Problems and Potentials of Science Identity

Recently, I presented my thesis proposal, which means I shared what I’d like to do for my dissertation with a faculty committee who gave me feedback. Science identity is a major theme in my work so far and my committee members raised two questions that I’ve been chewing on ever since:

  1. What do I find compelling or useful about science identity?
  2. What are my critiques of science identity as a framework?

As I move into the next phases of my dissertation, I wanted to do some journaling to delve into my current thinking on these questions and weigh their implications for my next steps. This post is admittedly much more navel gaze-y than I typically post since I am thinking about making sense of a theoretical construct, rather than about a challenge of classroom instruction.

I see a lot of discussion about science identity, in my work as a teacher, my work as a curriculum leader, and in my research as a PhD student. Programs like STEP UP and the work of scholars including Gholdy Muhammad have helped expose teachers to the language of identity. Teachers have taken up the framework identity in their classrooms in a variety of ways, including Kelly O’Shea’s lesson on values and beliefs about doing physics and Marianna Ruggerio’s identity encounters. The fact that what started as a scholarly theoretical framework has become such familiar language speaks to how much the concept resonates with educators. The seeming pervasiveness of science identity in my work means that considering my answers to the questions from my committee will not only inform how I move my dissertation forward, but have implications for my work as an educator.

I think part of what makes science identity compelling to me is the same thing that makes it so pervasive. Every year, I hear from student after student that they “just aren’t a science person.” The short definition of science identity is being seen by yourself and others as the kind of person who does science (Carlone & Johnson, 2007), which makes it a useful tool in unpacking what students mean when they make claims about whether they are a “science person”. Science identity is also a model with some predictive power since there is evidence it is a predictor of students’ intention to persist in a science discipline (Hazari et al., 2013).

This is a tempting place to stop thinking about identity, but this understanding lends itself to a deficit perspective. Girls, especially Black and Latina girls, are less likely than their peers to report a physics identity (Hazari et al., 2013), so the solution must be we have to convince girls they can be physics people, too, right? If we can just figure out how to inspire girls, then we can solve the problem of gender equity in science! A view of science identity that accepts this answer feels like a very individualistic way of understanding identity. It is something that individuals hold and we need to figure out how to fix people who are marginalized in science so that they can hold the correct identity. It is also a view that upholds the status quo by never questioning what about the ways students interact in science classrooms and beyond shapes whether students see themselves as science people.

I’m interested in a view of identity that is deeply relational. When students are in our classrooms, part of what they learn is what kind of person does science, whether they are capable of doing science, and whether their other identities are compatible with doing science (Brickhouse, 2001). This does not happen in isolation; it happens through interactions with peers and teachers. This is part of why I like Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) model of science identity, which includes competence, performance, and recognition. Competence is demonstrating skills or knowledge associated with science. Performance is behaving and interacting in ways associated with science. Recognition is being seen by yourself and others as a science person. The performance and recognition dimensions in particular make clear that if you are going to understand science identity, you need to understand how students interact and relate to each other in science classrooms. Hazari , Sadler, and Sonnert (2010) revised this framework to include a fourth dimension of interest. While I see the arguments for including interest and there are meaningful questions it helps answer, I haven’t found ways to use interest for thinking relationally about identity, so haven’t embraced this version.

Even with a more relational view of identity that includes tools to understand how identity emerges through interaction, there are still issues with science identity. I love Carlone’s (2003) question “When we ask students to participate in school science, what kinds of people are we asking them to become?” (p. 20). Whether we like it or not, students have ideas about what it means to be a science person, especially when it comes to the performance dimension. In one study middle school students said being a science person requires wearing goggles (Dare & Roehrig, 2016) and, in another study, even undergraduates majoring in science felt like they were not science people because they don’t own goggles or lab coats (Nealy & Orgill, 2019). Many of the performances that are part of a science identity are associated with whiteness and masculinity (Brickhouse, 2001), which means that asking marginalized students to become science people can mean asking them to leave behind other aspects of who they are.

But what if our goal wasn’t just to give students access to a science identity as it currently exists? Why can’t we design our classrooms to reshape and expand what students think it means to be a science person? I think part of that is making sure students are exposed to a wide range of scientists, not just the canon that portrays science as mostly white men (plus Marie Curie). But that is not enough. Ilana Horn has written about expanding what it means to be smart in math class and there is no reason we can’t do the same thing in science classrooms (Kelly O’Shea has written about her efforts to do just that). As I think about how to frame the research in my thesis and work on the framework I will use to connect identity to the other concepts I am working with, I think one piece will be shifting my reading to learn more about normative identity, which is the communal understanding students come to of what it means to be a particular kind of person (Cobb et al., 2009). What normative identity do students associate with a science person in my classroom and how do they arrive at that normative identity? How do students enforce that normative identity through interaction? And, most importantly to me, how can teachers reshape our classrooms to expand the normative identity of science person?


Brickhouse, N. W. (2001). Embodying science: A feminist perspective on learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(3), 282–295.<282::AID-TEA1006>3.0.CO;2-0

Carlone, H.B. (2003). (Re)producing good science students: Girls’ participation in high school physics. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 9(1), 17–34.

Cobb, P., Gresalfi, M., & Hodge, L. (2009). An interpretive scheme for analyzing the identities that students develop in mathematics classrooms. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 40(1), 40-68.

Carlone, H. B., & Johnson, A. (2007). Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Science identity as an analytic lens. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(8), 1187–1218.

Dare, E. A. & Roehrig, G. H. (2016). “If I had to do it, then I would”: Understanding early middle school students’ perceptions of physics and physics-related careers by gender. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2), 20111–20117.

Hazari, Z., Sadler, P. M., & Sonnert, G. (2013). The science identity of college students: Exploring the intersection of gender, race, and ethnicity. Journal of College Science Teaching, 42(5), 82–91.

