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May Course Evaluations: Homework

Now that the year is over, it is time to do the post-game analysis and start making plans for changes for next year. I am thinking about making a few posts that contain some selections from my spring course evaluations and my thinking about the relevant topics. I’m not sure whether these posts are of any serious interest to anyone but me, but I think they are at minimum useful for my own processing of the feedback.

Anyway. First up: homework. I’ve written before about my “No Homework” experiment (still ongoing), and I posted some of the January feedback from these students. See those posts for more detailed info about my vision for the homework in these classes (Physics and Honors Physics). On the May course evaluations, I asked three questions that related to homework.

For each question, instead of including all ~40 responses, I’ll just put a selection of answers that seem to cover the spread of student opinion on each topic, then put my thoughts at the end. Answers were submitted as plain text, so in every case, any emphasis is my own.

Question 1: Describe the homework policy

Please give a concise description of how you have been asked to use your (physics) time outside of physics class this year (aka the homework policy). The purpose of this question is to better understand how students have understood what the physics teachers have asked of them this year and to improve our communication next year.

HONORS PHYSICS (70/30 sophomores and juniors)

I have been asked to solve extra questions that we haven’t gotten over in class.

However we need to use it. Whether it be meeting with a teacher, other student or doing problems on your own.

We never have assigned homework, but we are expected to use time outside of class to study or catch up if we missed some work.

I love the homework policy. We are asked to use our time to master objectives we need to master: finishing up packets, doing extra practice from the website, retrying quiz questions, etc. Whatever WE need, which eliminates busywork and makes our time the most productive.

Honestly, I really have not had physics time. The only times that we had “homework” was when we had take home quizzes. I want to stress that this is a good thing that we did not have “homework”. Although the idea being that we would practice during studying times, that rarely to never happened.

No homework. Just practice. Hands responsibility to students to use time wisely.

To practice representing situations that specifically exercise things that you are confused about until you are so confused that you can pinpoint exactly what you aren’t sure of and then if you can’t solve the problem you know what you need to ask about

We are asked to prepare for outside exams and reviews, but other than that, I feel as if the homework policy is based on self-motivation, or how much drive you have to understand something. If you’re the type of person who wont stop doing a problem if you’re struggling with it until it’s solved, this works nicely because you have time to work on whatever you’re not getting instead of exercises about things you don’t need practice for.

You are able to determine how you do in the class. It’s your own choice.

The homework time could have used a bit more… work? Maybe given partners to that people could work in groups out of class with problems.

PHYSICS! (almost all juniors)

Finish any work you didnt do in class or to just practice for a quiz.

We are not required to do any homework, but it is recommended that we spend time outside of class on what we are struggling with, (being extra quizzes and packet problems), in order to get more practice with it. The best way to understand concepts in physics is to practice.

We were expected to spend at least a few minutes every night reviewing what we had learned in class that day.

The answer you would like to hear is that we have been asked to practice outside of class consistently. This is verily false. I believe that no homework is a good policy, if combined with encouraged practice outside of class. But, to be frank, I would not practice outside of class even if I were asked to. I just don’t like physics that much–it doesn’t interest me and I’m not good at it and so the incentive of success is very low on my list of priorities, especially as an immature seventeen year old.

The only time my class has been asked to do homework was when we didn’t finish the problems in a packet.

We do not have to turn in any homework, nor does our teacher check if we have done any work. We are are not assigned any problems, but doing so would be beneficial to our understanding of physics.

The homework policy has enabled me to spend my time reviewing concepts I specifically need to work on. Instead of burying my head in a textbook and trying to memorize equations, I am able to re-work problems that I hadn’t fully completed during quizzes.

Quite frankly I don’t understand this part of class. I just use the time as more time for other classes and when I need to have something in physics done to do that.

Most homework I did for physics was self-assigned. There were a few assignments that my teacher asked me to do. IT WAS AWESOME.

I’m not really sure, to my knowledge a majority of the class does not do work outside of class besides preparing for assessments.

well while we do not have hw for a grade out side class work greatly improves both our understanding and our confidence in our work. however the presure is slightly reduced which especially here is a GREAT thing.

My thoughts on their responses

There was a great variety in how well students understood what they were supposed to do when they spent time on physics outside of class. A  few people thought that they weren’t supposed to do anything at all (these must be the same students who never read our email conference for the class because I posted several times during the year with reminders about how to practice and what they should be doing outside of class). Some knew that they were supposed to practice, but took the opportunity not to do so. A lot of students really got the idea of what to do (practice the things you know you need to practice, meet with your teacher, prepare for assessments). The category of students that I want to go after next are the ones who said that they knew they were supposed to practice, but didn’t know how to do it. I’m especially looking at the students who noted that it would have been more helpful if I just assigned them homework each day (?!). I might never be able to get 100% of those beaten-into-submission-by-the-system kids on board, but I can try to get a few more to feel confident and invested enough to take more control of their own learning.

