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A Leap for Me Is a Baby Step in Personalization

I’ve been on the journey to bring personalized learning to my classroom for 3 years now. It seems that every time I think I’ve taken a big step forward, I look and see that in the grand scheme of bringing true voice/choice/agency to my students, I’m still add drops to a big bucket.  That’s not meant to be a cynical statement. It’s meant to see how much room I have to grow.  In an attempt to try to take another small leap forward, I tried something different with my current unit in AP Physics.  This might seems like personalization 101, but it was a big leap for me in terms of demand and supply.

The unit I’m focusing on is Electromagnetic Induction.  Without getting into the physics of it, it is easily the most difficult concept for students to grasp in all of AP Physics.  This is the topic that students have shown the most difficulty with on the AP test.  In fact, it is the free response question which tends to be the lowest scoring on the entire exam.  Many students in fact leave it blank.  This concept requires the ability to model forces, motion, and fields in 3 dimensions.  Models which cannot be viewed with the human eye and only observed as numbers read by a meter.  Simply put, students can’t use mathematics as a crutch to understand this stuff.  It requires the construction of strong conceptual models that produce multiple cascades of consequences due to a single event.

The first 3 days of the unit were fairly traditional.  Day 1 and 3, I went over the major topics via interactive lecture using Pear Deck and assigned problem sets for practice students could complete digitally or on paper.  On day 2, students experimented with a Java simulation from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Phet program. These powerful simulations are a lifesaver for a physics teacher trying to allow students to learn electricity, magnetism, and induction.  They allow for manipulation of variables in a sandbox type of environment.

On day 4, I asked the students how they felt about their progression towards mastery of the main learning objective of the unit.  I used Pear Deck to record their response on a sliding scale.  Basically, if the assessment were tomorrow how would you fair?
Objective Progress.png

After that, I asked students to tell me what they needed from me to improve their mastery.  Students responded individually again via Pear Deck.
Requests for Help.png

I used the requests to design a menu of options for the next two days.  This menu included
  • Reteaching specific concepts from the unit in mini-lessons
  • Guided practice sessions broken up by topics using Pear Deck
  • Individual practice problem sets posted as quizzes on Canvas organized by concept
  • Videos on specifics topics linked from Khan Academy

When students came to class on days 5 and 6, they were given the option of what they wanted to work on.  I put the schedule of the mini-lessons and guided practices on the board so that students could plan on joining in when it suited them.  Thanks to the monitors I have in the lab stations, students were able to follow along even if they were working on other practice problems.  If they heard me talking about a problem similar to one they were practicing, they could look up and follow along on the monitor without having to journey to the front lecture area.  It really made for a dynamic learning environment.

None of these menu options were assigned and none were a part of a student’s grade.  I will be honest, not all students made the best use of their time but they were not off task or disruptive to the learning of others. This will be something I may address in the future in terms of a simple check in/planning piece.  In the future, I would like to have more options for those students who felt they had already mastered the objective and were ready for the assessment.  Next year, I plan on incorporating more hands on STEM projects to overarch the class. I have written a grant for LittleBits electronic kits.  These kits would allow those students who have mastered the objective opportunities to take their learning further.

As for the summative assessment, like usual students had the choice of a traditional test or the alternative assessment in which they choose a method to convey their understanding of the objective to me.  Options students are choosing include screencasts (using Explain Everything), presentations (using Google Slides), Infographics, and using Google Docs and Drawing together to create image rich documents.  They key is for the students to explain the concepts in the way that best suits them.  There is nothing wrong with a traditional test if it doesn’t provide a barrier for understanding.  But, I find that in the process of completing the alternative assessment, students still get a deep understanding of the concepts. They must be able to take what was taught to them and communicate that model to an audience.  

We spend two days for assessment preparation.  Students who are taking the test can use the first day to work on additional practice problems like a sample FRQ and take the test on day 2. Or, they can take the test day 1 if ready. Students who are completing the alternative assessment have both days to work on their product.  If they are creating a presentation, they must submit the slideshow but do not have to present that day.  

I look forward to hearing my students’ feedback about having the menu of requested practice options and mini-lessons.  I polled them after the first day of assessment prep about where they were on objective mastery.  


Just looking at it graphically makes me very happy if this is traditionally the toughest concept in AP Physics.  Not everyone is there yet, but it reinforces the “why” of personalized instruction.  Everyone does not learn at the same pace.  So we need options for everyone across the spectrum from reteaching the basics to advanced application of concepts.  I’ve allowed students choice in expression, now it’s time I dig deeper into providing real choice in access and engagement.

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