Hazari, Z., Sonnert, G., Sadler, P. M., & Shanahan, M.-C. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectations, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(8), 978–1003.

Nealy, S. & Orgill, M. (2019). Students’ perceptions of their science identity. Journal of Negro Education, 88(3), 249–268.

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What does my research mean for my classroom

In July, I published an article from my PhD research on the kinds of classroom experiences that my AP Physics 1 students saw as important to building confidence and self-efficacy. As I prepare to head back into the classroom next week, one of the things I’m thinking about is what I want to bring into my practice as a result of what I’ve learned from my research. I’m most focused on the qualitative parts of my study, where I collected students’ reflections on what helped them master the course content and interviewed a small group of students about what experiences they saw as contributing to or detrimental to their self-efficacy.

One of my takeaways is the start of the school year is critical to students’ perceptions of whether they are good at physics. I interviewed students in May, but every single student who mentioned a specific lesson or activity in their interview mentioned something from the first few weeks of school. While the memories students shared in the interviews were consistently positive, I’m thinking about how I can integrate building self-efficacy into my typical classroom culture setting. In Physics, I’ve done some post-activity discussions where students identify some of the skills their group needed to complete the task. After a conversation with Kelly O’Shea, I’m thinking about trying those discussions before activities to give students the expectation in advance that they will have useful skills. I also want to see if I can integrate personal reflection into these discussions to get students thinking not only about the skills the task required, but the skills they brought to their group.

I suspect this approach could also help with some of what students had to say about guided inquiry paradigm labs in my interviews. Students drew a lot of self-efficacy from the sense of ownership these labs gave them over their learning, but they also took negative messages about self-efficacy from the confusion and uncertainty that are what I consider an expected part of the process. I think part of this, especially in AP Physics, is my students often associate being good at physics with having the right answers. My hope is that taking class time to name other ways of being good at physics, especially if I have students do some personal reflection, will help students recognize the skills and effective strategies they are using to work through the confusion and uncertainty and those can become moments that contribute to students’ self-efficacy.

My students also had a lot to say about digital labs. Students told me that part of what helped them develop self-efficacy from labs was the experience of describing something they saw as part of the “real world”. They saw simulations and video-based labs as removed from that real world, which made them less valuable for self-efficacy. With that in mind, I want to try introducing digital labs with a hands-on experience or a phenomenon students are familiar with, then draw a clear link to the digital lab as a way to explore more deeply. Students also told me that feeling like they didn’t know how to use the tools in digital labs had a negative impact on their self-efficacy. That should be easy to address. No matter how simple or intuitive a digital tool seems to me, I need to make sure I provide students with instructions and resources on how to use the technology so that students can focus their attention on the science, instead.

Finally, one of the findings I was most excited about is that some of my students, especially girls, interpreted my feedback on assessments where they had low scores as evidence that I believe they can improve and are therefore good at physics. That is exactly the kind of message I want students to take from assessments with a low score and reinforces that I have lot of responsibility for cultivating a classroom climate where students develop have a growth mindset about physics. I think one important part is I assess every standard at least twice in my class, so when students have a low score, they know that they are guaranteed an opportunity to apply my feedback and show their growth. I started doing multiple in-class assessments to minimize retakes outside of the school day, but I think it also communicates that I believe students can and will improve, which makes me think it would be worth considering this assessment approach in Physics. I also want to get better at making that message explicit in both my courses.

As far as the feedback itself, the students I interviewed talked about two main features. First, they talked about how even when they did a problem wrong, I would point out good ideas or strategies they had. This helped students feel like they had a foundation to work toward mastery, so I want to be conscious this year of recognizing and commenting on those positives in students’ work. Students also responded to my habit of writing questions or suggesting they try a diagram, rather than just putting what they should have done, since that sent the message that I believe they can figure it out with a little nudging. I tend to give more specific, direct feedback about what students should have done at the beginning of the year as I figure out what kinds of questions work best with different students, but I think it will be worth focusing on questions and other nudges from the start so that students get growth messages from my feedback from their very first assessment.

Ultimately, my goal is to make my classroom a place where all of my students see who they are as compatible with being a science person. Part of that is cultivating a classroom climate where students recognize the ways they are good at physics and can develop confidence and self-efficacy. One of the privileges of having the time and resources to examine my classroom with a researcher lens is I can take a detailed look at my students’ experiences to better understand the ways I’m reaching and falling short of that goal.

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Musings on Instructional Shifts

This year, I took on the role of Secondary Science Standards Implementation TOSA, which is a fancy way of saying I’ve been working with the 6-12 science teachers to transition to a new set of state standards based on the NGSS. This week, I wrapped up my responsibilities for the year with a few days of curriculum writing with our 6th grade science teachers, who will implement the new standards in September. It has been fantastic listening to their conversations and seeing teachers who were wary of these shifts in November get excited about what their classrooms can look like in the fall. As I think about the grade levels that will begin their shift next fall, I’m reflecting on what I think have been some important factors in the success (so far) of the 6th grade team.

I am one of those progressive physics teachers that scoffs that textbooks are for propping up ramps and vastly underestimated the value in piloting a published curriculum. While I don’t use a traditional textbook, I am able to teach the way I do because I have access to materials like the Modeling Instruction curriculum and New Visions science materials, which were especially crucial early in my instructional shift. Those materials helped me visualize what student-centered instruction could look like in the classroom and served as a guide for how to help students develop skills in science practices and discourse. Based on the conversations this week, the published curriculum is filling a very similar role for the 6th grade team. The team even talked about some changes to the materials they are developing from scratch based on what they are learning about using phenomena and scaffolding science practices from the published curriculum.

