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Physics Exam Review: Recitation Problems

My Honors Physics exam is a Big Deal. Most of my students do their best work of the semester, and the test itself is the most difficult they’ve seen. It is their final opportunity to demonstrate mastery, depth of understanding, and creative thinking. The final preparation for this test is therefore very important.

For the past three years, I’ve used an activity that we call Recitation Problems to prepare. The first important aspect of this activity is that it is not graded. It is in no way graded. No grade at all is assigned to any part of this activity. I think that part is important because it allows them to be more creative and more engaged with the actual physics and learning instead of worrying about another grade just before the end of the semester.

The end is near

About two weeks before the end of the semester, my students get a big (usually 24 pages), intimidating packet. It has one problem per student*, and the problems are problem+blank-page type of questions (that is, juicy ones that require multiple steps without breaking the question into parts that would structure the work for you). They usually come out of the exam-writing process: I collect a lot of great problems; as I narrow down the ones that I will use on the actual exam, the rest end up in the recitation file. So these problems are great practice for the test because they are on the same level of difficulty (although sometimes they require more involved algebra than I would ask on an exam for time reasons). They tend to cover most of the main skills, but especially the ones that my students have found most difficult.

Why so many physics problems?The first task for my students is to read through the packet. It’s probably the most difficult task because their first reaction is, “I can’t do any of these!!” Still, the assignment is simply to read them.

When they get to class the next day, we pick letters A through however-many-students-there-are. Then I give them my pep talk about how they should choose their problem. Whichever problem they choose, they will get to present the solution the class. They will have to become an expert on that problem. So I encourage them to pick the one that looks scariest to them. Pick the one that you would least like to see show up on the exam. Pick the one that will be hardest for you (it will be different for different students, of course).

Then the kid who picked A out of the pumpkin (my distribution method of choice) gets to go first. In the spring, we reverse the order, so the student who doesn’t get a choice in the winter gets their pick at the end of the year.

The work begins

The packet is printed as a booklet. The question + blank page is on the left. On the right, the page is mostly blank other than a space to write the name of the presenter. Every student works every problem on the left-hand side. The right side is for notes during the presentations.

I try to give them at least three periods in class dedicated to working on the packet. They may work with anyone they want (in our class or others), they may talk to me and to other physics teachers (I suppose they could talk to, say, French teachers, too). They may use any resources they’d like. I encourage them to check the answer to their problem with me before we get to presentations. There is no other homework (not that I’m big on giving it anyway). They are expected to have each problem worked before it is presented in class. Sometimes this takes some encouragement and careful monitoring. Usually they recognize the value of the activity and stay pretty well on top of it.

Game Day

It usually takes us two or three days for presentations. I try to limit them to about 12 minutes, including questions. I send an email to our faculty conference inviting everyone to come and watch them perform, and we always get a few bites. Students get up and talk us through their work and thought process, writing on the whiteboard (I try to get them to set up equations and then just tell us the result of solving them rather than stepping through the algebra to save a bit of time). We ask questions as they go and especially at the end. If something was not quite right, they correct it and work through the rest on the spot (not grading the performance helps keep the anxiety from becoming debilitating in those instances).

Two years ago the kids told me, “We thought this was going to be a stupid way to review for the exam, but it turns out that it’s actually really great.” They seem to feel a LOT more confident about their chances on the exam after going through this process. Because they start off so doubtful that they can do any of the problems yet subsequently complete them all successfully, it really highlights for them how much they’ve learned in the semester or year.

* If I have two sections with different numbers of students, the smaller class prefaces the bidding on problems with voting out the easiest ones until we have the correct number of questions.

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About Kelly O'Shea

I teach high school kids physics at an independent day school in NYC. Less homework, more thinking. Follow @kellyoshea


8 thoughts on “Physics Exam Review: Recitation Problems

  1. Hi Kelly,

    Here are three things I love about this:

    1. It is ungraded, which allows you to (among other things) have . . .
    2. . . . the students choose the scariest-looking problems. I love it, and I am guessing that students love it, too (AFTER they have successfully presented).
    3. It involves student presentations.

    Do you have any tips on how to generate 30+ great problems for an exam?

    Posted by bretbenesh | July 11, 2011, 2:49 PM
    • The problems just seem to accrue as time passes. I get a lot of them out of books (and usually modify them) or from internet resources like the MIT open courseware (found a great exam problem off of one of their tests this past year, and my kids ate it for breakfast). Sometimes I make them up, but those are much less frequent. Mostly steal and modify.

      Posted by Kelly O'Shea | July 13, 2011, 8:00 AM
  2. I used this several years ago with my honors class, but for some reason dropped it, maybe because of time constraints. It did work very well. Thank you for the reminder. I think I’ll try to do this again this year.

    Posted by Chija Skala Bauer | July 15, 2011, 12:33 PM
    • Some have suggested having the kids make < 10 (or whatever number you choose) minute videos and watching them together in class rather than presenting live. I've only needed to do that for one kid (he neglected to tell me he was going to be away for orchestra on his day to present (which also happened to be the last possible day to present) in time, so I made him make a video for us and give it to me before he left). I can't see myself going the video route, but I could see how it might be helpful in much larger classes.

      Posted by Kelly O'Shea | July 17, 2011, 11:19 AM
  3. You are a very clever person!

    Posted by upload to my mp3 | July 25, 2011, 3:39 PM
  4. After listening to you describe this last summer, I’m finally getting to try this with my AP students this year using old AP free response problems. I think it is a great way for them to focus on the topics that still give them trouble. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Brian | April 7, 2012, 4:17 PM


  1. Pingback: Exam Review That Doesn’t Suck | Megan Hayes-Golding - May 19, 2013

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