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Test post-mortem: Let us agree not to call them regular anymore

September 21, 2010

One of my big pet peeves is when schools track students, go all fixed mindset, and decide to call one track “honors” and the other track “regular.” Of course, no one ever writes into the curriculum guide or official documents that the other track is the “regular” track, but the labels get stamped on their foreheads just the same, and it isn’t too hard to see the damage it does to their 9th grade psyches, now terrified of math and physics, because they are “regular.” Never mind that they haven’t really even started to explore the subject of math and physics to any real depth.

And of course this terminology affects the outlook of the teachers as well, heck, we invented it. I’ve heard plenty of cringe worthy statements about the lack of interest/motivation/ability/intelligence of “regular” students, and so much praise for how “honors” students ‘want’ to do homework, and practically teach themselves. Maybe that’s because they haven’t had their egos crushed by being called “regular” since their 8th grade science teacher told them their placement last spring (or even earlier, as the case may be for math).

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So let this paper be a small candle of hope against all doubt of the ability of a “regular” physics student. And follow it up with all the rest of the results of my class. For 6 weeks now, I’ve been unintentionally teaching an intro class harder than an honors class. Here was the take home: here’s a huge data set consisting of 100+ measurements of pendulums of all sorts of masses, amplitudes and lengths, supposedly taken from the moon. You figure out what to do with this. Ok, so I gave a bit more guidance than this (see below), but not much. Could I have done this in the 9th grade? NOT A CHANCE.

If you had told me a 9th grader could take this, and produce 4 beautiful graphs, as well as a detailed analysis concluding that gravity of the moon was somehow responsible for altering the relationship between length and period of a pendulum on the moon, I would have never believed it. I honestly thought no one would get this, and we’d end up doing corrections and more to get everyone to some halfway understanding. Here, you see, I’d bought the lie. Give a kid a challenge, a worthy challenge, and watch them shake off your dumb labels and rise to the challenge.

I’ve attached all of my tests here, names redacted for you to check out. As you can see, most of the results are pretty incredible. These students have learned the meaning of a nonlinear relationship, and they, for the most part, can answer some pretty challenging questions about how you linearize the relationship between period and length.

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Also, here’s a copy of the in-class test. Most students did incredibly well. Again, the lesson I’m choosing to take away from this is that intro kids are up for a challenge.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 3:10 am

    Really cool. Very pygmalion effect here. I gotta know though, how did you end up “unintentionally” teaching the regular track harder than the honors track? Sounds like a social experiment to me!

    • September 21, 2010 3:24 am

      It was mostly unintentional. I set out to have the honors class just jump into modeling, so we skipped the measurement unit and went right to constant velocity, which is pretty easy, since most students saw this last year, albeit as distance = rate * time (which raises some conceptual challenges).

      With intro, on the other hand, I thought I’d introduce them to the idea of modeling with the pendulum forgetting just how hard it is to really understand the process of linearization. Then I got stubborn, and decided to really dig in to see if we could understand this, and suddenly (around the wolverine post) I was like “whoa, what’s happened to my two classes?” Now, the intro class is a couple of weeks behind the honors class, but doing mostly the same stuff—I think they will diverge in a while, after we get through some of the basics of Newton’s laws.

  2. September 21, 2010 3:15 am

    Awesome post!

    It is so valuable to see another teacher’s exam, student work, and teacher’s comments. The edublogger-verse should be doing WAAAAAAY more of this.

    I am glad you showed us ALL work, the 1s and the 4s. Very helpful.

    Question: I noticed that, on the exam, several questions matched the same standard. Did you average them for the final scores on the last page? Or did you put the final scores down using your “gut” based on the work shown?

    I don’t have time to comment on all of your posts, but every single one amazes me. Keep ‘em coming!

    • September 21, 2010 3:28 am

      Yes, I’m not so sure how to go about writing tests without doubly testing standards. Right now, my thought is to sort of do a mental average, weighting bad scores more in my head than good ones, since I offer corrections.

      One thing that I’ve found really awesome, and really difficult for the kids is my policy that if you write a number without a unit anywhere on the problem (even in the first steps), you can’t get a 3. I also don’t really allow them to correct these mistakes, telling them instead that they’ll pick them up on future reassessments. I hope this is enough incentive to really establish this habit deeply, particularly by looking at units closely, since I think that this really can mean the difference between success and failure in courses like chemistry. Just think how easy things like specific heat are if you really get the meaning of units and engrain them in every number you write/interpret.


  1. Retooling the intro course « Quantum Progress

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