Another important realization is how overwhelmed a lot of one-shot presentations have left many teachers feeling. A lot of local presentations have focused on what a big shift the new standards are and have left many teachers in my district with the misconception that they should be doing completely open inquiry all the time. Teachers have been very vocal that they appreciate the PD sessions I’ve planned that focus on the “guided” part of guided inquiry where we look at how to strategically constrain activities or steer discussions to keep the scope manageable and ensure students get to the target science content. What seems to work is I am not only showing them the shift, but giving them concrete tools to help make that shift. I’ve been worried about making sure some people recognize the magnitude of the gaps between what we do now and what we’re being asked to work toward, but I think is much more important for me to focus on making the gap feel navigable.

I think a key element next year will be ensuring the 6th grade team has ongoing support in the instructional shift. My district is one of many places where teachers have attended high-quality PD individually and come back excited to apply it in their classrooms, only to fall back on old curriculum and old habits once the school year starts and they are trying to make changes on their own. When I look back at my own shifts, I had a lot of days where I felt like I’d gotten worse as a teacher and the support systems I had were critical to sticking with the changes I was making. As part of the EngrTEAMS project, I had a graduate student coach who joined my classroom during an integrated STEM unit and had reflective coaching conversations with me about each lesson. Around the time I took my first modeling workshop, I started joining regular video chats with Kelly O’Shea, Michael Lerner, Casey Rutherford, and others where we talked through what was and wasn’t working in our classrooms. Both of these were a source of accountability to stick with changes and an opportunity to problem-solve when I had challenges, which were necessary in sticking with the changes I was making. The Teaching & Learning department is taking steps to protect time for the 6th grade science teachers to meet with each other partly so that they can be a source of mutual support. We’ve also started working with administrators and instructional coaches in the middle schools to help them understand what the 6th grade team is trying to do and start thinking about ways they can be supportive when teachers are struggling or frustrated. I also have a lot of flexibility to define what my role involves, and I think it will be worth carving out some time next year to facilitate conversations with the 6th grade team to talk through challenges. I think this is an area we often overlook with in-service teachers, but is crucial to making instructional changes sustainable and effective.

One advantage I’ve had this year is 6th grade science will be the only ones implementing the new standards in the fall, so I’ve been able to devote a lot of attention to that team. Next year, 7th grade, 9th grade, and 11th/12th grade physics will all be preparing to implement in fall 2022, so I will need to consider how to use my learning from this year and rely on the support of colleagues in certain roles to provide the same level of support to three different grade levels while also continuing to support the 6th grade teachers. I have a break from any formal responsibilities in this role until August, which gives me time this summer to continue reflecting on my work this year and planning how I will extend it in the fall.

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Gender, Self-Assessment, and Classroom Experiences in AP Physics 1

This post originally appeared as an article in The Physics Teacher:

Stoeckel, M. (2020). Gender, self-assessment, and classroom experiences in AP Physics 1. The Physics Teacher, 58, 399-401.

One of the many ways issues of underrepresentation appears in the physics classroom is female students frequently have a lower perception of their performance and ability than their male peers1, 2, 3, 4. Understanding how classroom experiences impact students’ confidence, especially for underrepresented students, can provide an important guide to designing physics classrooms where every student sees themselves as capable of learning and doing physics. To explore these issues in my AP Physics 1 classroom, I started asking my students to self-assess as part of my assessment process, allowing me to collect data comparing students’ perceptions to their actual performance. I also conducted interviews and collected student reflections to gain insights into the classroom experiences that impacted students’ confidence in physics. My students made it clear that discovering concepts in the lab contributed to their confidence. Girls also built confidence from teacher feedback, even on assessments where they scored poorly, while boys saw peer interactions as a source of confidence.

Confidence & Why It Matters

Confidence describes a students’ perceptions with respect to actual achievement and is often a precursor to self-efficacy5. Self-efficacy refers to a students’ beliefs about their ability to achieve particular goals and is shaped by four major types of experiences: performance accomplishments, where the individual demonstrates mastery; vicarious experiences, where the individual watches someone they relate to demonstrate mastery; verbal persuasion, where someone else expresses their belief in the individual’s abilities; and emotional arousal, which describes the individual’s mental and emotional state during a task6.

Self-efficacy and confidence are important not only because they correlate with academic success6, but also because they appear to be connected to issues of underrepresentation in physics. Women in introductory physics courses tend to have much lower confidence than men1, 2, 3, 4. Marshman et al. also found that while the confidence of both men and women declined during an introductory physics course, the decline was much greater for women4, suggesting that understanding how classroom experiences impact confidence is an important piece of understanding issues of underrepresentation.

Quantitative Data Collection & Results

This study focuses on AP Physics 1 at a suburban high school. AP Physics 1 is a year-long elective taken almost exclusively by seniors. The curriculum for the course is loosely based on Modeling Instruction7. Typically, around 40 students per year, approximately 10% of a graduating class, enroll in AP Physics 1. 31% of the students in the course are girls, which is  stark contrast to both the school’s non-AP physics course and to other Advanced Placement courses in the school, including AP Chemistry, where around 50% of the students are girls, suggesting there is an issue in the school unique to AP Physics 1. 

In the course, students take assessments approximately once per week where they receive a score on a scale of 2 to 5 for each learning target assessed. At the end of each assessment, I ask students to predict their score for each learning target, then complete a short written reflection, as shown in figure 1. Over the course of two years, I recorded the scores students predicted, along with their actual scores for each learning target. I collected this data for a total of 92 students, 29 of which were girls.

Figure 1: Sample self-assessment

I put these scores and self-assessments into a framework called the CCL Confidence Achievement Window5. This framework compares students’ confidence and actual achievement to sort them into four profiles: public, with high confidence and high achievement; underestimating, with low confidence and high achievement; unknown, with low confidence and low achievement; and overestimating, with high confidence and low achievement The public and unknown profiles are considered to have good calibration between students’ achievement and confidence, while the underestimating and overestimating profiles indicate poor calibration.

