s use of computational modeling. So, computation models developed using physutil and VPython are also included. I hope to include the iBook (also as a PDF) as well as related videos and code snippets in an iTunesU course. I’ve been impressed with iBook Author so far and have exported the first chapter as a PDF.

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Labs and Lab Notebooks

Since all students have already had a year of physics, I’m looking forward to doing some more sophisticated labs. Students will be creating electronic lab notebooks as portfolios in our new learning management system, Canvas. In addition, since we will have a class set of iPads available, we will be evaluating Vernier’s new LabQuest 2 and the Connected Science System.

Quizzes and Peer Instruction

I have been wanting to explore peer instruction using clickers and I think the more conceptual questions would be a great fit and prepare students for the multiple choice portion of the AP exam. I found some wonderful existing clicker question at OSU and CU Boulder. I’m compiling quizzes from existing AP free-response questions and will use the scoring rubrics to provide formative feedback to prepare students for the free response portion of the AP exam.


Secure Pretty Good Physics (Secure PGP) is a great resource for AP Physics teachers. Other teachers have indexed questions by topic which makes creating new exams much easier. I’m compiling an exam and a reassessment exam for each unit based on existing AP multiple choice and free response questions. I plan to post these, along with the quizzes, to Secure PGP when I’m done.

Standards-Based Assessment and Reporting

I’m using a slightly modified version of the SBAR structure that we’ve been using in Honors Physics. The biggest change is that assessments will be scored on a five-point scale, like the AP exam itself. This is a small change for those students familiar with Physics’ four-point scale, but a more significant change for those students familiar with Honors Physics’ mastery system. Another significant change is the granularity of standards. Due to the integrated nature of the AP exam, standards will be very broad, usually one standard for each unit. All of the details of the SBAR structure are enumerated in the class syllabus.

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I hope some of you who are also teaching AP Physics B find something here of use. I know that the work that other teachers have done is incredibly helpful as I prepare for this new course. I plan to share pretty much everything I compile either here or on Secure PGP; so, please stay tuned or ask if I forget to post something.

Something Has Replaced My iPad in My Bag

For the last year and a half, I’ve almost exclusively used an iPad as my computing device at school. I was pleasantly surprised that practically everything that I needed to do: email, web browsing, demonstrating how to solve problems, and playing videos; I could do on the iPad. I loved that the iPad turned on instantly, never needed to be plugged in during the day, and weighed almost nothing. At home, I still had a traditional computer, an iMac, which I used extensively in the evenings.

Lately, as I’ve been more and more busy, I’ve noticed that during the day, I would have to capture tasks and postpone their completion since I could not efficiently handle them on the iPad. (Perhaps, a future post on Getting Things Done is warranted to explain the methodology I use for task management.) My extracurricular activities are ramping up and they require me to complete a more diverse and spontaneous series of tasks during the day.

I finally decided to make a change. I purchased a MacBook Air and have been using it for the past week. It has been wonderful and I have been more productive. The MacBook Air has many of the characteristics of the iPad: near-instant on, incredibly light, and long battery life. In addition, I can do almost anything on the MacBook Air at school as I can do at home on the iMac.

I haven’t set up a new Mac in a while and I was surprised at how different my experience was with the MacBook Air. With the advent of Dropbox and iCloud, I didn’t copy any files when setting up the MacBook Air; these services synchronized, and continue to synchronize, my contacts, calendar entries, mail, photos, and files between my Macs and iOS devices. For the first time, when I pick up any of my computing devices, I feel that I am at home and not using a satellite computing device that is just a snapshot.

Not everything is perfect, however. The iWork Apps on Mac OS X, need better support for iCloud so that document management is round-trip between Mac OS X and iOS. I expect that this will be addressed, but, for now, I continue to use Dropbox and manually integrate changes made on iOS devices back to the Mac. Particularly annoying are the issues with the MacBook Air running Lion and wireless networks. I’ve hacked on my configuration enough to have a functional but annoying solution; so, I’m better off than some. Regardless, I’m amazed that Apple has yet to address these issues. Finally, the MacBook Air isn’t a tablet. I continue to use the iPad on its own when I want to demonstrate how to solve problems because I can write well on it with Note Taker HD, it projects well on the screen, and it is easy to export my notes to PDF files and post them to our class web site. Perhaps I’ll find an app that makes the iPad function as a drawing tablet for a MacBook.

I haven’t given up on the iPad by any means. I still hope to run an iPad pilot with my class. I think an iPad has several advantages when used in a classroom by students and teachers compared to traditional laptops and I want to explore these. Personally, I still use my iPad. I expect that when traveling or attending a conference, I will only bring my iPad. Finally, nothing is more immersive than curling up on the couch with a blanket and an iPad and reading.