Monthly Archives: June 2015

Building a Model: Part 3 – Weekly Reports

Week 2 of the advanced workshop was quite busy! In addition to talking about alternate problem types, we also talked about a useful tool called weekly reports. Weekly reports were developed by Eugenia Etkina and are outlined in her paper “Weekly Reports: A Two-Way Feedback Tool” (2000). The purpose of weekly reports is to make students’ thinking visible and consists of 4 questions (I edited the original wording a bit):

  1. What do you think you learned this week?
  2. How did learn the things you named above?
  3. What questions do you still have or what is still unclear to you?
  4. What questions do you expect the teacher to ask you tomorrow about what you have learned?

The point of these questions is to get students to actually verbalize what they think they have learned which is often different than what the teacher thinks the students have learned. The use of standards-based grading and clear learning targets should help students understand what they are expected to learn each week.

The questions in the weekly report get progressively more difficult for students to answer. The “what” question is pretty straight forward but “how did you learn it” is more difficult to answer. This question forces students to think about how the model was built. The next question, “what is still unclear?” makes students think about their weaknesses which is often more difficult than thinking about strengths. Students may be tempted to answer “question 2 on the homework was difficult” instead of identifying a particular concept. The last question is probably the most difficult to answer because the student must think like the teacher. The purpose of this question is to see if the student can identify the most important concepts learned that week.

A lot of diagnostic information can be drawn from weekly reports but my first thought as a teacher (and the thought of many others in the workshop) was “that sounds like a lot of work!” The question then becomes, how can you streamline this process?

I started by making a Google Form with these questions and embedding it in my website. This way all of my student’s responses will be dumped into one spreadsheet which is easier to sort through than a pile of papers. I may also distribute the first weekly report through Doctopus so I can give feedback easily. Another way to cut down the work on these weekly reports is to not make them weekly. A bi-weekly report might be more fitting in a high school setting.

I’m going to jump on the weekly report train next school year and try to work out the bugs along the way. Progress posts to come!

P.S. Wouldn’t it be great if I could change the name to TPS reports? Summer project: work on that acronym!

Building a Model: Part 2 – Alternative Question Types

Week 2 of my advanced modeling workshop has come and gone and we spent a lot of time with alternative question types. As teachers we are always looking for ways to keep our classes fresh. One way to do that is through alternative questions types like ranking tasks, jeopardy problems, context-rich problems and goal-less problems.

I knew about all of these question types before coming to this workshop but I realized this past week that I have no idea what I’m doing!

Through a lot of readings (see problem-type summaries below), I now have a better understanding of alternative problem types and how to use them. The biggest mistake I was making with all of these question types was letting the first time students see these new question types be on an assessment. This is a big “no no” because students need time to practice and adjust to these somewhat unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable types of alternative problems. Make sure to set your students up for success with these new problem types!

Here is a little bit about each type of problem:

Ranking Tasks

Ranking tasks might be my favorite type of alternative problem. Check out the articles “Ranking Tasks: A New Type of Test Item” by David Maloney (1987) and “Ranking Tasks Revisited” by Maloney and Friedel (1995) for an academic overview of this question type.

A ranking task question gives student 4-8 arrangements with the same basic structure but different numbers or data. Student need to rank the items based on given criteria and explain their reasoning for their ranking. The great thing about ranking tasks is students must figure out what variable they are looking for on their own. This question type also gives teachers the chance to see how students think, not just their answer.

For our nuclear chemistry unit, I wrote a ranking task using mass spec data and average atomic mass. Students have to rank the elements represented by the data from least massive to most massive. To solve this problem, students need to understand the graphs they are looking at and then know how to pull data from the graphs to calculate the average atomic mass of each sample using a weighted average.

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 9.11.27 AM

Jeopardy Problems

Jeopardy problems are another fun type of alternative problem. A jeopardy problem is just like the iconic game show, you give students the answer and they give you the question. Again, for an academic overview of this problem type, see “Playing Physics Jeopardy” by Alan Van Heuvelen and David Maloney (1999).

