Classroom Stories

Classroom Stories: The Problem of Students at Home

By Stacy Palen

I don’t know about you, but I have learned more about my students’ living situation in the last six weeks than I have any right to know. I learned that one of my students was homeless and living in her car. I learned that one of my students is living in his parents' unfinished basement with his wife and two children. I learned that two of my (senior-level physics majors) didn’t have computers or laptops of their own, and have always done all of their schoolwork on campus. I learned that several of my students have children and live in studio apartments (and I know what those children are studying in THEIR online classrooms). I learned that one of my students has two very young special needs children who refuse to wear anything but “Underoos” when they are at home in the house, even if mommy is meeting with her professor on Zoom.

And I learned that a whole lot of my students do not have reliable internet access. Of course, I suspected that already—because late last summer, a Facebook friend posted an article about students writing essays on their phones because they lack access to the internet in their homes.

A second friend who teaches English composition at a community college commented that she has a unit on “how to write an essay on your phone,” specifically for this reason.

Back in September, that sent me down a little rabbit hole to this blog post from 2018 which summarized a report from the US Department of Energy.

The take-home message is that while nearly all children ages 3-18 have a computer at home (94%), only 61% have access to the internet.

My University made what I consider to be absolutely heroic efforts to loan technology (tablets, laptops, and desktops) to students who did not have it. For weeks, they kept an office open on campus so that students could come and borrow whatever was available.

Many students were able to take advantage of this, but in the end, there was not enough to go around. (There is also a food pantry which has now moved to three locations off-campus.)

I thought a lot about all of this while I was (rapidly and unexpectedly) preparing to move my classes online. I thought about all of these problems for students:

  • Lack of internet access.
  • Having to share bandwidth with their school-aged children and their spouse working from home.
  • Having to share space with children and a spouse who is maybe not working from home.
  • Hunger, and the plain fundamental stress of major life changes brought on by a global pandemic.

And then I tried to think of the best way to ensure that this unprecedented situation “did no harm;” I wanted students to still be able to learn and make progress if they had the mental bandwidth to get it done. These problems were the primary driver behind my decision to make all of my classes asynchronous.

While I feel a deep sense of loss from not interacting with my students in real time, I’m convinced that this was the best decision for the majority of them. Many students “handed in” their homework in the dead hours of the night. Many students sent me emails at those times as well. Many students thanked me for shifting to asynchronous teaching, although some complained that they “were left to learn it all on their own.” It’s a fair criticism, especially since none of these students actually CHOSE an online course!

After I made this decision, I saw a number of articles from more experienced online teachers, who promoted the idea of asynchronous online classes. And several colleagues (here and at other institutions) reported that they tried to have synchronous classes, but attendance dropped precipitously, and they wound up shifting to asynchronous instruction.

As I think ahead to how I might best organize an online class in the next few semesters, I’ll keep these limitations for students very firmly fixed in the front of my mind.


Classroom Stories: Cheating and Exams

By Stacy Palen

We are just past finals here at Weber State, and we have been having a lot of discussions about how the transition to online learning went. Among those discussions is a big piece about student cheating. This was prompted by a faculty member who has taught the online astronomy course for a long time (27 times!) and has usually proctored closed-note exams. During the second half of this semester, those exams changed to open-note exams taken at home (presumably!) without a proctor. The average of student course scores rose 8%, and for the first time ever, no one earned a “D” or failed the class.

Clearly, this was not a controlled experiment. There are several possibilities for why student scores rose, which are not mutually exclusive:

  • Students who are uncomfortable with going someplace new to take proctored exams were more comfortable at home.
  • Students who are normally overwhelmed by a closed-book exam did better with an open-book exam.
  • Students cheated with one another by sharing answers.
  • Students cheated by looking things up online.
  • Students used a “service,” such as “Take My Online Exam” or “Online Class Hero,” or something similar.
  • Something else we haven’t thought of yet.

Figuring out what’s going on here, and why, will take more data, and probably some more experiments. We feel compelled to figure it out, because we want to maintain the integrity of the profession, and we want to help guide students to be better people.

Fighting against cheating can be draining. I recall a professor, for whom I was a TA in grad school, who carried out quite sophisticated statistical cross-correlation analyses of the in-class multiple-choice tests in order to catch people cheating on exams. He seemed to enjoy the challenge. I did not, and I found that spending so much mental effort on distrust really damaged my ability to find joy in my job. (Not to make it all about me…but I think students benefit when I’m full of joy, rather than furious.)

