I graded my first set of physics tests today. With the group deciding not to take the class at the Advanced Placement level, we’ve been able to slow down and spend time experimenting and really engaging with kinematics and projectile motion. I assigned them problems and helped them learn, but I was more impressed with the experiments they worked on and their engagement level during those activities. I was concerned about what would happen when we returned to solving problems, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

I’m interested in sharing student work, so this is the first time I will be doing it. When I asked the student if it would be OK to share, the student agreed and was really excited that I would want to show the work to other teachers.

This student started out solving problems in a very scattered way: calculations here, sketches there, units nowhere to be found. When I showed the structure I wanted students to use to solve problems, it was initially a burden. The student didn’t like doing it. Upon grading, I was very happy to see this:

The degrees vs. radians issue is one that I always battle, made especially difficult this year because students have me for physics (when I insist on degree mode almost exclusively) and then calculus (when I change my insistence to radian mode) right in a row. Yes, the student should have noticed that multiplying by the ratio should not have resulted in a negative sign for initial y-velocity. Yes, it should have again become obvious that something was up when he found he needed to ‘add’ a negative sign in the answer at the end to make the sign of the answer make sense according to his own sign convention.

The fact that the student can notice these things (and that I can see where the errors are) would not even be something I could discuss if it wasn’t for the structure I put in place. By learning to use the structure to organize thoughts, this student became able to solve problems in a logical manner rather than with calculations all over the page. I don’t like teaching procedures, but this is an example of where it pays off.

We like students exploring and experimenting and constructing their own knowledge. These are really good ways for them to spend time in our classroom. I include using correct mathematical notation, showing steps, labeling axes, learning terminology, and other things of that nature as part of my class expectations – at times a battle that seems unimportant in the context of what I really want students to know how to do in five or ten years. There is room for procedural knowledge, however, and this student’s success is evidence of why we do it.

The main point (and the thing I’ve been working to change compared with how I did things for a while) is that these procedures should not be the meat of a lesson or the main focus of instruction all the time. These things CAN be taught by computers or videos and don’t necessarily need a human in the room. It is important for students to have skills and have access to resources that help them develop those skills.

But getting answers is not the point – this is the tricky part that we have to do a better job of selling to students, at least I do. Clear communication of reasoning and sharing the logic of our ideas are some of those “21st century skills” that students should have when they leave our classrooms. If a student needs to learn a structure to help them with this process, it is worth the time needed to help them learn it.