There are two types of jeopardy problems: equation and diagram/graph. An equation jeopardy problem gives students the complete equation for a problem and the students must come up with a scenario that fits the equation. I might give students the following equation:

Q = (205g) (4.18 J/g°C) (56°C – 14°C)

Students would have to come up with a scenario that this equation could describe. An acceptable answer is a pot of cold water, starting temperature 14°C, is heated on a stove to 56°C. Students must truly understand each variable in the equation to answer this question. The question could be made more difficult by using multiple equations.

In a graph/diagram jeopardy problem, students are given a graph or diagram and must provide a scenario that the graph or diagram could represent. I might give students an LOL chart like the one below and have them come up with a possible scenario for it. A possible solution for this problem is a pot of hot liquid water is vaporized into a gas.

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 9.25.02 AM

Jeopardy problems are a great alternative problem type because they evaluate how well students understand the equations and graphs you use in class.

Context-Rich Problems

Context-rich problems are great for chemistry because there are so many real-world applications students can explore. I love context-rich problems because they answer the question “why do I have to learn this?” Check out this overview from the University of Minnesota for a really practical approach to context-rich problems.

The key to context-rich problems is they start with “you.” The problem must give students motivation to solve it. For the nuclear unit, I wrote a context-rich problem about radioactive reindeer in Norway.

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 9.44.40 AM

This problem gives students motivation to solve the problem, students are not explicitly told what they are solving for and it is multi-step problem. I try to give students a context-rich problem within every unit as a group challenge problem.

Goal-less Problems

Goal-less problems are probably the most uncomfortable type of alternative problem for students because they are so open-ended. A goal-less problem provides students with a scenario but no question. Kelly O’Shea has a great blog post about goal-less problems in physics class. I love combining goal-less problems with standards-based grading because the learning targets give students a road map for providing solutions to the problem. A great use for goal-less problems is as reassessments. You can give students a scenario and have them apply the information to the learning targets they want to reassess.

A sample goal-less problem I have used in chemistry for my heat and temperature unit is giving students a mass and having them roll a die to get a starting temperature. See the problem below:

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 10.09.32 AM

Goal-less problems really show what aspects of a model students understand and what aspects they struggle with. The goal-less problem is also easy to differentiate because you can ask students to take it further if you give them feedback as they work.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas for keeping your assessments fresh and engaging! Happy planning!

Chemistry Learning Goals (2016-2017)

Updated for 2016-2017 school year

This post is going to be quite practical. The backbone of any standards-based grading system is a solid list of learning goals (targets, objectives, standards, whatever your school calls them). These are the standards I used last school year. I will probably tweak them before next year and I hope to get through more content this year and add another unit of learning goals. Feel free to borrow these or use them as inspiration for your own!

Unit 1: Physical Properties of Matter

1.1 – I can represent elements, compounds and molecules as “hard spheres” in particle models

1.2 – I can apply the Law of Conservation of Mass to situations involving chemical and physical change

1.3 – I can define mass, volume, and density in terms of a substance’s particles using appropriate units

1.4 – I can apply the relationship between mass, volume and density to solve quantitative problems
Unit 2: Energy and States of Matter Part 1

2.1 – I can represent the characteristics (motion, arrangement, and attraction) of particles in different states of matter

2.2 – I can relate the temperature of a substance to the average kinetic energy of its particles

2.3 – I can relate the pressure a gas exerts to the number of collisions its particles make with a surface

2.4 – I can determine the partial pressure of a particular gas in a mixture

2.5 – I can predict the effect of changing the pressure, volume, or temperature of a gas on other variables when two variables are held constant

2.6 – I can predict the effect of changing the pressure, volume, or temperature of a gas on other variables when one variable is held constant

Unit 3: Energy and States of Matter Part 2

3.1 – I can describe the energy transfer between a system and its surrounding during a phase or temperature change as endothermic or exothermic

3.2 – I can recognize that energy can be stored in an object or system as thermal energy or phase energy

3.3 – I can draw an energy bar graph to account for energy transfer and storage in all sorts of changes

3.4 – I can identify phases present and the various phase change temperatures for substances from a heating/cooling curve

3.5 – I can state the physical meaning of heat of fusion, heat of vaporization, and heat capacity