For each student, I calculated total actual scores and total self-assessment scores as a fraction of the possible points. I used the self-assessment values as a measure of confidence and the actual score values as a measure of achievement in order to plot each student onto a CCL Confidence Achievement Window5, as shown in figure 2. The majority of students had fairly good calibration between their self-assessment and actual scores, falling into the public and unknown profiles. In addition, boys and girls fell into each profile at similar rates, suggesting boys and girls in this classroom had similar degrees of overall confidence. 

Figure 2: CCL Confidence-Achievement Window

What Affected Confidence?

To understand how my students developed such a well-calibrated sense of their achievement, regardless of their gender, during the second year of data collection, I also recorded the responses students had to the open-ended prompt I included on the self-assessments, such as the one in figure 1, from the 52 students enrolled in the course that year. In addition, I interviewed ten student volunteers at the end of the second year about the experiences that affected their confidence. Three key themes emerged from the qualitative data: labs, peer interactions during whiteboarding, and assessment feedback.


On nearly every assessment reflection, students consistently mentioned labs as helping them achieve mastery, usually mentioning a specific lab done as part of the preceding unit, regardless of their gender. The interviews revealed what about the labs helped students develop their sense of confidence. In the Modeling7 approach, a new topic typically begins with a guided inquiry lab followed by a whole-class discussion of the results that allows students to develop conceptual and mathematical models for the new topic. The students I interviewed described this approach as giving them a sense of ownership of the material and showing them that they could discover new concepts, suggesting these labs were an opportunity for performance accomplishments, where students developed self-efficacy by demonstrating their own mastery of key skills6. As one girl put it:

“I think the self-discovery thing, like when you figure it out yourself, that’s always really good. Cause it makes you feel like you’re doing it yourself and you’re this scientist that knows everything.”

Students in the interviews also described making the transition from a lab to written problems as an important moment. Figuring out for themselves how to apply what they discovered in the lab to a new type of problem was another performance accomplishment That helped students see themselves as capable. In the words of one boy:

“I think when, not the lab, but after a lab that we do. So we do a lab that hammers at different the way that physics works and we get a problem set the day after. That it’s the same–they’re not the same thing, but it’s like the same concept. And then it’s like I semi-understand what we did yesterday and then we practice it and all the sudden, I just really understand the problems.”

Interestingly, during the interviews, several students also talked about labs as detrimental to their confidence; one boy even specifically described labs as having both a positive and negative effect on his confidence. Most students had minimal exposure to guided inquiry prior to AP Physics 1, resulting in some frustration for students. In interviews, students interpreted the confusion, mistakes, and other issues that are a normal part of guided inquiry as evidence they were not good at physics, especially if they had done well in previous science courses. This suggests it is critical to foster a classroom culture that normalizes confusion as part of the learning process to maintain the positive impact of labs on confidence.

Whiteboarding & Peer Interactions

The other major activity students mentioned on their self-assessments was whiteboarding, where students work in small groups to prepare a whiteboard with the solution to a problem which is then presented to the class. For boys, these activities were also an opportunity to build self-efficacy through verbal persuasion6. In the interviews, several boys brought up peer responses to their input during these activities, typically recalling specific problems and exchanges, often from several months prior, suggesting peer interactions had a lasting impact on students. 

By contrast, while girls also said whiteboarding helped them master the content, only one girl spoke about peer interactions during the interviews. She recalled a specific exchange, in which her all-male group responded positively to her input, but she interpreted it as evidence she was fooling her peers, rather than an affirmation of her abilities:

“I think it’s one of those things where I’m generally a smart person, so they’d just assume that I kinda know what I’m doing, but they’re all super good at physics so I think they overestimate my abilities almost.”

This raises the question of what contributed to the very different recollections of peer interactions. Did boys have more interactions than girls where peers affirmed their abilities, or did girls have other experiences that lead them to view those interactions with a greater distrust?

Assessment Feedback

During the interviews, both boys and girls talked about in-class assessments, especially when I asked whether they think I believe they are good at physics. Most of the boys brought up specific assessments where they earned high scores as evidence of their physics ability. However, the girls talked about assessments very differently. Rather than talking about assessments where they had done well, the girls tended to talk about assessments where they had done poorly. The girls saw the kind of feedback I wrote on their assessments, along with a course policy encouraging retakes, as evidence that I saw them as capable of mastering the material, regardless of their initial score. As one girl put it:

“[You] offer constructive criticism when needed and it’s really helpful when trying to understand what I did incorrectly on quizzes and labs. So I believe that feedback really shows that [you] believe that I can do the course.”

For these girls, verbal persuasion in the form of my feedback did not have to be paired with a performance accomplishment to have a positive impact on their confidence. 


Confidence is shaped by students’ experiences in the classroom, and understanding those experiences is particularly important for addressing issues of underrepresentation. In this study, students saw discovering a new concept in the lab and figuring out how to apply it to problems as particularly important opportunities for performance accomplishment, with girls in particular reporting less confidence on topics where they had fewer of these opportunities. Students of both genders responded to verbal persuasion, though boys focused on peer interactions and girls focused on teacher feedback, especially on assessments where they performed poorly. Designing a classroom where all students have the opportunity to develop a sense of confidence and self-efficacy means ensuring that all students have access to these kinds of experiences. It also means listening to students to better understand not only the kind of activities but the critical elements of activities that enable students to see themselves as good at physics.


