Frequently Asked Questions

Group Work

  • Do you let students choose their own groups?
    Absolutely not! When the teacher chooses the groups it sends two messages: in physics, group work is not a haphazard endeavour; and our time working in groups in class is business time, not social time. When your groups function well there will be a lot of chatting and fun, but they are a structured feature of physics instruction. When students select their friends to work with, you begin at a very different starting point. Later in the year, once I have started to forget who has worked with whom (after changing the groups a couple of times), I ask students to write down the names of two people with whom they have not yet worked and who will help them learn physics. I use those "requests" as the starting point for group formation. I focus on finding people who are good personality matches, who will tutor one another well and avoiding putting overly chatty people together.

  • Do you evalutate how well they work in groups?
    No. I do help them along and provide suggestions to the groups on how to work better, but I never assign a mark. I find training them well in the proper functioning of groups at the beginning goes a long way towards happy, effective groups. I sell them on the rationale for group work: strong and weaks students both benefit. I used to provide a marks incentive for collaboration - a quiz bonus if each group member scores 75% and higher. In the end I found this unnecessary and occasionally inspiring a bit of acrimony. Finally, I have them complete group self-evaluations so they are more conscious of their behaviours within the group and have them articulate goals for improvement. We do this quickly using a powerpoitn and multiple-choice response cards, or a short paper survey at the end of class.

  • Do you post solutions or take-up the daily work?
    No, and this is an important part of the philosophical shift that is reformed teaching. First, I am much less the teacher and more the coach - change your role from the source of information and knowledge to a questioner and clarifier. Second, the goal of the daily work is not the collection right answers - this short circuits the thinking process encourages rote memorization. As part of their homework, my students are required to take notes from the textbook as listed in the syllabus, so in a sense, that gives them the "right answers". The class work represents something different - the construction of their knowledge and understanding and this cannot be "taken up" in a manner of speaking. That said, it is important for them to get feedback throughout the lesson, so I do a few things:

    (1) I continuously go from group to group and basically interview them on what they have figured out so far. I begin with the speaker of the group, but then expand the discussion to draw in everyone. I will often ask complimentary questions to the ones they are working on to test their understanding. Or I will ask them to summarize the main ideas from a passage of work. Anything that gets them to rethink their ideas and push their understanding a bit further.

    (2) We pause for class discussion where I make sure the correct ideas come out (I don't "take up" answers, though). I often will write brief notes that summarze our discussion or highlight key ideas. They then have to use the discussion or summary to verify that their answers are correct.

    (3) I use Peer Instruction and concept questions to see how they are doing. These are fairly quick, math-free multiple choice questions that I put up periodically during a lesson or at the end of class. They serve as checkpoints for the class and especially for me. Students hold up answer cards and I can at a glance see how the whole class is doing. I can then work directly with students I identify as struggling or can start a discussion that may address general difficulties. Powerpoints of my questions can be found on the Resources page.

    (4) I collect the work of one or two groups at random for marking. This allows for some descriptive feedback and may suggest topics for a general class discussion.

    (5) Choose groups to present answers to the class on their whiteboards. This is the closest to old-fashioned taking up.

    Using all these techniques, I can be quite confident that the vast majority of students are on the right track. It may seem haphazard and liable to oversight, but it is a substantial improvement over the "thorough" lecture. The data strongly supports this. My students perform very well on standard conceptual tests and are very confident in their explanations of physics. It may not seem as neat or efficient as a carefully crafted lecture, but simply passing along knowledge about my understanding of physics is of very little use to the typical student.


  • Do you mark their group work each day?
    No. I choose one or two groups at random to hand-in their daily work. This seems to work well enough to ensure that most groups are working consistently at a high level. We also do some self-evaluation using a set of success criteria I have in a PowerPoint. I ask for a quick show of their multiple choice cards indicating what mark they think they achieved that day.

  • Does each group member receive the same mark?
    That depends. I mark the recorder's copy of the daily work in detail (on the 0-5 scale explained in the handbook) and assign a mark. Then, I scan the manager's and speaker's copies. If they are of fairly similar quality, they receive the same mark. If there are some obvious, important differences, I assign a different mark. This discouages free-loading and helps to keep my daily workload managable.

  • What are your tests like?
    My tests are roughly 1/3 conceptual multiple choice questions (no math!) and 2/3 written problems. The problems consist of 2 to 4 questions per test of a fairly nuanced nature: context-rich, multiple representations or fermi. Importantly, they make use of the problem solving format that we use in class and in students' homework. This is a vital piece of reinforcememnt, helping students understnd that I take these techniques seriously and they should too! I have some scans of a few tests in the Powerpoint to a few recent presentations. I hope to put a set of tests online soon. Below is one median grade 12 forces test.

  • Do you mark the all CGPS's (Cooperative Group Problem Solving)?
    Yes. They need the regular feedback on process and good technical writing. I mark them the same way I do the daily group work - out of 5 and focusing on the recorder's copy. The CGPS is such a powerful tool for building interest and excitement in physics class, students really put a lot of effort into their work.

  • Do the group work quizzes come straight from the worksheets?
    Sometimes. It just depends on the topic, but they shouldn't be sneaky, problem solving type questions. Quizzes should be a fairly straight forward representation of what was done in the groups, but without being a direct memory test.

Equipment and Materials

  • Are whiteboards important?
    Absolutely. They are valuable for two reasons: First, they provide a communal workspace for the daily investigations. Students enjoy the large, impermanent space for trying out ideas - they take more risks. Secondly, they allow groups to make quick presentations to one another. Some of my investigations are based on the whiteboard, others aren't and students use them informally. Checkout Whiteboarding in the Classroom and The $2 Interactive Whiteboard.

  • Where can you get whiteboards?
    I get them from Home Depot. (I haven't checked to see if other building supply stores have them, they probably do.) They can be found in the area with wood panelling and are pretty cheap. I get bulk orders of markers and use J-cloths or chalk bruches to wipe them - all cheap! (Notice a theme?) I have two sizes for my class - large 2'x2' and a smaller 1'x1.5' each useful for different purposes.

  • You must have quite a budget for equipment with so many activities?
    Alas, but no. The vast majority of equipment I use is the very cheap, standerd stuff that most classes already have: meter sticks, wooden dynamics carts, springs scales, ... But I do use them alot. A time goes by I purchase a few more pricier items to build up class sets (hover pucks, PASCO dynamics tracks). But my preference is to work with simple, straight-forward equipment or to make good use of one teacher set of computer probes (very, very useful!).