3.6 – I can calculate the quantity of energy transferred, mass of substance involved, or temperature change for a system that has undergone a temperature change

3.7 – I can calculate the quantity of energy transferred, mass of substance involved, or temperature change for a system that has undergone a phase change
Unit 4: Describing Substances

4.1 – I can distinguish among elements, compounds, pure substances, and mixtures

4.2 – I can distinguish between solutions, suspensions and colloids and describe the unique properties of each

4.3 – I can determine how the boiling point and freezing points of a solution differ from those of a pure substance

4.4 – I can state features of Dalton’s model of the atom
Unit 5: Particles with Internal Structure

5.1 – I can explain how ions are formed and how they combine to form neutral substances

5.2 – I can determine the oxidation numbers for various elements in a compound

5.3 – I can distinguish between metals and nonmetals and describe the unique properties of each

5.4 – I can distinguish between ionic, molecular, and atomic solids and describe the unique properties of each

5.5 – I can name and write formulas for ionic compounds

5.6 – I can name and write formulas for molecular compounds

5.7 – I can determine whether a substance is ionic or molecular from the name or formula of a substance

Unit 6: Chemical Reactions: Particles and Energy

6.1 – I can identify evidence of chemical reactions in terms of macroscopic observations

6.2 – I can write balanced chemical equations

6.3 – I can explain that coefficients in a chemical equation describe the quantities of substances involved and subscripts describe the number of atoms involved

6.4 – I can identify basic patterns in the way substances react (reaction types) and use them to predict products

6.5 – I can describe endothermic and exothermic reactions in terms of storage or release of chemical potential energy
Unit 7: Counting Particles Too Small to See

7.1 – I can convert between mass and moles of an element or compound

7.2 – I can convert between the number of particles and moles of an element or compound

7.3 – I can relate the molar concentration (molarity) of a solution to the number of moles and volume of the solution

7.4 – I can determine the empirical formula of a compound given the mass or percent composition

7.5 – I can determine the molecular formula of a compound given the mass or percent composition and molar mass
Unit 8: Stoichiometry

8.1 – I can calculate the number of moles of reactants and products in a chemical reaction from the number of moles of one reactant or product

8.2 – I can determine the theoretical yield for a reaction

8.3 – I can determine the percent yield for a reaction

8.4 – I can determine the limiting reactant in a chemical reaction

8.5 – I can use the ideal gas law equation to determine the number of moles in a sample of gas not at standard conditions
Unit 9: Acids and Bases

9.1 – I can distinguish between acids and bases and describe the ions they form

9.2 – I can write the balanced equation for a proton-transfer reaction

9.3 – I can define pH as the negative log concentration of hydronium ions in a solution

9.4 – I can write the names and formulas of common binary acids and oxyacids

9.5 – I can predict the products of a neutralization reaction between a strong acid and strong base

9.6 – I can distinguish between strong acids and bases and weak acids and bases
Unit 10: The Nucleus

10.1 – I can draw the models of the atom proposed by Thomson and Rutherford.

10.2 – I can state the location in the atom, the charge, and the relative mass of protons and neutrons

10.3 – I can distinguish between the atomic number, mass number and atomic mass for an element

10.4 – I can calculate the average molar mass of an element using mass spectrometry data

10.5 – I can describe the three types of nuclear radiation in terms of mass, charge, penetrating power, ionization potential and biological hazard

10.6 – I can write a balanced equation for a nuclear decay reaction

10.7 – I can use the concept of half-life to solve for the fraction of original material remaining,
elapsed time, or half-life

10.8 – I can analyze the pros and cons of nuclear technology including fission and fusion applications
Unit 11: Beyond the Nucleus

11.1 – I can draw the model of the atom proposed by Bohr

11.2 – I can represent the first 20 elements on the periodic table using men-in-well diagrams

11.3 – I can account for periodic trends in ionization energy, atomic radius and electronegativity

11.4 – I can represent the first 20 elements on the periodic table using electron configurations

11.5 – I can visualize the 3D molecular geometry of simple molecular compounds

11.6 – I can construct Lewis structures for simple molecular compounds

11.7 – I can determine whether a simple molecular compound is polar or non-polar

11.8 – I can identify the intermolecular attractions at work in a substance and their implications on material
Laboratory Skills