I take a different track. Even in my face-to-face classes, I give take-home, open-book, open-note, and written exams that students have several days to work on. I came to this solution by focusing really hard on what I actually want students to know or be able to do.

I don’t actually care if students can recall things; I care if they can figure out things. I also care to give them feedback about their reasoning. Consequently, I don’t give multiple-choice exams. All by itself, that makes cheating a lot harder. (Yes, it’s a gigantic pain to grade 120 final exams by hand. But it’s also a gigantic pain to run sophisticated statistical cross-correlation analyses, and change them every time the testing software changes.)

I don’t think students will ever not have Google (or something similar) at their fingertips, so it’s fine with me if they look things up. I write an exam that presumes that they actually do have Google, or the textbook, at their fingertips to look things up. Making this assumption lets me ask questions that are a lot harder to figure out, and therefore a lot harder to Google directly.

I do care that they “attend” class (for a certain pandemic value of “attend”), so on the exam, I ask several questions that are trivial if they’ve actually been in this class for this semester, but are impossible if they haven’t. (And I vary my lectures and materials accordingly.) This has the added benefit of automatically penalizing students using a test bank or an online service; they can’t get those points, and I don’t have to do anything special about it.

But the most important thing I do is try to make the exams personally compelling. I write a story for them, and then I drop them in it. For several years now, I’ve used a “zombie apocalypse” narrative. (In the post-COVID world, that might not be the best choice!) I used to drop them on a desert island.

In the future, I might try having them imagine they are teaching their kids about the sky, or they’ve been abducted by aliens, or that a time machine has transported them to the deep future. The common feature underlying all these scenarios is that they are on their own. I think the story matters; it makes the material feel relevant (even if they know zombies aren’t real), and it gives them an incentive to try to solve it themselves.

This semester, in the abruptly online experiment that we were all thrown into, I found that I had little to change about this practice. I had to think a little harder about the fraction of “attendance” questions that I wanted to ask, and what made for a fair question of this type. (I specifically referenced Astronomy in Action videos instead of our in-class lecture.) In my class, the average on the pre-COVID midterm was within a few points of the average on the post-COVID final, and the overall course average was just over 75%, which is where it usually is.

There are so many tools now, and so many different ways, to carve up a class into compartments that teach or test each content area, skill, or attitude; take a look at them, and figure out which ones will do the best job for the things you care about. Be sure to start by asking yourself this important question: What is it that you want them to know or be able to do? What are the deeper values you bring with you to the classroom?

Then, figure out how to design your assessments to reach those goals and teach those values. This may be overwhelming this semester, but as you look ahead to future semesters, you may find that you are changing a lot of things anyway. Changing the way you write your exams may save you the time and effort you currently spend on arranging proctors or catching cheaters, which will ultimately make it harder and less rewarding for students to cheat.

 


Classroom Stories: It’s a Learning Experience!

By Stacy Palen

I remember when I was in school, things would occasionally go badly, or at least unexpectedly, and a teacher would often say “It’s a learning experience; it builds character!”

Well. Here we are in the midst of a global pandemic, building character all over the place!

My university is in finals week, and I’ve just finished grading my astronomy exams for both Astro101 and the Junior level cosmology class.

It’s a good time to reflect on a few things.

First, I started with the driving directive that I would “do no harm.” I took note of the scores for each student when we were all sent home and decided that this would be the lowest grade that the student could earn. I felt that this was only fair since an online class is not the same experience at all. If they had wanted an online class, they would have signed up for one!

As it turns out, about 75% of the students improved their score (some only slightly), while 15% of their scores dropped only slightly—not enough to matter in the final letter grade. That left me with a handful of students (10%) who reverted to their earlier score. These were clearly students who eventually stopped handing things in altogether; a couple of them let me know their very good reasons for doing so.

I think those results are interesting and would love to know if others had similar results in their classes!