I’m going to work on a new page for the binder (one of the in-the-binder-at-the-start-of-the-year pages) that has a more outlined display of (a) what the expectations are for out-of-class work and (b) tips for how to practice physics productively (preview hint: don’t just change the numbers on old problems…). Post coming soon.

I also need to make sure that I talk more frequently during class about how they are choosing their out-of-class time. A few short, widely-spaced talks should help catch more kids as they start to understand what is happening with this class.

Okay, so that’s all well and good, but are they actually doing the things that they think they are supposed to do? Next question.

Question 2: How much time did you spend on physics?

About how much time did you spend on physics (outside of class) each day? What did you do with that time? Did you change your out-of-class practices from the first to second semester?

HONORS PHYSICS

almost no time, except when i needed to get an objective done i would scan franticly before my assesment

At the end of the year I did not spend that much time a day on physics just because of the amount of essays I had, but normally I would practice before every test both weekend and weekday. On the research packet I worked for at least an two hours with different people on it.

i didnt spend alot of time and it didnt change because there was no assigned homework, i did the quizzes and the exam prep but otherwise it was too ambiguous and im too lazy to do it.

Usually, I only spend about twenty minutes outside of class if I had trouble understanding what we did in class, or if I am studying for a quiz.  Other than that, I do not spend time out of class for physics.  In the first semester I did not study for quizzes, but now I do.

Not much time as the majority of the class took place in the classroom and in the outside of class quizzes.

I did not spend time outside of Physics on class.

My practices did not change and I would do around 30 min of practice problems and think about real life situations and how what I had learned in class would apply.

At the beginning of the year i only spent 20 minutes or so a couple nights a week, but towards the end of the year i spent more time on a more consistent basis.

Most days I did not practice outside of class except when I didn’t understand something in class and then I would puzzle over problems in the packet that I hadn’t gotten answered.

I’d spend about an hour every other night, usually finishing problems that we had worked on in class, and sometimes finding someone else from class to help me understand something I was having trouble with.

PHYSICS!

I did not spend time on physics each day, but I went over the quizzes after they were returned, and worked outside of class on the packet problems to try to understand them better. It was about the same both semesters, I tried to work with Ms. O’Shea a little more at the end of the second semester, however.

Almost none. I usually spend it not doing physics or playing games or occasionally doing other homework.

Most of my time was spent reviewing before in class assessments, so I’d study from friday to sunday.

Very little. This is because I have no time to do very much outside work and stay awake for classes. I tried to work on some problems I previously had trouble with.

I did not work on physics every day.  However, the days that I did, I typically spent approximately 40 minutes.  I practiced problems and went to physics teaching websites to try to learn the material.  The only change between my practices in the first and second semester was that I spent more time on physics websites.

In the first semester, I didn’t spend very much time on physics outside of class besides to meet with Ms. O’Shea, but in the second semester I spent more time outside class to meet with Ms. O’Shea and to practice by myself.

Approximately… Well, assume one retest every two weeks, with an average duration of 45 minutes. 45/14 = 3.214 minutes per day. I did not change my extra-curricular physics practices from the first to second semester.

I spent about 30 to 40 minutes on physics outside of class, but this is usually only before I knew I had a test. I would review past tests and look over the problems from the packets that we had done in class. I didn’t change my practices between semesters, although I probably should have printed more problems from the physics website.

I spend around 20-30 minutes reviewing physics concepts each night. I would spend more time after we got back a quiz so I could re-look at the concepts I got wrong. In the beginning of the first semester I would just look at the packets of information we filled out during class and look over quizzes. However, as the semester continued and into the second semester, I found out that actually doing the problems over on a separate piece of paper and then check my work would help. Also, practicing goal-less problems would really help.

None, I did not really study outside of class, and did not really pay attention in class. I did not change my study habits from the first semester to the second semester, becuase there was nothing to change since I did do anything during either semester.

I really only studied outside of class if i had an extra quiz coming up. I would correct old quiz or re-do old practice problems.

maybe 15 minutes but it was a thoughtful 15 minutes there was usually 1 or 2 problems I felt I really had to finish.

