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Electronic Lab Portfolios Aligned to AP Physics Science Practices

[Updated 15/7/2016, 10:54 PM: added links to two student lab portfolios.]

As I mentioned briefly in my reflection of the 2014-2015 school year, this past year, students created electronic lab portfolios for AP Physics 2. In summary:

  • many students demonstrated deeper metacognition than I have ever observed
  • several students struggled and their portfolios were incomplete
  • providing feedback and scoring consumed a huge amount of my time
  • structural changes made in the spring semester helped considerably

Structure

I was inspired to have students create electronic lab portfolios based on Chris Ludwig’s work and his presentation and our discussion at NSTA last year.

Before the start of the school year, using siteMaestro, I created a Google Site for each student based on a template that I created. I made both myself and the student owner of the site and kept the site otherwise private. The template consisted of two key portions of the site: a Lab Notebook, which provides a chronologically accounting of all labs; and a Lab Portfolio, which is the best representation of the student’s performance. I shared a document with the students that explained the purpose and distinction between the Lab Notebook and Lab Portfolio.

The lab portfolios were structured around the seven AP Physics Science Practices. I wanted students to evaluate and choose their best work that demonstrated their performance of each Science Practice. I also wanted the most critical and significant labs to be included; so, some labs were required to be in the lab portfolio. In the fall semester, I required that each student publishes at least two examples of their demonstration of each of the seven Science Practices.

I wanted students to think more deeply about the labs then they had in the past, and I didn’t want the lab portfolio to just be a collection of labs. So, in addition to the necessary lab report to demonstrate a given Science Practice, students also had to write a paragraph in which they reflected on why this lab was an excellent demonstration of their performance on the specific Science Practice.

The lab portfolio comprised 40% of the coursework grade for each semester. For the fall semester, the lab portfolio was scored at the end of the semester. I provide a few formal checkpoints throughout the fall semester where students would submit their portfolio (just a link to their site) and I would provide feedback on their labs and paragraphs.

Fall Semester

Many students wrote excellent paragraphs demonstrating a deeper understanding of Science Practices than anything I had previously read. Other students really struggled to distinguish between writing a lab report and writing a paragraph that provided evidence that they had performed a given Science Practice. I did create an example of both a lab report and lab portfolio reflection paragraph based on the shared experiment in first-year physics of the Constant Velocity Buggy Paradigm Lab. However, several students needed much more support to write these reflection paragraphs.

In general, those students who submitted their site for feedback had excellent portfolios by the end of the students; those who didn’t, underestimated the effort required and ended up with incomplete or poor-quality portfolios.

What I liked:

  • The metacognition and understanding of Science Practices demonstrated by many students.
  • Students deciding in which labs they most strongly performed each Science Practice.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Several students struggled to distinguish a lab report from a paragraph providing evidence of performing a Science Practice.
  • Several students didn’t have enough support to complete a project of this magnitude and ended up with incomplete lab portfolios.
  • Providing feedback and scoring all of the lab portfolios over winter break consumed a huge amount of time.

Spring Semester

The spring semester has some different challenges and constraints:

  • We focus more on preparing for the AP exam and less on lab reports.
  • I don’t have the luxury of a two-week break to score lab portfolios at the end of the semester.

Based on these constraints and our experience during the fall semester, I made some changes for the spring semester. I selected seven required labs in the spring semester, one for each Science Practice. Each lab and reflection paragraph was due a few days after performing the lab, not at the end of the semester.

This had some advantages:

  • the portfolio was scored throughout the semester
  • students had more structure, which helped them stay current

and disadvantages:

  • no student choice in selection of labs to include in portfolio
  • no opportunity to revise a lab or reflection paragraph (the feedback could help them in labs later in the semester)

With these changes and students’ experience from the fall semester, the lab portfolios in the spring semester were largely successful. I think it is important to emphasize that both the changes and the students’ experience contributed to this success. I do not believe that the structure for the spring semester would lead to a more successful fall semester. The feedback I received from students at the end of the year was much more favorable concerning the structure in the spring semester than the structure in the fall semester.

Next Fall

I had the wonderful experience of being coached this year by Tony Borash. Tony provided guidance in many areas, one of which was making these adjustments for the spring semester and, more importantly, planning for next year. Together we were able to come up with a structure that will hopefully combine the strengths of the structure in the fall semester with the structure in the spring semester. My goals for these changes are to:

  • provide more structure for students
  • provide student choice
  • incorporate peer feedback

Here’s the plan for next fall:

  1. I choose the first lab. Students complete and submit the lab and the reflection paragraph. I provide feedback. Students make revisions and re-submit the lab and reflection paragraph. We review the best examples as a class.
  2. I choose the second lab. Students complete the lab and the reflection paragraph. Students provide peer feedback to each other. Students make revisions and submit the lab and reflection paragraph.
  3. Students choose the next lab to include in the portfolio. Students complete the lab and the reflection paragraph. Students provide peer feedback to each other. Students make revisions and submit the lab and reflection paragraph.
  4. Students choose some of the remaining labs, and I choose some of the remaining labs. Students complete the labs and reflection paragraphs. Students specify a subset of Science Practices on which they want formal feedback from me and on which they want feedback from their peers. Students make revisions and re-submit.

This past year, students included a link to their lab report in their lab portfolio and shared the lab report (as a Google Doc) with me. Next year, I will have students embed their lab report into the Google site. This will facilitate peer feedback and enable everyone to use comments within the Google site to provide feedback. I may still have students share the actual doc with me, as well as include a link, so I can provide more detailed suggestions directly within the document.

Student Examples

Conclusion

I’m pleased that my students and I are heading down this path and believe my students will gain a much deeper understanding of Science Practices as a result. While I shared this with my colleagues this past year, I also cautioned them that I didn’t have it figured out, and it wasn’t a smooth ride. I think electronic lab portfolios are an excellent way to assess student performance, and I hope that they will be used in other science courses in the future as they are a natural fit to the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices. I hope that after this next year, I will have something that will provide my colleagues with a stronger framework to adapt to their classes.