Second, what an amazing opportunity this is to identify which things students can learn just by reading, and which things students need real live instruction in order to learn! Maybe I would call this “learning by conversation” to distinguish it from Learning by Doing. We were sent home right at the transition from the Solar System to stars, so all of stars, galaxies, and cosmology was carried out by asynchronous online instruction. I noticed the following in my Astro101 exams:

  1. My students basically understand the H-R diagram; they can add new stars to it and identify regions and stellar properties like temperature. However, they do not understand evolutionary tracks, and the misconception about stars evolving ALONG the main sequence remains, even though it is explicitly addressed in the text. I do not have this problem when I teach the topic “live.”
  2. Special and general relativity are full of misconceptions. It seems as though reading about it reinforces what they already think is true, even if what they are reading is actually saying the opposite of what they already think. They miss the subtleties and re-interpret the text to match what’s already in their heads from Star Trek or wherever. For these topics, they absolutely need to have someone see their foreheads crinkle in confusion and give them the chance to ask questions as they have them.
  3. Every misconception about the expanding universe is still there, even though the text tries hard to counter this. And the videos. And the simulations. This is fascinating. These misconceptions persist in part because we didn’t get to do the hands-on “balloon universe” activity (can your students find balloons in their house? I don’t have any). But partly, it’s because they don’t get to hear someone ask the question “but if everything’s going away, doesn’t that mean there has to be a center?” and get the answer 8 or 10 times in a class period.

I’m sure there will be more examples as I process, and think about how to learn what I can from this unplanned experiment. I’d love to hear what you are noticing about this idea of “learning by conversation.” It will help me think about tools to develop over the summer in case we are all teaching and learning online again in the Fall.


Classroom Stories: Electron Transitions in the Atom

By Stacy Palen

Before we all were sent home because of COVID-19, my class completed a short in-class activity that was intended to prepare them for the study of stellar spectra. This activity can also be done by students taking online courses, although the big advantage of doing them in class is that it gives such insight into where students are struggling with the material!

This activity is all about transitions in the atom. I thought it was interesting that many of my students did not know about energy level diagrams (which I didn’t really expect), but I was surprised to learn that a fair percentage of them had never even heard of the Bohr model of the atom.

After listening for a while to the discussion, I was reminded that a fair number of my students are concurrent enrollment; they are actually high school students who are taking this course to fulfill their science credit. We can argue about whether that’s a good idea (I do not think that astronomy is a good substitute for chemistry).

The fact remains that they are taking my course and I need to teach them about a subject that is completely foreign to them.

This activity introduces the concept of electron energy levels, emission, and absorption. I struggled a bit here to introduce the idea that in order to make an upward transition, the electron has to get energy from somewhere, and therefore the “rest of space” will have less energy in it. I didn’t want to introduce Kirchoff’s laws yet, and they hadn’t yet seen an absorption spectrum. But they got the point, despite my unhappiness with the imprecise language I used.

Click here to access the activity for yourself and let me know how it works for you!


Classroom Stories: Light as a Wave

By Stacy Palen

Typically, I lecture about light as a wave by showing students images of waves and describing wavelength, frequency, and velocity. Then I tell them that wavelength and color go together; that light of a particular color has a particular wavelength.

However, when we would get to the Light and Spectra activity, it was clear that they had not fully internalized this information. Given that I’m not lecturing at all this semester, I invented a short activity (which can be accessed by clicking here) that unpacks this relationship a bit.

The activity uses an LED light tower that I happen to have. You can find this specific one here, but the activity could be adapted for use with spectral tubes or images from the internet.

I cannot darken the room this semester, so being able to adapt this activity made it indispensable. I also could not use the spectral tubes for my students because they simply weren’t bright enough to see. I wound up using the online images from the light and spectra lab. Without this activity students would not have been able to use their spectrum glasses in the classroom at all!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, no, it doesn’t work to try to project the spectrum tubes using the document camera.

Despite the difficulties in using the online images, student performance on the light and spectra activity was better than in the past. They also seem to have acquired a clear understanding that color and wavelength are related.

You can check out the activity yourself by clicking here!

 

 


Classroom Stories: More Ruminations on a Theme: Fermi Warm-Ups

By Stacy Palen & John Armstrong

This week, we have a guest post from a colleague at Weber State University. John Armstrong is also teaching in the inadequate classroom. He is experimenting with a way to fill the time while he figures out what’s changed about the A/V situation since the last class two days ago… 

Thanks to some intermittent multimedia issues in my new “temporary” classroom, I’m forced to get creative with the first ten minutes of class every day. So, I start by giving a Fermi problem to my students. I ask the question and they can work on the answer while I jiggle cables and try turning things off and on again.

Physicist Enrico Fermi was famous for posing seemingly unsolvable questions that he would then proceed to solve with a few back-of-the-envelope calculations. The most famous of these—how many piano tuners are there in the city of Chicago—requires some educated guesses about population, the popularity of pianos, and the diligence of their owners, but you get surprisingly close to the “correct” answer without knowing much of anything.

