April 21, 2014

Frustration and failure - things to capitalize on to facilitate learning

There's a great answer to the question on Quora: "Why do we get frustrated when learning something?"

Read Quote of Marcus Geduld's answer to Why do we get frustrated when learning something? on Quora

There's much more to the answer on Quora. Hopefully you can see all of it if you click through.

April 17, 2014

Dynamically updated figures - real data! Looking for more.

There are a number of graphs that I like to use in astronomy class which are based on historical data.  Over the years, the graphs have become a bit dated and I needed to find new copies of them.  I then discovered that some of these are kept up-to-date online at all times.  Very cool!  Here's one that I discovered, but I'm really looking for more examples of these.


I really thought that I had more examples of these - images that are dynamically updated, but that the url for the image stays the same. Now I can't seem to find any more.  Anyone know of any others?

April 14, 2014

Thoughts on mindset vs. grit

A recent story on NPR caught my attention. The story is about schools teaching "grit" and whether or not it can be done. My introduction to the concept of grit came from a really great episode of This American Life from 2012. Even though grit is only mentioned by name twice in the episode, there was quite a bit of discussion on non-cognitive traits and their importance to learning. My interest in the episode is summed up best by this line:

"Non-cognitive traits like grit and self-control are even more important in college than in high school."

How best to encourage the best non-cognitive traits leading to success in college?  In the NPR piece, Alfie Kohn makes a great point: persistent people persist.

I'm a big believer in the Dweck model of mindsets: fixed vs. growth mindsets. I work to cultivate growth mindsets in my students. It's not easy. It would be great to add grit to my student's toolbox of tools to use for success in college. I watched Duckworth's TED talk hoping she would have some research to present that would be useful for me to use with my students. Here's her TED talk:

If you watched the talk, you may have noticed that the only research cited was Dweck's work on mindset! The talk is over a year old, so maybe there is new work on grit that I'm not aware of.

I spent a lot of time thinking about these questions over the last few weeks. How can mindset be such a solid concept and grit sound great but have easy criticisms?

Leave it to Dr. Tae to answer my questions in less than 140 characters:
Simple, right? There's nothing WRONG with encouraging grit. It's just not as effective as building the growth mindset. Thanks, Tae!

April 10, 2014

Standing on the shoulders of SBG greatness

I've done a lot of reading on the implementation of standards-based grading (SBG) in physics classes. I often tell people I meet that most of the SBG classrooms I know of are in the high schools. I can point to Frank Noschese, Kelly O'Shea, Geoff Schmit, and Shawn Cornally as SBG experts who have successfully used SBG in their classes and share resources online.

Looking online for resources for doing this at the college level has often seemed to turn up fewer resources, at least in my opinion. But, I do want to acknowledge the great SBG users at the college level who have helped me along my way towards using SBG. These include, though are not limited to:

Ian Beatty
Joss Ives
Todd Zimmerman
Andy Rundquist 
Rhett Allain

I'm linking above to resources that they have all posted which have helped me start to focus my plans and methods for how I'm implementing SBG in my classes.

Others who I've had great conversations related to SBG include Heather Whitney from Wheaton College, Chris Goedde from DePaul University, and Matt Harding who is a teacher I went to college with.  Thanks to all for helping me figure things out.  I couldn't have gotten this far without you.

April 07, 2014

Drafting standards for algebra-based intro physics at a two-year college

Last weekend I was at the Illinois Section AAPT meeting, where I gave a presentation of my foray into Standards-Based Grading. My main points in the presentation were that I have observed:

a.) Most of the people who try SBG the first time write too many standards initially
b.) It's really hard to find a list of standards used in college physics classes online

I've been drafting a set of standards that I would feel comfortable using for a first semester physics class. To address the first point from above, I've whittled it down to 18 standards, although several have multiple parts to them. 

I believe that I can assess these standards in chunks of less than 18 assessments. I am aiming for 13-14 nominal assessments with the opportunity for re-assessments on any of them. 

I am also working on as-of-yet-unwritten lab standard or standards, which I will likely need help with.

To address the second point from my talk, I'm putting the draft up here for review from the community. I would love to see a discussion of physics faculty from all levels getting involved on building a set of standards that work well. (Not that I want the standards to be, uh....standardized on any level beyond a classroom....)

Here is my draft standards for first semester intro physics, algebra-based.  We move oscillations and sound to the second semester, in case you're wondering where they appear. Thank you (in advance) for any thoughts you have on them.

Physics 101 Standards (Draft Spring 2014)

1.) I can interpret and construct graphs of objects in 1-D motion

2.) I can apply a logical problem-solving process to model the motion of objects moving in 1-D.

3.) I can resolve vectors into their components.

4.) I can add and subtract vectors graphically as well as by components.

5.) I can recognize situations described by projectile motion and apply an accurate model of the 2-D motion to determine unknown quantities.

6.) I can apply Newton’s laws of motion for objects in equilibrium as well as objects in motion including:
    a.) single objects
    b.) connected objects
    c.) objects in contact with a spring
    d.) objects in circular motion

7.) I can recognize situations where the Work-Kinetic Energy theorem applies, and be able to solve problems using the theorem.

