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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