In astronomy, this tool has been leveraged in the Drake Equation to estimate the number of civilizations in our galaxy, proving that even when you can’t know some of the parameters you need to measure, you at least have a framework for study. The first three terms of this equation—the number of new stars formed in the galaxy, the number of these stars that form planets, and the number of Earth-like planets in each system—were largely unknown when I started my studies in the mid-nineties. They now have pretty good estimates. We are now on the verge of an estimate of how many planets can evolve life, which is something that could happen in the next decade or so.

But when I reached this point in my class, going from a simple Fermi problem to the Drake Equation seemed like a heavy lift.

I’ve always started the semester with a formal activity on estimating the number of pebbles in a jar. We measure the volume of the jar, remove a few pebbles and systematically measure their volumes, and then divide the two. The amount of agreement between the groups is surprising.

But thanks to my A/V woes, I’ve started asking a question every day. How much does the mass of humans increase each year? How far does a bumblebee travel in a day? How much food energy do you consume in a year? And each day, more and more students seem to dive in. Better yet, some of them have come in after doing some of their own estimations. How many bricks are in their house? How much electricity do they consume every year? 

The answer to the last question turns out to be surprising: It’s about ten times the amount of energy that you eat in food.

While I’ve always seen the value in Fermi problems, their routine application is giving my students extra practice and increasing their numeracy. And they also seem to be sparking my students' interest in their own questions.

I can’t wait to get to the Drake Equation!

—John Armstrong


Classroom Stories: Another Way to Do the Phases of the Moon

By Stacy Palen

The phases of the Moon are one of those topics that has been extensively studied by the astronomy education research community and is well-known to be more complex than most people think. There’s the change of perspective from Earth-view to space-view. There are multiple motions at once (the rotation of Earth and the Moon, and the revolution of the Moon around Earth). There’s the issue about light rays always traveling in straight lines and not bending. It’s complicated.

Last week, I pulled an old phases-of-the-Moon activity out of the archives, which can be accessed by clicking here, for my students to complete in addition to the activity, “Studying the Phases of the Moon” from the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook. This is not an appropriate activity for Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy because it requires students to have Styrofoam balls that have been colored black on one half. (I can’t make the classroom dark, so I can’t use the traditional “balls-on-sticks” approach.) But one thing that I like very much about this activity is that it leads them to figure out how to (approximately) tell time by the Moon, which means that I can ask them a question about it on my zombie-apocalypse midterm—insert evil laugh here!

The activity also asks them to consider the phases of other objects, such as the phases of Earth as seen from the Moon, or the phases of Deimos as seen from Mars or Phobos. Carrying the concept of phases away from Earth seems to help cement the idea that this is a phenomenon that is all about the relative location of the light source and the observer.

I followed this activity the next week with the “Studying the Phases of the Moon” activity from the workbook. I was interested to notice that students finished the activity in record time and were much better prepared for it. The two activities worked well together to really build their picture of how the phases of the Moon actually occur.


Classroom Stories: Energy and Kepler’s Laws: A Surprise for Me about Where the Difficulty Lies

By Stacy Palen

Recently, my students worked on the “Working with Kepler’s Laws” activity from the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook. In this activity, students learn about ellipses, consider the “simple” version of Kepler’s second law (a planet travels faster when nearer to the Sun and slower when farther away), and run some numbers for Kepler’s third law: P2=a3. To my surprise, Kepler 1 and Kepler 3 brought almost no questions from the students (aside from “Am I doing this right?”). It was Kepler’s Second law that brought the most substantive questions.

Over and over they asked “Yes, but WHY does it go faster when it’s closer?”

I used this question as the basis for a whole new activity.

Approaching this question as an energy problem, I had the students throw a ball straight up in the air and make pie charts representing how much kinetic energy, gravitational potential energy, or thermal energy the ball had at various points in its trajectory. Then they threw the ball to a friend and made similar pie charts (in this case the velocity is never zero, so the kinetic energy is also never zero). Then I had them consider a planet in orbit around the Sun and make a third set of pie charts.

Wow! This was so much harder for them than I expected!

First, it turned out that pie charts are a concept that most (but not all) of my students have in common. Who knew?

Second, we ran into the issue about where to put the “zero” of gravitational potential energy. This information was in the Background section, so it was invisible.

Third, we faced our biggest issue: Convincing students that when they threw the ball straight up into the air, the ball had zero speed at the apex of the trajectory. That alone was a 20-minute conversation!

