And so it begins…

August 26, 2010

First lecture last Tuesday night. I explained the philosophy behind the course, how we would be implementing that, and the manner in which it would be graded. So far, no one has revolted (which is a step up from last semester). While it is physics, and very few of my students are super excited to be there, they seemed relatively engaged throughout. Which is saying alot for a 3 hour lecture that ends at 9pm…

So what is it I’m doing? First off, a bit about my class. I teach Physics Concepts at a community college. Most of the students who come through my class are not going to be physicicts or engineers (though there are a small percentage in that group). There are a few PSEO (high school) students, but the bulk of enrollees are attempting to get into the Radiation Technology program, or perhaps Prosthetics and Orthotics. There is also the occasional pre-Education major. The course is used by the other degree programs primarily as a “weed out” course — they *need* at least a B in the class to get into Rad Tech, but competition is high so an A is much better. Students will use very little of the content they learn in my course in their later studies. So what is the point of my class? What do I want my students to take away? I’ve decided (and my department agrees with me) that our main goal should be to strengthen Critical Thinking skills, in the context of Physics.

Back in April I was invited (along with the rest of the Science department) to a workhop at Winona State University on Inquiry Methods in the classroom. About a week before, I’d been directed to Shawn Cornally’s blog Think Thank Thunk … if you’ve happened to read it, you know that Mr. Cornally is highly supportive of Inquiry methods *and* SBG. At the WSU conference they told us the story of why they’d begun implementing Inquiry labs…it turns out that many of their students, even those who planned on a STEM major, were lacking in Critical Thinking skills (as measured by the Lawson CTSR). What they’ve found at Winona State is that if low-scoring students are first placed in a “Prep-Chem” or “Prep-Physics” class which focuses on building Critical Thinking skills, these students overwhelmingly go on to be successful in their general physics/chem courses (the calculus-based ones).

Now, I imagine that “Inquiry” is one of those terms that has multiple uses and meanings. The Think Thank Thunk method is genius, however I can’t yet see how I could make it work with my class schedule…and lack of power tools. The definition given at the Winona workshop (and the one I’m following) can be boiled down to this: Data first, Theory later. Traditionally, students do experiments that (hopefully) confirm the equation that was learned the other day in lecture. This semester, we will do experiments to collect data, and somewhat collectively interpret that data to hopefully arrive at the appropriate theory. Or near it, at least. If we can identify relationships between variables, I will be relatively happy. More details on all this later….

Standards…in formulating my standards I went with Jason Buell’s method, from over at Always Formative.

…more on the Standards later. For now, it is 10am, and I need to feed my children some breakfast. And then go to work…I’ve got lab tonight, after all.

If any experienced bloggers should happen to read this, please know I am new to blogging. I’m still working on some of the etiquette, especially regarding links, trackbacks, and pingbacks and all. If there’s something I should be doing, please let me know!

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2 Responses to “And so it begins…”


  1. I’m really excited that community-college professors are thinking about SBG. After students get used to the idea that learning actually matters (a trepidatious period to be sure), there will be this amazing sigh of relief, that you won’t even realize has been being held in for years. Good luck, and let me know how the SBG goes!

    As far as inquiry goes, it’s a bit ironic. By letting loose of the reins, you almost have to be clearer about what you’re learning. I.e.: So many things can demonstrate F=ma, but if that connection isn’t explicitly made with a TA or teacher, then you may have just spent an hour pushing a block on a pulley for nothing.

    The guided then open model has served me well: Model an easy 30 minute experiment for some specific content, then ask what questions that created. Let them roll with those questions, and present to the class what they’ve found.

    Again, good luck, and keep letting us all know what’s happening!

    =shawn

    • jenwhalen Says:

      Thanks, Shawn, for the comments and support! I really do love your inquiry-cycle with the grant writing, but it may be something I’d have to try and phase in over a couple years. My department has already given me a lot of leeway (they like to keep the Physics Concepts classes as similar as possible), and grant writing may be too much all at once 🙂

      As for SBG, I think it makes just as much sense at the college-level as it does for high school/middle school. Turns out, most classes (physics-like classes, anyway) are still just a points game. Points for homework, points for attendance, points for filling out your scantron the correct way… it offends me that it seems the only to get students to act like *students* is to reward or punish their every behavior.

      Time to break the points habit!!!!


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