  1. Emily M. Marshman, Z. Yasmin Kalender, Timothy Nokes-Malach, Christian Schunn, & Chandralekha Singh, “Female students with A’s have similar physics self-efficacy as male students with C’s in introductory courses: A cause for alarm?” Phys. Rev. Phys. Ed. Res., 14, 020123 (December 2018)
  2. Tamjid Mujtaba, & Michael J. Reiss, “Inequality in experiences of physics education: Secondary school girls’ and boys’ perceptions of their physics education and intentions to continue with physics after the age of 16,” International Journal of Science Education, 35, 1824-1845 (July 2013)
  3. Jayson M. Nissen & Jonathan T. Shemwell, “Gender, experience, and self-efficacy in introductory physics,” Phys. Rev. Phys. Ed. Res., 12, 020105 (August 2016)
  4. Emily M. Marshman, Z. Yasmin Kalender, Christian Schunn, Timothy Nokes-Malach, & Chandralekha Singh, “A longitudinal analysis of students’ motivational characteristics in introductory physics courses: Gender differences,” Canadian Journal of Physics, 96, 391-405 (May 2017)
  5. Lesa M. Covington Clarkson, Quintin U. Love, & Forster D. Ntow, “How confidence relates to mathematics achievement: A new framework,” Mathematics Education and Life at Times of Crisis, 441-451 (April 2017)
  6. Albert Bandura, “Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change,” Psychological Review, 84, 191-215 (January 1977)
  7. Jane Jackson, Larry Dukerich, & David Hestenes, “Modeling instruction: An effective model for science education,” Science Educator, 17, 10-17 (Spring 2008)

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Self-Assessment & Underrepresentation in AP Physics 1 (NARST 2020 Presentation)



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Getting Students On Board with Active Engagement

Over the past few weeks, I keep finding myself in conversations about navigating pushback from students and parents when using student-centered, active-engagement instruction, such as Modeling Instruction. Brian Frank tweeted a thread this fall on the fact that that while the frustration and misery that lead to pushback are common, they aren’t inevitable.

When I used a more teacher-centered, traditional approach, building relationships with my students was enough to make kids comfortable in my classroom. But, when I started using Modeling Instruction, I found myself dealing with angry students, fielding phone calls and e-mails from frustrated parents, and even meeting with administrators when a few parents escalated upstairs. I eventually figured out the point Brian made in his thread–that you can reduce the misery by planning the right kind of classroom environment. While I certainly haven’t eliminated my students’ frustration, I now find my students are mostly onboard with the instructional approach I use and there are some particular steps that have been especially impactful.

Keep Students’ Perspective in Mind

Kids don’t get frustrated because they’re lazy or disinterested in learning; I have yet to meet a student that isn’t curious, hard-working, and persistent under the right circumstances. I think part of the reason students don’t always bring those traits into the classroom is school more often rewards students for compliance and reproducing procedures or reciting knowledge provided by the teacher. Students, especially older ones, have gotten familiar, and even comfortable, with seeing those actions rewarded. Expecting and rewarding something different feels like changing the rules of the game; for students who’ve done well in school, the change can even feel threatening since you’re changing the rules of a game they’ve been winning. Heidi Carlone found students may even see what they’re asked to do in a reformed science class as in tension with their identity as a “good student”. Keeping this in mind isn’t enough to prevent students’ resistance to active learning, but it helps me approach student resistance from a place of empathy, rather than frustration or judgement, and empathy is a much better place to build a classroom climate from.

Tell Students What I Want From Them

During my first year of Modeling, I saw a lot of students working hard in my class, but still struggling with the content because they were working in unproductive ways. Telling these students they needed to participate or put more effort into the class only made their frustration worse, because they were already participating. As I gained empathy for my students’ perspectives, I realized students were engaging in ways that are usually rewarded in school, like memorizing answers or focusing on what’s right during a lab, rather than what actually happened. I started spending more time talking about what productive engagement looks like during different kinds of activities. Since directions like “focus on sense-making” or “collaborate well” are too vague to be useful, I’ve been working on ways to make what I’m looking for more concrete, like using group roles to give students a clear target for good collaboration.

I also keep in mind that high school students have a lot of experience with getting rewarded for superficial engagement. Just telling them those approaches won’t work in physics is almost never enough to overcome years of experience as a student. Students need space to try more familiar approaches, reflect on whether they are working, and the chance to improve. For me, this has meant copious opportunities for reflection on the course and a generous retake policy so early mistakes don’t stick with students the rest of the term.

Finally, every fall, I remind myself to be very patient in September and October (and sometimes even longer) as I give my students the time and tools they need to develop the skills and mindsets necessary for active engagement. Even once students recognize they need to learn how to collaborate or how to have good discussions, they need practice to develop those skills, so a lot of the lessons and activities those first few weeks of the year are rocky. I have to remember that just because my classroom doesn’t look the way I want it to in September doesn’t mean my students and I won’t get there.

Listen to Students

I remember a day during my first year of Modeling where I started class by sketching a graph on the whiteboard of panic in physics vs. time. Students laughed, and we made some jokes about it, but it gave students a much-needed opportunity to be open about their frustrations with the course, as well as to talk about what in particular was frustrating them. The relief in the classroom was palpable; naming and normalizing what students were feeling made their frustration feel smaller and more manageable. I now spend a lot of time listening to students when they are frustrated and having conversations about how physics is different than other courses they’ve taken. I focus on listening to where they’re at, validating their discomfort with my class, and assuring students it is something I will help them work through. The release students get from these conversations doesn’t prevent them from getting frustrated, but it keeps their frustration from festering into something worse. It also gives me the opportunity to help students find ways to channel their frustrations and engage productively in the class, which leads to less frustration down the line.

Share My Purpose

If students are going to sit with their discomfort and take risks, they need to know there’s a reason for what I’m asking of them. Rather than asking students to trust I have a purpose, I talk to students about the reasoning for my instructional choices. We talk about my decision-making both when it comes to the course as a whole and when it comes to individual lessons, which makes it clear to students that I know where I’m taking them. I think teacher-centered instruction feels to students a little like hiking a well-marked trail while following a guide who has a map; even if the trail is unfamiliar, you can see the direction you’re going and you know the guide will keep you on the right path. Active engagement feels more like trying to find your own way in the deep woods without a map or trail. Students need to be reminded that even when I’m hanging back, I know where we’re going, I have a plan to get us there, and I will intervene before anyone gets too far off track. Explaining my choices gives students that reminder, and helps them feel safer, which makes it less likely their discomfort will become frustration. Making it routine to explain my decisions also means I get a lot of benefit of the doubt from students when I make a move I haven’t justified; students trust I have a purpose and either ask about my goals long before they get upset or simply go along with what I’m asking of them.