Lab.1 – I can conduct and clean up laboratory experiments properly and safely

Lab.2 – I can identify the hypothesis to be tested, phenomenon to be investigated, or the problem to be

Lab.3 – I can document experimental procedures clearly and completely

Lab.4 – I can record observations and experimental data neatly and accurately

Lab.5 – I can justify conclusions using experimental evidence
Communication Skills

Com.1 – I can communicate precision of measurements and calculations using significant figures

Com.2 – I can analyze the slope and y-intercept for a line of best fit to explain a scientific relationship.

Com.3 – I can convert between units of measurement


Building a Model: Part 1

Happy summer to all you teachers out there!

While I am very excited to have regained my bathroom freedom, I am even more excited about the PD I have planned for this summer. This summer is all about the modeling!

I am currently at  an advanced modeling workshop for the next 3 weeks and I thought this would be a good place to synthesize what I have been learning. The purpose of the advanced workshop is to construct a modeling unit from the ground up. The first week (and the topic of this post) consists mostly of defining your model, building your ladder of knowledge and filling in possible activities.

Step 1: Choose a Topic

This sounds deceptively easy. My group started with the topic “modern atomic theory.” Seems doable right? We soon found out that this topic was leading us straight into other topics like nuclear reactions, electronic structure and periodic trends. We concluded we either needed to take the nuclear route or the electronic route. Nuclear route won because we felt like we had less materials to address this topic.

Step 2: Define the Model

Once we had a topic, we needed to define our model. The model is the framework that all the content in the unit will be built on. A unit can contain more than 1 model. Our nuclear chemistry unit has 2 model statements:

  • The atom is divisible into smaller subatomic particles, which determine the identity of the atom and have different electrostatic charges and masses.
  • Atoms of one element can change into atoms of another element through radioactive decay.

These model statements are the guide for our entire unit. Our students must be able to complete the objectives of the unit using the above models.

Step 3: Build the Ladder

The next step was to build a ladder of content we want the students to know throughout the unit. The hardest part about this step was thinking only about content, not activities. As teachers, we are always thinking, “what activity do I have for this topic?” With a topic as broad as nuclear chemistry, it would be really easy to put together a bunch of fun activities that only dance around the content we were aiming for. The ladder helped us pinpoint exactly what we wanted our students to get from the unit and then we could fill in the “how.”

For nuclear chemistry, we wanted to build off the AMTA Modeling materials. Our students already knew about the Democritus, Dalton and Thomson models. Our nuclear unit needed to start with Rutherford. We decided to continue in the tradition of the Modeling curriculum and structure our unit historically. Our ladder looked something like this:

  1. Rutherford (nucleus is a dense positive charge in the center of the atom)
  2. Mosely (atomic number is what defines an element, not atomic mass)
  3. Chadwick (the nucleus is composed of positively charged protons AND neutral neutrons)
  4. Fermi (unstable nuclei can decay at a predictable rate, releasing a large amount of energy that can be harnessed to produce electricity)

Step 4: Fill in the Activities

Our last task of the week was to start filling in the activities. Again, another task that sounds deceptively easy. This task was especially difficult because we chose a very abstract model. Students cannot physically see the nucleus of an atom, so how do we convince them it is there? Between analogous activities and pHet simulations, we were able to make the abstract idea of the nucleus more concrete.

The trouble we ran into along the way was we were so concerned about making everything concrete, that we were losing some of the content in our analogies. At some point, every analogy fails. In the end we had to remember that our audience is intro level chemistry students who do not need every single idea spoon fed to them. We kept the strong analogous activities, like our Plinko style board to show the Rutherford model of the atom, and threw out our weaker analogies, like our weighted blocks to show the extra mass the neutron adds to the nucleus.

By the end of the week we had a pretty solid unit and were able to assign tasks to every group member. Building a model from the ground up is incredibly work intensive but it really forces you to understand the framework of Modeling Instruction.

If you haven’t been to a Modeling workshop, add it to your to-do list. Check out for dates and locations. Happy curriculum writing!