Finally, even though I told them to describe what happens to the ball between the moment after it left their hand to the moment before they caught it, many students turned all the energy into thermal energy. I’ve edited the activity to try to correct these problems and will use it again in the fall in search of perfection.

Despite these problems, I was very happy about the conversations that I overheard as I moved around the room. Some students were completely unfamiliar with the conservation of energy. They made progress simply by learning how the energy transformations occur for a ball thrown in the air!

Other students rocked that part but were stuck when the questions about orbits showed up; this was often because they drew the Sun at the center of the orbit instead of at a focus. What a great opportunity to correct this problem!

Finally, some students spent a very long time arguing about whether they needed to account for energy lost to thermal energy in our current Solar System.

Overall, I was pleased by what I learned about how they think about energy as well as how well they grappled with this material. And I’ve now set them up to have a spark of recognition when they learn about planet migration later in the semester. This activity is a work in progress, but I will definitely try it again!

You can access the activity by clicking here!


Classroom Stories: Classroom Calculators

By Stacy Palen

Here’s the thing: all students have a calculator in their phone. And for a long time, I've thought, “They should use the calculator in their phone so they know how to use the calculator in their phone!” But here’s the other thing: a lot of those calculators are terrible. They don’t all do the order of operations the same way. They don’t all have the same “buttons” on them. They don’t all use the same notation. Therefore, any time I have students do any math at all in the classroom, I spend most of the time running around and helping them figure out how to put the “times ten to the” into their calculator. iPhone calculators are pretty good, but Samsung calculators don’t have the same functionality. Students must painstakingly type “(3 X 10 ^ 8)” rather than “3EE8.” That may not seem so bad, but if they forget the parentheses, the calculator doesn’t see their input as one number. So, if the problem includes division, the student is stymied. In addition, students' having their phone in their hand is distracting to the point of incompetence.

This semester, I had the idea to invest in a classroom set of calculators. I found a fairly simple solar-powered calculator that I could buy for less than $7, and I begged the chair of my department to use some of our lab fees to buy 60 of them.

When we have an activity involving a math problem, I invite students to borrow one, and I use the document camera to show them exactly how to punch things into the calculator. For Kepler’s Third Law, I show them how to square a number and how to take a cube root. For multiplying powers of 10, I show them how to put in “3 X 108” so the calculator interprets it as a single number (3EE8 or 3EXP8).

So far, this has been revolutionary. I spend far less time helping students with their calculators and far more time helping them think about their answers. Students can now help each other with the calculators, too, and they don’t need to wait for me to come around to them. Generally, this seems to be helping them be more patient.

Even for the many students who have their own favorite calculator, they sometimes don’t know how to use it for our specific purpose—it’s set up for stats, for example. While they have the option to borrow a calculator or use their own, I still spend some time helping these students find the “EE” or “EXP” key for scientific notation, but if they otherwise know how to use the calculator, they seem to remember this new function more easily. Looking back, I estimate that I could have bought only half as many calculators for the 70 students in the room, and even fewer if they work in pairs.

As I go along, I’m compiling a list of calculator instructions that I can print and tape to the cover. I may make a large poster of this information, instead, which might work better once we are back in our usual teaching space.

I have been pleasantly surprised by how much easier it is to manage the classroom when all my students have the same tool. In retrospect, it seems obvious that this method would be easier, but it took me nearly 20 years to think of it…


Classroom Stories: Teaching the Seasons in Inadequate Classroom Space

By Stacy Palen

Last week, we continued our struggle with the lack of AV equipment in our temporary teaching space. In order to teach the seasons in this space, I rewrote an old activity that used an overhead projector and a piece of cardboard with a hole cut out to help students understand why the angle of incidence matters.

Not having an overhead projector or cardboard handy, it occurred to me to have the students use their cell phone flashlights and the hole punched in their Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook pages to accomplish the same purpose.

I always feel chuffed when I think of some new way to solve the problem!  

I very much liked the way students interacted with this activity.

In Part A, they have to assemble some of their own real-life knowledge about seasons on Earth. In Part B, they have to hold the WRONG idea in their head as if it were true, which is especially challenging! In Part C, they identify and explain the correct explanation. In the final part, they apply their understanding to seasons on Uranus and test their ability to extend their knowledge to a new situation.

It took most students about 25 minutes to do this activity.

When I teach it again, I’ll probably modify some of the language in Part B to make it even more clear that I expect them to write down things that they know are wrong.

This activity may eventually make its way into Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy because I’ve now figured out how to do it with no extra equipment!

You can access the activity by clicking here!