Make Sure Students See Their Progress

I’ve found that students don’t always recognize how much they are learning when they are constructing knowledge themselves. I give short assessments almost weekly, rather than big unit tests every few weeks. This means students get frequent reminders that they are learning new physics content and making progress towards mastery. When students have evidence they are learning, they are more willing to go along with what I’m asking of them.

The deeper skills, like collaboration and science practices, are harder to track. On a regular basis, I take class time for students to reflect on their growth on these skills. I also try to notice when I’ve been quieter than usual during a discussion, when I manage to stay out of the way during a lab, or when I hear high-quality discourse, so I can point it out and contrast with where the class was early in the year. When students see what they’re gaining, their discomfort feels worth it.

Build Student-to-Student Relationships

If revealing ignorance in front of a teacher is nerve-wracking, revealing ignorance in front of a peer is downright terrifying. If students are going to try out ideas, offer an answer before they know what’s right, and take other intellectual risks, it isn’t enough for students to trust me; they have to trust each other, as well. I wrote about some of the concrete strategies I use in a previous post, but the most important piece has been a shift in the relationships I’m thinking about in my classroom. Previously, the main relationships I paid attention to were the ones between myself and my students; now, I work to cultivate positive relationships between students, as well. My students don’t all need to like each other, but they do need to be able to trust and support each other while they are in my room.

Teach Collaboration

Even when students trust each other, collaborating well is a skill, and a complex one. When I started Modeling, I underestimated how difficult it is for students to collaborate effectively, which ensured my students spent huge amounts of time in ineffective groups, feeling frustrated and miserable, unsure how to improve their situation. I read Cohen and Lotan’s book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom. I started using group roles, reflections on collaboration, and other strategies to teach my students how to work well together (I talk more about these things in the same post where I addressed student relationships). It turns out, when you teach students a skill, they get better at it and when more students are in high-functioning groups, fewer students feel frustrated.

Give It Time

When I first switched to Modeling Instruction, I wasn’t comfortable or skilled with the instructional approaches, and my teaching was often clumsy at best. My first post-lab board meeting flopped and the first round of mistakes whiteboarding was a disaster. As the year went on, I forced myself to try again and gradually got more skilled at facilitating active engagement. It was incredibly uncomfortable to work through those lessons that went poorly, but I needed to fail to figure out how to get better. I spent a lot of time reflecting, I asked for help, and I latched onto evidence that my students were still learning physics during those lessons that felt very rough. With time, I got more skilled with this kind of teaching and more lessons got the results I wanted.

Time is also important for shifting students’ expectations about the course. Kids talk to each other and have heard what physics was like for older friends and siblings, so it felt like a bait and switch to them when I started Modeling. The second year, most of my students had heard about how I teach, so registered for the course knowing it would have lots of group work and minimal lecture. By year four, I’d been using active engagement for as long as they’d been in the high school, which may as well be forever. At this point, even when students are frustrated, it doesn’t seem to occur to them that there is another way to teach physics, which makes for very different conversations than I had those first years.

Final Thoughts

Frustration, pushback, and other misery are common reactions to active engagement, but they aren’t inevitable. Creating a space where students feel safe, both with me and with each other, takes effort, but it means that students can accept, and even enjoy, the challenges of active engagement. It’s also important that nothing I talked about here is one-and-done; they are things I work on from September all the way through May. This work isn’t easy, but to see students not only rising to the challenge, but enjoying themselves while they do it is well worth the effort.

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Building a Whole-Class Culture

Going into this school year, I decided my biggest goal in regular physics would be to be intentional about the kind of class culture I was building. From a pedagogical perspective, I want the kind of classroom where students feel comfortable participating and taking intellectual risks. From an equity perspective, I want classroom where students value working with diverse groups and every student is valued as they are. At the end of the year, my students let me know I’d made some important progress in this area when, on the last day of school, students talked about how much they would miss being in their particular physics class and the sense of community they felt with their peers. I don’t think there is any one thing I can attribute this success to; part of the credit certainly goes to the personality of this senior class, but there a few things I did that I think played an important role.

Daily Check-Ins

For a few years now, I’ve had the very simple routine of stopping by each table while students are working in small groups and asking everyone how they are today. I didn’t have any intention or thought behind this habit until I had a student who wouldn’t let me have any other interaction with her group until I’d done the check-in. She also came to class every day with a plan for what she was going to tell me, so the ritual was clearly important to her. Since then, I get several notes from students each year that specifically comment on how much they love my routine of asking how they are each day and the way it makes them feel safe in my classroom. On my end, I really enjoy that I have a low-stakes, positive interaction with every student every day and I get to hear about what’s important to my students. If that makes them more comfortable letting me know when they have a question or when they need something, all the better.

Randomly Assigned Groups

Kelly O’Shea convinced me to try assigning visibly random groups that change frequently. She uses the list function on, but I ended up putting my roster into a spreadsheet made by Scott Lotze, the other physics teacher at my school. Making new groups almost daily ended up being one of the most impactful aspects of this strategy. The usual complaints about assigned groups and requests to switch groups disappeared very quickly since students recognized they only had to manage a challenging group for a day or two. In addition, my school is big enough that I usually have students in the same section who don’t even know the names of most of their classmates but, this year, within a few weeks, every student felt like they knew everyone else in the class at least a little bit. This made a huge difference in whole class discussions; without any changes to how I ran whole class discussions, students were more engaged, more willing to speak up, and more willing to question each other than in previous years. Students told me they felt more comfortable speaking up in physics than in other classes because they actually knew everyone in the room.

