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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Defining Electric Potential Difference by Moving a Multimeter’s Ground Probe

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

Stoeckel, M. (2018). Moving multimeter ground to define electric potential difference. The Physics Teacher, 54(24), 24-25.

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Making the Move to Standards-Based Grading

This spring, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing how the year went and trying to identify my biggest frustrations. My goal isn’t to wallow in negativity; I’m much more interested in figuring out what I can do differently next year to reduce or eliminate those frustrations. As I reflected on the year, I identified my two biggest frustrations:

  • My students, at least near the start of the year, are very focused on points and this makes it difficult for them to take risks or try something they don’t have step-by-step directions for. This isn’t a surprise since most of my students are 12th graders who’ve done very well in school by focusing on points. While most students got comfortable not always knowing the answer immediately by the end of the year, I’d like to make that transition faster and less painful.
  • Many of my students did a brain dump after each test and at the end of each term. I quickly found that when I wanted students to build on concepts from a previous unit or see connections to a topic from last trimester, I had to build in time to review the earlier concept. Like the focus on points, this serves students very well in most classes, including ones I’ve taught, and the majority of students eventually made the necessary shifts, but I’d like to help them make the jump much sooner.

Both of these frustrations are promoted by my grading system. I’ve used a fairly traditional gradebook where I record scores for selected labs and problem sets in one category and scores for large unit tests in a separate category (with a larger weight). Of course when my grading system is built on accruing points students will focus on points! Of course when we have a unit test on some arbitrary date, then move on to a brand new topic with its own big test students will mentally move on, as well! Clearly, it is time for me to take a new approach for grading.

I decided I dive into standards-based grading (SBG). The key idea is that instead of receiving scores on specific assignments (such as unit 1 test or chapter 12 test), students receive scores on specific objectives. This steers the focus away from points in the traditional sense and towards what students truly need to know. Another key feature is that students have the opportunity to reassess standards, usually with the new score replacing the old one. This dramatically lowers the stakes for students. They can take a risk, trying a new approach to a problem or a lab, knowing that if they fail, they can always try again. In addition, students can’t get away with forgetting what they learned since every standard will be assessed multiple times. In many cases, teachers record only the most recent score for a standard, even if it goes down, with the goal of making a student’s final grade represent their knowledge and skills at the end of the course.

This is also good timing for a shift in my grading practices. My building has had a group of teachers studying the issue of grading for a few years and they have arrived at a several grading practices that every teacher in the building will need to follow next year, which means I’ll be making some changes no matter what, so I may as well make some big ones. The first task, however, is to make sure I see how I can fit SBG into next year’s requirements.

Requirement 1: Grades will have three weighted categories: summative (75%), formative (15%), and cumulative final (10%).

A major tenet of SBG is that students should have the opportunity to practice and master content without being penalized for mistakes, so the formative category isn’t in-line with SBG, but I think I know how I’d like to approach this requirement. The summative category is where I’ll place the course objectives. To keep things simple, I’ll update scores on each objective every time it is assessed so that only the most recent score affects a student’s grade. The formative category is where I’ll record scores for the formal lab reports I have students write (usually two per trimester). I see the lab reports as addressing overarching skills such as scientific practices and communication that I would like to include in grades, but are much broader than the typical content objective. At this point, I’m comfortable placing the lab reports in the formative category in order to give those skills more weight than a single objectives.

Requirement 2: In-progress and final grades will be reported as a percentage and mapped to a traditional letter grade.

Our gradebook software reports student percentages to two decimal places, a level of precision I don’t think I’m capable of as a grader. But, its what we have and percentages aren’t going away in my district any time soon, so I need to figure out how I’m going to work within those confines. For now, my plan is to simply make each objective an assignment worth whatever maximum I set my scale to. The summative category will then be worth points equal to the number of objectives x maximum possible score on each objective. The software will then take an average that it uses as a student’s grade in the summative category.

The main issue I have with this approach is a student could conceivably get a respectable grade with no progress towards mastery on some objectives (this can happen just as easily in a traditional grading system; its just easier to hide). For this year, I want to keep things simple, so I’m planning to just keep this in the back of my mind; I doubt I’ll see a significant number of students who do well overall, but ignore a few key standards. Down the line, I may try conjunctive SBG where certain standards are required to earn a passing grade. I may also consider giving certain standards more weight in the gradebook either because they are more complex or more crucial to future learning than the other standards.

Requirement 3: Every class will have a culminating activity during the final exam period.

While I haven’t found much on final exams in the SBG materials I’ve read so far, giving significant weight to what a student does during a certain 90 minute period seems to go against much of the thinking behind SBG. Ideally, what I’d like to do is move away from a traditional written exam, where students do an assortment of problems from throughout the trimester, and toward a more authentic assessment. One option would be an open-ended project, such as Casey Rutherford’s final project where students must come up with a physics question, then collect data to answer it. Another option would be to follow my district’s STEM integration efforts and develop an engineering design challenge where students must apply physics to solve some kind of real-world problem. The trick here would be to come up with something where students would truly have to apply their physics knowledge in a meaningful way.