My thoughts on their responses

The variety in responses that I get from the regular Phys! students is not surprising (having taught them for a year, and having taught that class for 5 years), but still really striking when you see it all lined up. The commitment in that class varies wildly. Some are genuinely interested in physics (with 3 of mine this year moving up to Advanced Studies in Physics this fall, a big jump from the regular class). A large number feel forced into taking the class (by college counseling, or parents, or just general expectations of what juniors take). Of those “forced” students, some decide to embrace it even if it will be the last science class they take (either because they feel a duty as a student, pressure for grades for college, etc). A small, but notable number (dwindling each year, but possibly always remaining due to the forced nature of the class) basically close their eyes, hold their breath, and try to get through it with the smallest amount of intentional work as possible (see the comment above about not studying outside of class and not paying attention in class—at least they are honest!). That category of student is the one I most need to address next year (and have been trying to address, obviously). It’s tough to know what to do for them. I think SBG and the no homework policy have been hugely helpful for those kids already. Instead of leaving them in the dust (or making them feel like they can’t participate each day because, for various reasons, they just can’t or won’t do the homework), the class is always available to them. More are choosing to take it, especially because they can decide partway through the year to start really engaging without feeling like they are in a hole from which they can’t escape. A small number won’t grab the rope no matter what I’ve tried so far.

Several in Honors Physics say that they increased their practice time in the second semester compared to the first semester. Several in the regular class noted that as well. I was especially excited to see the comments about how they found better ways to practice as the year went on. Small success! Now I just need to get more of them on board with how and when to practice.

Several students say they spend no time outside of class. For some of them, that’s a completely appropriate thing to do. If they are doing well in the class (and many of those “none”s did very, very well), I would much rather have them sleep, do work for a class that is more challenging for them, play outside, invest time in their friendships, or whatever else they want to do. A few of the students who say “none” fit the category of not-grabbing-the-rope. If nothing else, I’ve prevented them from having to fail at one more thing (doing the nightly physics homework) this year.

Okay, final question. Now that we know what they think they are supposed to do and what they actually did do, how did they feel about those two things?

Question 3: Impact on each student

Has the homework policy had an impact on your learning and understanding of physics?

HONORS PHYSICS

not really it just strengthened my understanding of the material

Without having assigned homework, I have more time to sleep at night which improves how I learn during the day.

well it made me not really do it outside of classs, considering how awesome we are i guess we did good considering we only used class time to work on stuff

Yes. It definitely makes me like physics more, because I’m not doing busywork. Instead, I’m working on the things I need to work on, which makes my understanding of physics better.

Yes in that I have been able to focus on much more work during my study hall. Yet, not really except with the quizzes as they helped a lot in the grand scheme of things.

Not really. It made me better at time management though!

Yes, it’s helped me learn how to derive and solve things on my own without being strictly told what to practice, which is a nice freedom to have and doesn’t feel as forced or have a we-control-everything-you-learn vibe.

No but I don’t mind not having homework.

Yes, I figured when I worked it was helpful and thus I did better on the tests.  When I did not, I did not do as well.

yea. even if it is not necessary to do hws, i had to do it b/c i did not want to fall behind. .

Made me more confortable with not knowing things at first

PHYSICS!

It’s not forced… You do what you want/need to do. The less extra work you do the less you understand. It all depends on the effort you put in and what you want to take out.

Yes,  I feel more comfortable saying that I’ve been forced to master these concepts.

I like how the big work we do is as a class, because it is nice not worrying about teaching myself something totally wrong.

The homework policy has put the learning and understanding of objectives completely on me, and since most of understanding physics differs from person to person, this was good. I was able to learn at my own pace outside of class.

Yes, no homework for ever. It is a beneficial policy for most students.

I think that we should have specific homework so that we would know exactly what to do in order to practice the objectives. It is hard to manage ourselves in knowing what we need to do. If homework is assigned it would be hard to personalize it to each person’s needs, but the current policy leaves too much room to slack off.

I ultimately learned a good amount but may have learned more had I actually had homework

I wish that I had more of an outline for outside problems, because merely having the problems does not mean I will be able to do them. While I know that not working on problems outside of class is only detrimental to me, homework that is due the next day takes priority.

Yes, the homework policy has impacted my learning and understanding of physics as I have had time to study the specific concepts that I had trouble  understanding.

Sure. I’ve never felt like I’ve been hit in the head with a physics hammer like I feel sometimes with Latin or History when I have to do an hour at night and then an hour twenty the next day. It’s a lot.

Yes, it was less monotony, more actual learning and understanding.

No because I didnt really follow the homework policy.