Students also learned more when the groups changed frequently, especially when students started working problems with one group, then prepared a whiteboard with a new one. Inevitably, within the first few minutes of moving to the new groups, someone would ask the rest of the group “How did you do our problem?” which lead to great discussions comparing different strategies and finding each other’s mistakes. While this mirrored some of the discussion that happened as a whole-class during mistakes whiteboarding, this small-group discourse drew in every student in a way that is not possible in a whole-class discussion with a class of 33.

Group Roles

In my licensure coursework and in PD I’ve done over the years, I’ve been exposed to group roles numerous times, but always dismissed them as something unnecessary and a little silly for the older students I teach. Reading Cohen & Lotan’s Designing Groupwork: Strategies for Heterogenous Classrooms finally shifted my thinking; they discuss the ways that group roles set the tone for what it means to contribute to a group and can disrupt patterns in who is granted status by their peers, which strikes me as especially important when thinking about the experiences of underrepresented students.

I developed a set of group roles based on conversations with Kelly O’Shea, the group roles from the University of Minnesota’s PER group, and the needs I saw in my classroom. I printed the roles on laminated cards so that students could have a description of their role, including some suggested sentence starters, on the table in front of them while working.

At the start of the year, I used the roles most days, sometimes letting groups decide who did what and sometimes assigning roles randomly. Regardless of how the roles were assigned, they served two important purposes. First, they communicated a clear expectation that every group member was involved and actively contributing to the task. Second, none of the roles required any physics knowledge, which made explicit that there are important ways to contribute to a group besides being able to tell everyone else the answer. Ultimately, these messages were more important than the roles themselves. An instructional coach observed me on the first day of a term, before I introduced the roles, and a day or two later when I’d assigned roles to students. He commented that while we saw very little evidence that students were using the official roles, students were much more engaged and collaborating more effectively during the second observation.

I don’t feel the need to use the roles all the time. I used them quite a bit the first two weeks of the school year, then less and less until the end of the first month, when I retired them for the term. At the end of each trimester, around half of the students in regular physics not only switch between hours, but switch between teachers, which tends to reset the class culture. To help with this transition, I had students go back to using the roles for a week or so at the start of each new trimester to make sure each new mix of students had the shared expectations that came from using the group roles built into their class culture.

Valuing Diverse Abilities

There are a lot of different skills and abilities that are critical to success in science, but students often have a limited view of what it means to be good at science. To try and shift that, I used a simple exercise from Cohen & Lotan’s Designing Groupwork: Strategies for Heterogenous Classrooms where, after an activity, we did a debrief where students identified some of the skills the task required and describe how those skills were demonstrated by someone in their group. In those debriefs, it became apparent that it would be unreasonable to expect any one individual to have all of the skills required, which lead naturally into a discussion of why it was useful to do the task in groups and encouraged students to consider how to take advantage of their peers’ strengths on future activities. It also gave students who see their strengths as incompatible with being a “science person” the opportunity to recognize the value they bring to a group.

During the first month of school, I picked one activity per week that we’d debrief, usually selecting one that I expected to generate a diverse list of required abilities. Like the group roles, this helped set a tone in the class, but became less necessary as students settled in. Similar to the group roles, I picked a few activities to debrief again at the start of each trimester when students moved between hours and between teachers, again ensuring that all students had certain shared expectations and beliefs about collaboration in my classroom.

In the future, I’d like to connect the skills students are identifying to something like Eugenia Etkina’s scientific abilitiesKelly O’Shea’s scientific competencies, or the science practices used in NGSS or AP sciences. There is a lot of overlap between each of these lists and the skills and abilities my students have identified in our debrief discussions this year, and I wonder if connecting what my students see as important to a list that feels more formal would give additional weight to their value in my classroom.

Frequent Reflection

Collaboration is a skill and part of how you get better at any skill is evaluating your strengths and weaknesses so you can make a plan to improve. With that in mind, I had students complete some kind of reflection almost weekly. Some weeks, the questions were about using the group roles, some weeks I asked students to reflect on a list of things effective groups do that I originally got from Scot Hovan and posted at each lab table, and some weeks I used Colleen Nyeggen’s participation goals. All of the reflections were completed during class to ensure students saw the value I placed on them and, on the first few reflections of each term, I took the time to respond to something each student wrote to make it clear I was reading and thinking about what they had to say. Because it was clear that I valued the reflections, most of my students took them seriously, writing insightful comments and having meaningful conversations with their peers. With all of the reflections I used, I was able to get information about was and was not going well with group work and students were consistently thinking about how to be a better member of their group in physics.

What’s Next?

I mostly used these strategies in my regular physics classes partly because I fall into the trap of thinking my AP students don’t need the same support; they come in to my class more skilled at collaboration and more comfortable with each other. My AP classes also have very few students who switch between hours and all of them stay with me all year. In spite of those advantages, by the end of the year, my regular physics classes were much tighter knit and typically had higher-functioning groups than my AP classes. That tells me it’s worth making the time to bring these strategies into my AP classes next year.

I also know there is more room to put equity at the forefront of my classroom. It’s fairly easy for students to drop courses at the end of a trimester and white girls and students of color drop the regular physics course at a higher rate than white boys. Next year, the other physics teacher and I are planning to use our PLC time to take a critical look at our classrooms to think about what in our classroom cultures reinforces this pattern and find changes we need to make.

My colleague and I also want to work on building a classroom culture where students value challenge. Most of the students who drop say the course is “too hard”, even when they are getting good grades. If we want to reduce our drop rate, one piece may be building a classroom culture where the challenge is seen as something positive.


Linking Kinesthetic and Quantitative with Pivot Interactives

Peter Bohacek shared an interesting article with me that found students who’d had a kinesthetic experience with a bicycle wheel gyroscope not only performed better on an angular momentum assessment, but fMRI scans showed the sensorimotor parts of their brain became active while thinking about angular momentum. This validates my gut instincts that students should have lots of hands-on experiences, and I feel like I do a pretty good job of that in physics, but what does a kinesthetic experience look like in chemistry? I teach a basic chemistry course where concrete experiences are critical in developing student understanding and I think students could especially benefit from the kinds of kinesthetic experiences described in the article.


