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.

  1. #1 by enricouva on June 12, 2019 - 7:06 am

    Sounds like a good venture. It’s more difficult to leave both yourself and a team behind , so with a sense of belonging, the drop rate might dip indeed.


  2. #2 by marcreif on September 2, 2020 - 2:52 pm

    This blog post is pure gold! Thanks!


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