My thoughts on their responses

A lot of “not really” answers (obviously I didn’t include them all, but maybe a third to half of the Honors students said “not really” without much else). In general, the Honors Physics kids didn’t give very strong responses either way. They didn’t seem to see homework as a very influential part of the class. I think that’s awesome. There’s no way to argue that Honors Physics was an easy class, that it wasn’t serious, or that we didn’t learn much this year. So I feel like removing the homework from Honors has been a huge success—a really challenging, deep class can exist without homework being a driving factor (or really much of a factor at all).

The regular Phys! responses were a lot more varied and a lot stronger on both sides of the issue. The students who seemed to really get what was going on with the homework thought it was great. They could sleep more, they felt happier, and they appreciated the freedom to be in charge of their learning. On the other side, a few really wanted to just be told what to do without having to be involved in it themselves. I also got one of the I’ll-only-do-work-if-it-is-required (because-I-have-so-darn-much-homework-in-other-classes-that-IS-required) responses. Clearly, they wouldn’t have had more time if I had required homework each night, so at least for that student, I know that they were coming to class having slept more than they would have otherwise. And coming to class with more sleep the night before has to trump any possible homework assignment in terms of value for learning physics (since the real work of learning physics is almost entirely done during class time).

Overall, I feel really good about the responses to the homework questions. I also feel like I have a clear direction that I need to move in order to bring more students along with the homework goals next year.

Next up (for course evaluation posts) will probably be student feedback on the grading system (preview: they loved it) or a collection of “What’s the most important thing you learned this year?” responses (one of my favorite questions to read on the evals each year).

In closing, though, I’ll end with one of the responses to this question: “Contribute a physics joke or haiku?”

what did the Fg force ask the ft force acting on an object? how is it haging?

admitably this joke is so bad you really should only use it in a discussion on how far humanity has fell in our understanding of humor.

Yep. I’m going to miss these kids.

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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

Discussion

7 thoughts on “May Course Evaluations: Homework

  1. Kelly,
    I really love this reflection, and it has me thinking about how effective the “no-structured homework” policy might be in a math class, especially one run in an exeter style problem solving fashion. Since those classes can often be discussions and explorations of the previous nights homework, and can go into considerable depth, how might you teach such a class in a no-homework fashion? Would you spend most days starting problems from scratch, and then having students choose to follow up on problems in class on their own as self-directed homework?

    Posted by John Burk | June 12, 2012, 10:27 AM
    • I think it really depends on how much content you are being asked to hit over the course of the year. Homework might be unavoidable if you are asked to do an incredibly large amount of content.

      With respect to the “Exeter” style class, that’s not what we’re doing here. I think we’re using their problems, but (from my understanding built by talking to the students during studyhall over the past two years) the discussion in class happens before the homework. The homework (or a large part of it) is to do the problems that have already been “gone over” in class. If that’s not the case, that’s at least the way the students think about it and talk about it. I wish I’d had time to visit the class instead of just catching glimpses from the hallway or copy room, but my schedule didn’t have any flexibility this past year.

      I also don’t really understand the purpose of the problem solving class (nor has anyone teaching it been able to tell me the goals of the class when I’ve asked on multiple occasions). They “learn” the dot product, but have no idea what it really is or what a non-zero result for the dot product would mean. They do a lot with parametric equations. Almost every problem that I’ve seen (and maybe they only need help on these topics, I don’t know) is about parametric equations or the pythagorean theorem.

      I imagine that a math class that I taught wouldn’t be incredibly different from a physics class on a day-to-day basis. There would probably be a continuum of work that would cycle through phases of working on problems individually/in-small-groups and phases of whiteboarding and discussing those problems with each other. Most days would be a chunk of that continuum.

      Hopefully there would be discrete big ideas that were woven into a coherent storyline about the thing that the class was supposed to be about (so problem solving, or algebra, or whatever). The biggest ideas should be clear and stand out in the students’ minds, and the smaller ideas should nestle into them. The work in each segment of the cycle for each unit should practice the new skills using some of the context from previous skills. It should ask the students to discriminate about when each skill was most useful and to build mental models about how to deploy their tools.

      The work of the class should not be focused on problems that have an especially elegant solution that one might use a “trick” to work out. Instead, it should be about developing skills that work, period. Any approach that will work should be encouraged, and over the course of the year, approaches that are more elegant, quicker, simpler, etc should rise out. As students become more skilled, they will see how to create those kinds of “trick” solutions without thinking of them as tricks.

      Problems should be messy and not work out to “perfect answers”. Numbers should be adjectives, not nouns, so that problems have a meaning. Even when playing with theoretical, fun, ideas that aren’t necessarily physical applications, the numbers should still be adjectives that are describing some noun(s).

