Before my senior year of high school, I spent a summer in a college program at UC Santa Barbara. I took a physics class through their College of Creative Studies (CCS). The most memorable part of physics, aside from the 10 or so friends I made in the class and the professor’s low-key teaching style, was the final exam. We each had to solve a problem at the chalkboard, with some help and prompting from our fellow students and the professor. I can still remember my problem: how long does it take to fall through the Earth? I think I summoned up all my physics knowledge to solve it and was both excited and terrified when I did. The sense of accomplishment and belonging from all of us in the class afterwards was palpable. I look back on that experience a lot as a pole star in my teaching journey. I’d love to give my students something equally rewarding.
Most of my teaching is in the introductory physics sequence at UW Tacoma. My classes are generally smallish, around 20-40 students, considerably more than my 10 CCS physics classmates. Board problems are tough with that many students. In addition, my students have issues that would shift the balance on board problems from excitement toward terror. Some are English language learners. Many have jobs and families and so aren’t able to devote the kind of attention to physics that we could do in a residential college. Some deal with the additional weights of racism and gender stereotypes that make public displays of problem solving additionally difficult. And, of course, underneath all of this is the pandemic: we are all staying at home and adapting to learning remotely. Nonetheless, I wanted to give students a way to feel the same sense of accomplishment that I felt on completion of their main projects in physics.
A few years ago, while adapting my course to use standards-based grading (which I no longer do; more on that in a future post), I came across a solution. For the past two quarters, I have used an approach based on the work of Andy Rundquist, physics professor at Hamline University in Minnesota: instead of a midterm and a final (and in addition to weekly content quizzes), students submit 2- to 5-minute videos in which they show and discuss solutions to physics problems of their choice. Rundquist’s work describes the benefit of including students’ voices in the problem solutions that they do for assessment purposes. Including student voice allows the instructor to evaluate not only whether the student can come up with a reasonable solution to a problem (which they often do), but to hear the student’s thought process associated with that solution. Overall, I have been impressed by the solutions that students – even students who are struggling in other aspects of the course – submit. Even if the students are getting help from other sources, I see their ability to explain their work on video as a demonstration of their knowledge.
The video problems require substantial scaffolding for both technical (e.g. posting videos) and pedagogical (e.g. choosing problems) reasons, but that scaffolding is scalable. As far as technical scaffolding goes, I have learned that students need some constraints on how videos are submitted. This is both to ensure consistency in how I can access the videos, and to maximize support when there are problems. I’ve therefore given students a clear set of requirements for the videos and required that students submit a video introducing themselves to the class as a way to iron out wrinkles in recording and posting. Students are also required to post the first half of their videos as drafts around mid-quarter so that I can give feedback early. In my experience, more of the students’ issues are pedagogical than technical. For pedagogical scaffolding, I use written problem sets as a way to help students understand what a complete solution looks like, and discussion boards to emphasize explaining one’s reasoning. Students also have ample opportunity to get feedback through an (ungraded) online practice platform as well as through (graded) weekly quizzes.
One key difference between my approach and that of my CCS Physics professor is that I require students to choose their own problems within certain limits. This gives students some additional agency in their problem solutions. The students choose problems from their textbook on their own subject to some constraints: the problems need to be suitably complex (involving multiple steps of reasoning, not just application of a single concept or an equation) and need to fulfill one of a set of standards I identify at the beginning of the course (e.g. being able to reason about electric fields and charge using Gauss’s Law; being able to predict the current and voltage through elements in a complex circuit). Students are fairly good at identifying problems that satisfy the first constraint, but sometimes need guidance on the second. I have begun giving students a list of textbook sections that cover material associated with each standard. This not only helps guide students to relevant problems, but it helps students understand how I communicate my expectations in the content standards. Some students modify textbook problems or make up their own, but I require students to run such problems by me before submitting solutions: it is easy to come up with an ill-posed problem.
Grading is the most time-consuming part of video problems. For that reason, I limit video length to 5 minutes, I cap the number of videos at 10 per student, I have students submit the videos in two sets (5 at midterm time and the rest at finals time), and I watch the videos at 1.5x speed as I grade them. I use a holistic rubric to grade solutions, which also speeds the process. I grade video solutions on a scale of 1-4; I think of 1 being equivalent to a “revise and resubmit” editorial decision from a journal, and 4 demonstrating both a correct solution and fluency with relevant concepts (as evidenced by the student’s explanation). Because a growth mindset is important in my course, I do allow revisions up to a certain date.
I have been trying to notice any issues with equity that this assignment brings up. There are a few that I plan to work on. First, some students have issues with the personal nature of the videos. One student, an English language learner, let me know that they were uncomfortable recording their voice. We came up with an alternative assessment for that student, but I hope to get some expert input to better support students in that position in the future. Additionally, I spoke to one other student who was reticent to record a video because they thought that the video needed to have their own image in it. I clarified that having an image of the problem solution was more helpful, which seemed to put the student at ease. Second, I imagine that some students have trouble recording because of issues with access to technology. So far, more students have been able to record videos with cell phones than have participated consistently in other online aspects of the course (e.g. Zoom meetings, online practice problems, discussion board posts). Nonetheless, I welcome feedback on how to overcome this concern. Based on my observations from last quarter, I think that the asynchronous, self-directed, scaffolded nature of the assignment and the ability to give feedback and revise solutions has allowed students from a broad range of backgrounds to be successful.
In the end, student videos have been a joy to watch. I am able to see and hear students’ voices as they think aloud through challenges, and I am proud. I hope that they get as much out of the challenges as I did from my board problem.