Gas laws ended up being a great place for me to start thinking about kinesthetic experiences in chemistry. Last year, I started doing a lab where students play with a sealed syringe, including heating it up in a water bath and manually changing the volume. Throughout, students are able to feel the pressure difference as the plunger pushes or pulls against their fingers, giving a great kinesthetic experience we can refer back to throughout the unit.

The trick has been connecting this experience to the equations. Feeling the plunger push back when they held it at the same volume in a hot water bath was enough to convince students that pressure goes up with temperature, but a lot of them struggle enough with math that they had a hard time seeing how the qualitative relationship from the lab fit with PV=nRT; the inverse relationship for volume was enough tougher for students to make sense of! My students needed more of a bridge between the kinesthetic, qualitative experience and the math.

That’s where Pivot Interactives came in this year. As part of the Chemistry Fellows program, I’ve been piloting their new chemistry resources in my classroom and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. Since Pivot Interactives has several activities where students can collect data for the ideal gas laws and we’ve been working a lot on interpreting graphs this year, I was hoping that collecting their own data could serve as a bridge between the kinesthetic activity and the math.

gas laws ptAfter some discussion on the qualitative results with the syringes, including developing an operational definition of pressure, we fired up the computers to collect some pressure and temperature data in Pivot Interactives.  Students got a nice, linear graph and I had them turn the slope into a “for every” statement to describe how much the pressure went up for every 1 degree of temperature increase. We also had a lot of discussion about how these results fit with what they’d observed previously with the syringes. By the end of the hour, students were on board that P = “stuff” x T and could clearly explain how their experience with the syringes supported that result.

gas laws pvVolume was a little trickier. A lot of my students haven’t taken geometry and finding the volume of a cylinder was a big barrier for a lot of them on a lab earlier this year, so I was nervous about having them find the volume of the bubble. We did some whole-class discussion on what we could measure that would tell us about the volume of the bubble, and students readily settled on the diameter as a good option. The graph of pressure vs. volume still looked pretty inverse.

The discussion was also trickier. Students had felt the changes in pressure as they changed the volume of their syringe, so we had to spend some time working through how that connects to the Pivot Interactives video showing changes in volume as the pressure drops. It took some time, but students were eventually able to make the connection. It also took a little more for my students to make sense of the graph. Since we don’t do linearization in my chemistry course, we weren’t able to make a “for every” statement about the graph, but students were able to recognize that as pressure went down, volume went up and eventually get to V = “stuff” / P.

After this series of labs, it was time to start working some problems. Last year, students struggled through gas law calculations and had a very difficult time reasoning through whether their answers made sense. This year, students frequently talked about their experiences with the syringes when making sense of a problem and were able to breeze through the calculations. I also saw the difference in much higher scores on the end-of-unit assessment.

Using the kinesthetic lab to introduce gas laws wasn’t new to me, but Pivot Interactives gave me new tools to build a bridge between what students experienced directly and what the calculations described. This proved to be an important piece in developing my students’ understanding of the material.


Kontra, C., Lyons, D. J., Fischer, S. M., & Beilock, S. L. (2015). Physical experience enhances science learning. Psychological science26(6), 737-749. Retrieved from

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Pivot Interactives for Make-Up Labs

This year, I’ve been able to pilot some of the new Pivot Interactives chemistry activities in my Chemistry Essentials course as part of their chemistry fellowship program. There is a much higher absence rate in Chemistry Essentials than in our other chemistry courses and one of the challenges I’ve been able to tackle with Pivot Interactives has been finding an approach for make-up labs that balances equity with a meaningful lab experience.

First, a little background on the course. My district offers four different chemistry courses, and Chemistry Essentials is designed to meet the minimum graduation requirements. Many of my students have seen limited success either in science in particular or in school in general and one of my challenges as a teacher is to make sure my students see my class as an opportunity to change the patterns they’ve experienced in other courses.

In my department, the standard approach when a student is absent from a lab has been to have them come in before or after school to complete it. The trick is many of the same issues that keep a student from coming to class, such as obligations outside of school or transportation issues, can also make it difficult for them to come in outside of the school day. Even if I’m willing to bend for a student who talks to me, how many never do because they see coming in outside of school as just one more immovable barrier they face? This is doubly frustrating to students who have a study hall or similar space in the school day where they could make up the lab, but the lack of available space or staff to monitor lab safety mean I can’t give students that opportunity.

My go-to has been to provide a make-up version of the lab with the data already filled in. While it gets away from requiring students to come in outside the school day, the data often feels like meaningless numbers when students don’t have any connection to how it was collected. Students also miss out on a lot of science practices, such as designing the experiment, using the necessary tools accurately, and the countless decisions that come with collecting your own data. While I think a student can make progress on these skills missing a lab here or there, a student who is gone frequently can easily miss out on a crucial part of the course.

Pivot Interactives has allowed me to give students something in-between these two approaches. While it can’t completely replace the kinesthetic experiences that happen in an apparatus-based lab, students still can make qualitative visual observations and develop a clear understanding of where the measurements come from since they are seeing the experiment and takin the data themselves. I can also easily write a make-up version of the lab that includes similar experimental design and data collection decisions that students had to make in the classroom. At the same time, students can complete the lab when and where it works for them, rather than having to make a small window of time work. As a result, many of this year’s make-up labs have felt more to students like an actual lab experience rather than a box to check using disembodied data.

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Where Does the Energy Go?: Using Evidence-Based Reasoning to Connect Energy and Motion

This post appears as an article in the January 2018 issue of The Science Teacher.

Stoeckel, M. (2018). Where does the energy go?: Using evidence-based reasoning to connect energy and motion. The Science Teacher, 85(1), 19-25.

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