Requirement 4: Scores no lower than 50% will be recorded for any summative assessment students attempt.

I absolutely agree with this requirement; it makes no sense that most grades cover a range of 10 percentage points (less if you count grades with a + or -) while an F covers 60 percentage points. The main trick is what it will look like to follow this guideline using SBG. My plan is to give students a numerical score for each standard, and have the floor at half the points. For example, many teachers who use SBG give their students a 1, 2, or 3 on each standard they attempt. I will probably give a 2, 3, or 4, instead.

Requirement 5: Students will have at least one reassessment opportunity on all summative assessments.

This requirement is very in-line with SBG; the only question is how I want to manage reassessments. In a good physics class, there is some spiraling of content that happens naturally, and I plan to treat that as one option for reassessment. For example, I had some students this year who did poorly on linear constant acceleration, but, by the time we finished projectile motion, were nailing complex problems that used the same skills. In those cases, I would have no problem updating a student’s scores for constant acceleration objectives.

I also want to offer more explicit reassessment opportunities. I am a fan of Sam Shah’s reassessment application and am planning to modify it for out of class reassessment. I really like that he forces students to reflect on what got in their way and to articulate what they’ve done to improve, rather than allowing students to take the all-too-familiar approach of just trying again on the assumption that it will go better.

I’m also considering Kelly O’Shea’s “test menus” for in-class assessments. It sounds fairly easy to manage for a large number of students (which is important, since my average class size will be somewhere above 30 next year) while still providing significant student choice in their assessment.

What’s Next

I feel like I’ve got the broad strokes in place for next year, but there are still a lot of details to work out. My next big task will be to revise my objectives. My district has been using learning targets (a certain flavor of objective) for a few years, but we didn’t have much dedicated time to work on objectives, so mine are, at best, mediocre. If they are going to become the basis of my gradebook, I need to put in the time to write clearer, more precise learning targets.

My other big summer task will be to finalize (at least for now) some of the details for how I want to grade and revise my syllabus accordingly. While I fully expect to revise my syllabus and details of my grading system as the year progresses, I need to have some of the structure worked out before the fall to help students feel some sense of security in this new adventure.



Engineering to Learn Science

I teach a one-trimester 9th grade course called Engineering & Physical Science.  For the engineering standards, I fell into the same kind of engineering projects that I’ve seen many science teachers fall into.  My students did a short straw tower project that did an okay job of teaching the nature of engineering standards from the Minnesota Science Standards and was something the students enjoyed, but connected to science concepts at a superficial level, at best.  I was well aware that, since students were not able to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way to design their towers, the project was really just tinkering.

This summer, thanks to a combination of my district’s participation in the University of Minnesota EngrTEAMS project and a generous grant from 3M, I was able to not only get some professional development over what good engineering instruction looks like, but I got the significant curriculum writing time and the materials budget that developing more meaningful engineering instruction takes.  The past two weeks in my 9th grade classroom, I had the rewarding experience of implementing the unit I developed with a teacher from St. Paul Public Schools and an instructional coach from EngrTEAMS.

The unit began with instruction over Newton’s Laws to prepare students to design a cargo carrier that would protect an egg in a head-on collision after rolling down a ramp, a variation on the classic egg drop project.  To keep students focused on the cargo carriers, where they could apply Newton’s Laws most directly, we provided cars the carrier could Velcro to.  The cars also had a spot on the front to attach a Vernier Dual-Range Force Sensor to measure the impact force when the vehicle crashed.

student project

A student project ready to head down the ramp

Realistically, students could create an effective cargo carrier without knowing anything about Newton’s Laws, so a major instructional task has been to give students a reason to make the connection.  Next week, students will be delivering presentations where they make a pitch for their design, which must include references to Newton’s Laws to justify design decisions.  To prepare students for this task, I’ve been spending a lot of time going from group to group to ask them to explain what they are doing, and I’m excited about the results.  Students who are normally checked out were not only able to articulate connections between Newton’s Laws and their designs, but some even started participating in class discussions intended to extend their understanding to other contexts.  Even when I just listened in, rather thank asking about connections to Newton’s Laws, students had a lot of great conversations about how to use Newton’s Laws to improve their design.  Next week, students will be preparing presentations intended to serve as a pitch as their design and will have a chance to share what they’ve been thinking with the entire class.

The past week and a half, while students have been designing, building, and testing, my classroom has been chaos, filled with noise and mess and activity.  Because that chaos is a result of students who are engaged and excited about their work, I was glad to embrace it.  My challenge now is to find ways to bring some of that same energy and ownership into other topics in the 9th grade course.

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