      The goals of the class should be clear to students, and they should know how they are doing as they progress toward meeting them throughout the year. Tests should be ways to determine where students need more work and help in meeting those goals. Since the goals are unlikely to be “memorize such and such algorithm” or “memorize such and such problem”, tests that use problems identical (or even just very similar) to ones worked in class (even if the numbers are changed) are poor ways to determine that information. Since being tested on problems that are new to them would be so contrary to what students expect in a math class, it would take some time for them to understand how to prepare and practice for them. A lot of support would be necessary in helping them do that. Probably extra practice problems (different from the ones in class and also different from the tests) would be useful for students to engage in that kind of work on their own time and then to check in with their classmates and teacher about.

      And that last part is the only way I can see homework being really useful in a high school math class (especially for freshmen or sophomores).

      Does that help?

      I only wish I were getting the chance to try some of that out and see whether I’m full of hot air on this stuff or not.

      Posted by Kelly O'Shea | June 12, 2012, 10:53 AM
  2. Over the past year I’ve had a relatively large amount of kids who state that ‘they’re not in class because they like it’ but need to take it as a prerequisite to e.g. get into med school (it’s thrown up as some artificial hurdle, because everybody wants to be a doctor). A lot of them where ‘tricked’ into taking physics and are now stuck with it, but don’t find it enjoyable. They’re very honest about it and it’s not necessarily a problem. But it does often strike me with the feeling that the class is being held back. We don’t have an honors system or anything to delve deeper.

    On occasion, I’ve had kids question me during class time ‘Do we need to know this? Then why do we do it? I don’t care if you think it’s fun, beautiful, useful, just give me the answer’. They have a point I guess.

    Any ideas for targeting this group of students? Or is it better to just ‘let them be’? As a teacher, I find it difficult to cope with.

    Posted by Rutger | June 12, 2012, 6:20 PM
    • That’s really tough. I’m definitely trying to negotiate the same path with my regular physics students. I don’t think I’ve found the answer yet, but it’s something I’m spending a lot of time thinking about this summer.

      I suspect that doing some metacognition/mindset work will help (my regular students are reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle this summer, just like the honor students). I think the Modeling Instruction approach helps, too, because they are really learning to do physics, not learning about physics. So the “When will I use this?” answer is right now and for the rest of this year. This is real life! It’s really happening! :)

      I’ve thought a lot about posting the answers for every problem in the current packet somewhere in the room. Not large enough to see from their seats, but maybe a piece of paper on a wall somewhere that they can get up and go check. Some of the regular students seem to feel really uncomfortable when they don’t know whether or not they have “the right answer” for a problem, so that might help those kids. But also, it would help take the emphasis off of solving problems. If the answers are already available in the room, then the whole point is how you get there.

      Have you done course evaluations before? I think it might also be helpful to do really short collections of feedback throughout the semester to show them that you care about how they are feeling and what they think and to make slight adjustments along the way. I definitely want to do more of that next year. Probably putting one or two short questions at the end of a quiz (which we take weekly), plus maybe a couple of short anonymous forms throughout the semester before the big one at the end.

      Posted by Kelly O'Shea | June 17, 2012, 11:24 AM
      • I have to switch schools after the summer, I’m a bit afraid of ‘loosing’ another year just getting used to the new environment and getting people on board for less…traditional ways of teaching. This year I tried some new things and it took a long time to get the students on board (and never fully succeeded). Definitely want to try my hand at modeling instruction and SBG, although that last one in particular might be a bridge too far for now. I’ll probably use it alongside a traditional grading system, as a way of feedback. I’m also thinking of letting the class decide which topics should be covered (or at least in which order). Right at the start of a new subject, I’m going to have them write what they already know about the subject and what they hope to learn. I’ll write a 2DO list for the summer soon, seems a good idea.

        Posted by Rutger | June 18, 2012, 3:11 PM
        • Have you taken a Modeling workshop?

          Posted by Kelly O'Shea | June 19, 2012, 10:25 AM
          • Nope, I’m not situated in (or from) the USA, teaching/living in the Netherlands. I stumbled upon your blog about a month or two ago and have been very interested in your didactic methods since. I’ve also found your colleagues’ blogs, as well as the modeling website (which I don’t find very useful). So I’m trying to learn by example, observing parts of a chess game without knowing the rules exactly, but getting there and trying to fuse some of the ideas with my own. If you’d like to swap some ideas (I’d love to) and help me out with some details, feel free to drop me a line through email. Hope you will.

            Posted by Rutger | June 19, 2012, 1:52 PM

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