8.) I can recognize situations where the conservation of energy principle is appropriate and be able to apply the principles to those situations including:
    a.) objects under the influence of a gravitational field
    b.) objects in contact with a stretched or compressed spring

9.) I can identify situations where impulse is used and correctly apply the momentum-impulse theorem.

10.) I can identify situations where conservation of linear momentum is appropriate and correctly apply the conservation principle to those situations including:
    a.) elastic collisions
    b.) inelastic collisions

11.) I can evaluate (graphically and analytically) the quantities of rotating objects in terms of the linear kinematic equivalents including:
    a.) angle
    b.) angular velocity
    c.) angular acceleration
    d.) moment of inertia

12.) I can apply the conservation of energy principle to rotating objects.

13.) I can apply Newton's second law for rotational motion for
    a.) objects rotating
    b.) objects in static equilibrium

14.) I can identify situations where materials are subject to thermal expansion and be able to calculate the change in their length, area or volume.

15.) I can determine the equilibrium temperature when materials of different initial temperatures are brought into thermal contact with each other.

16.) I can differentiate between conduction, convection and radiation mechanisms.

17.) I can apply the ideal gas law and the results of the kinetic theory of gases to calculate properties of gases.

18.) I can determine the energy transferred by heating required to change the temperature of material and cause materials to change phases.

March 19, 2014

Moving towards standards-based grading

I've been taking baby steps towards standards-based grading (SBG) for over two years, but this semester is the first time that I've really implemented the core ideas of SBG in any of my classes.

Last Fall I had (with my colleague) the opportunity to rewrite learning outcomes for our introductory astronomy course, ASTR101.  This is a general education survey of astronomy course without a laboratory. It is 3 credit hours and covers the solar system, stars, and galaxies.

Our campus assessment specialist pushed us to look at the revised Bloom's taxonomy word list to come up with descriptors for what we wanted our outcomes to be.  I really don't like how our campus uses the Bloom's taxonomy, but my opinions are a topic for another time.

After the outcomes were written and approved, I realized that I could implement them almost unchanged as standards for a real step towards SBG.

Here's what I did:

I went from 3 exams plus a final to no midterm exams, but nearly weekly quizzes. Each quiz is "scored" on a 0-5 point scale which measures the mastery of the standard being assessed. Students have optional homework assignments on MasteringAstronomy (which, by the way, is NOT optimized for SBG) but they are required to do the homework if they want to re-assess by retaking the quiz. If they want to retake the quiz for a third time, they have to visit my office for a discussion about the standard before they are allowed a third shot.  After the third try, the standard is closed.

Grades are weighted - 40% is based on a semester-long astrojournal, 35% is the SBG-style quizzes, 10% is a Just-in-Time-Teaching style reflection/reading review that students submit online, and 15% is a cumulative final.

So far, I've had a fairly positive experience with this in astronomy.  I should write down my workflow for getting all the assessments prepared and scored.  I have had some students come in for reassessments.  I am expecting to see more as the semester progresses.

What I could really use is a bit of feedback on how the standards are written.  I can't change the learning outcomes, but I can tweak the standards if appropriate.

There are some standards broken into multiple parts so I could have the option if necessary to break out into multiple assessments.  The goal was to have no more than 15-16 assessments. Here's the standards as I wrote them out:

1) Explain how astronomical objects move in the sky.

2a) Explain the cause of the seasons

2b) Explain the cause of moon phases.

2c) Explain the cause of eclipses.

3) Describe how the heliocentric model of the solar system was developed and why it was adopted over the geocentric model of the universe.

4a&b) Apply Kepler's Laws of orbital motion and Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation to objects in the universe.

5) Describe the functions of a telescope and types of telescopes and explain why some telescopes are placed on the ground and some in space.

6) Explain how astronomers use light to determine:
           a.) the luminosity of stars,
b.) temperature of stars,
c.) and size of stars,
d.) chemical composition of astronomical objects,
e.) the speed and direction of an astronomical object's motion,

7) Describe the nature of our solar system and how it was formed.

8) Explain how astronomers use the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram to study properties of stars.

9) Describe how stars are formed, evolve and die.

10) Describe the structure and size of the Milky Way galaxy.

11) Compare the Milky Way galaxy to other galaxies.

12) Explain how astronomers know that the universe is expanding and how they determine the age of the universe.

March 18, 2014

Distances to brightest naked eye stars

I saw this recent xkcd comic, and had to figure out how many of the naked eye stars are more than 1000 light-years away.

It took me awhile to find a star catalog that was easy to search which also had both the apparent magnitudes and the distances to the stars, but I was able to locate a database of over 87,000 stars in CSV format.

First I found all the stars with magnitude 6.0 or brighter. That narrowed the list down to just over 5,000 stars. Putting the distances into plot.ly, I created this histogram:

Each bar represents a bin of width 100 parsecs. My interest in stars 1000 light-years means I have to look at the stars more than 300 parsecs away. I added up the stars in the first three bins, which represented about 87% of all the visible stars.  So my estimate of the naked eye stars which are 1000 light-years away or more is about 13%.

So, assuming on a clear night (no moon, ideal viewing conditions) I could see somewhere between 2000-3000 stars total, only about 250-400 stars would be more than 1000 light years away.

Of course, looking through a telescope changes that figure completely.