Teaching a University Course at the High School Level


I have the privilege of teaching a course that is articulated through the University of Minnesota. I have been wanting for some time to write about it, particularly because it has become an interesting mash-up of some cool physics ed stuff;

  • Modeling Instruction
  • Context-Rich Problem Solving
  • In-depth study of content (as opposed to AP Physics B)
  • Significant lab/writing component
  • Standards Based Grading (sort of…you’ll have to read on to find out more!)

The course is called College in the Schools (CIS) Introduction to College Physics. CIS is a program run by the University of Minnesota where students take college classes, get college credit (complete with a U of M transcript), while being taught by high school teachers at a high school. CIS Physics is PHYS 1101W, where the W stands for the fact that students get one of their required writing credits due to the 5 lab reports written throughout the course.

I was first accepted to teach CIS physics as part of a four teacher pilot for the year 10-11 (the 2nd year of the pilot), and now the course has expanded to around 10 schools total, all in Minnesota. I have very much enjoyed the course as an alternative to AP Physics B, though admittedly the change to Physics 1 and 2 could render some of the benefits of CIS less potent. I moved towards CIS physics because I was tired of three aspects of AP B;

  1. I felt like we raced through the material and, because of that, students weren’t learning to their full potential (we taught it as a first year course)
  2. I felt there was no time for lab, and thus labs were few and far between.
  3. Many students worked extremely hard only to fall just short on one single measure of their physics understanding at the end of the year.

CIS physics is a one semester course at the U, taught over a full year at the HS level. This decision was made because the course requires 6.5 hours of contact time each week (3 hours of lecture, 2.5 hours of lab, and 1 hour of discussion), which we cannot touch with 46 minute classes. I love, however, that even at the U, more than half the time is spent with students working rather than listening. My classroom is much more than half, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Aspects of the U of M course

Lecture: U of M introductory physics courses run into the hundreds of students, and as such they have developed a system to manage aspects of learning physics while trying as best as possible to stay true to researched pedagogy. That said, lecture is still the content delivery method, and is given by faculty in the department. Students attend lecture three days a week for an hour each day. This component of the course is greatly reduced in my version due to my use of Modeling Instruction (MI). More on that in a bit.

Lab: The U of M developed a laboratory manual with 3-5 lab “problems” for each unit. Conveniently, many of these labs align well with MI, with the remainder providing good opportunities for verification labs. I love that I am expected to use almost half my class time for lab!

Lab reports: As much as I hate grading them, I like that this course has a technical writing component. I have received significant positive feedback from former students, both in regular and CIS physics, about their preparation for future lab reports because of my class. More importantly, I think it is important that students learn, generally, how to use data to make a logical argument. Lab reports also help me gain important insights on the reasoning skills and physics understandings of my students.

Discussion: This is the U of M’s main contribution within Physics Education Research (PER). The U’s PER group has done significant research into the use of Context Rich Problems solved collaboratively by groups of students.  This is an awesome part of the course, where students work in groups to solve difficult problems.

CIS Physics in my Classroom

The main difference between the U and my courses is numbers. They have hundreds of students per section, while (somewhat ironically) the CIS program limits our sections to 24 students. For me this has meant that I can effectively integrate a modified form of Modeling Instruction (MI) into the course, which largely replaces lecture (read more about why I use MI).Currently, this modified MI cycle, mashed together with some of the U of MN’s parts of the class, looks something like this;

  1. Paradigm lab: The purpose of a paradigm lab is to introduce the concept at hand, usually by investigating a specific relationship. Kelly has lots of great examples of paradigm labs, and their connection to model building, here. This works very well with the labs from the U, as slight tweaking allows for use of ‘official’ U labs for paradigm purposes.
  2. Conceptual aspects of model building: Though not universally true, I tend to start model building after the paradigm lab by looking at the conceptual aspects of the model. This tends to involve heavy use of the traditional MI worksheets and whiteboarding.
  3. Problem Solving: This tends to start with a couple of days where students work through problems and I move around the classroom giving help where needed. Sometimes we whiteboard solutions, sometimes students just check their work and move on when they understand.
  4. Context Rich Problem Solving: Students work on problems that are more difficult than those they can solve individually in the given time frame. Here is an example of a context rich problem that I wrote.
  5. Verification Lab: Usually units end by applying the model to a situation to verify it’s ability to make successful predictions. These labs come from the U’s ‘official’ lab manual and are usually complex, yet at the same time give convincing results.

I would like to add a couple of things in the future as I revise and re-write CIS Physics;

  1. Wow-factors that drive learning. I have recently been inspired by Shawn Cornally and his emphasis of using something awesome to inspire learning. I want more awesome.
  2. Breaking the Model, as Frank addresses at the 7:45 mark of his TEDx talk. I want to provide more coherence between models, and part of that is addressing the shortfalls of the current model so we have a reason to move to the next. 
  3. Standards Based Grading (SBG). There is a 5-10% category that is flexible, per the U’s guidelines for the CIS class. This is because the course at the U changes with the instructor (grading and all), and often the category is participation-based. It has been clicker questions, notecard answers, and other things in the past. I currently wrap that 10% into my other categories (Lab reports, Exams, and Final; I don’t believe in giving participation points or grading homework, but that’s a different post), but next year I would like to use it for standards checks. Most of the exams are problem based with some aspects that require implicitly conceptual understand rather than an explicit display of that understanding. I plan to have weekly standards quizzes (which I already do to some extent) that address 3-4 standards per unit so that students are getting more feedback on those conceptual and otherwise scaffolding pieces that lead up to the exams. The quizzes would be 100% retake-able  and each standard would be graded on a binary scale: either they’ve got it or they don’t. It’s not full SBG like I would like, but I think it will really help students to know their progress before the big exams.

That’s my current and future CIS Physics class in a nutshell. Feel free to ask questions or make suggestions!

Update: Here’s the post where I outlined in more detail how I am currently implementing a modified version of Standards Based Grading in this class.


18 responses to “Teaching a University Course at the High School Level

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