Periscope: Looking into learning in Best-practices University Physics Classrooms

Rachel E. Scherr (Seattle Pacific University) and Renee Michelle Goertzen (American Physical Society)

Physics faculty who are concerned with physics teacher education often put their efforts toward educating pre-service physics teachers, who are most directly accessible to physicists. A variety of effective approaches to pre-service teacher education have been developed, tested, and replicated, including learning assistant (LA) programs, science methods courses specific to physics teachers, and pedagogy courses that engage undergraduates with themes of teaching and learning. In any of these contexts, pre-service teachers can benefit from structured opportunities to reflect on high-quality teaching and learning practices, learn about key pedagogical concepts in physics education, and observe effective implementation of a variety of research-based and research-validated instructional materials.

Periscope, a new resource under development, provides pre-service physics teachers (as well as physics graduate teaching assistants, undergraduate learning assistants, and faculty) with the opportunity to “look into learning” in best-practices university physics classrooms. Periscope is organized into short lessons that highlight significant topics in the teaching and learning of physics, such as formative assessment or cooperative learning. Topics are introduced through captioned video episodes of introductory physics students in the classroom, chosen to prompt collaborative discussion. For example, in one video episode, frustrated tutorial students ask an LA to tell them the right answer, and the LA responds with more questions. Line-numbered transcripts and excerpts of the activity help participants engage with the specifics of the interactions, such as: Which student asked for the answer, and why? What was the tone of the LA’s response? Subsequent discussion questions also prompt participants who view the episode to reflect on their pedagogical beliefs and on their own practice: What might the LA in the episode have been trying to accomplish? What are the potential benefits and risks of her approach? What effect did the LA’s response have on the students? What else might an LA in that situation have done? Suggestions for further reading connect lessons to scholarship and research in physics education.

Through Periscope, LAs and pre-service teachers observe, discuss, and reflect on teaching situations similar to the ones they themselves face, developing their pedagogical content knowledge and supporting their identity as teaching professionals. Video episodes from exemplary sites showcase a variety of research-tested instructional formats such as Modeling Instruction and Tutorials in Introductory Physics. Since the classrooms featured in the video episodes are university physics classrooms, Periscope materials are especially appropriate for undergraduate learning assistants and other university instructors, but they may also serve pre-service teachers and other populations.

The advantages of video-supported pre-service teacher education are substantial. Video supports educators in entering vividly into a real event in teaching and learning, stimulating insight into what happened and why. Periscope video episodes provide diverse, intimate examples of what teaching really looks like, including peer discussions without an instructor present. Watching with others reveals both unique and universal interpretations of the same events, rarely possible with in-person classroom observation. Watching repeatedly supports testing intuitions against evidence. Discussions of the event with other educators bring out the principles and values that inform instructor and student behavior. Finally, video offers a rare opportunity to stop the classroom action, share observations, and build a repertoire of responses, thus building skills for real-time formative assessment.

For example, in one Periscope video episode, four students (“Arlo,” “Bella,” “Claire,” and “Dawn”) in a University of Maryland tutorial session are collaborating to draw the velocity versus time graph for a cart that rolls freely first up, then down a ramp. The correct graph would be a straight diagonal line; theirs is curved steeply at each end and flat as it crosses the horizontal axis. During their collaboration, a graduate teaching assistant (“Luke”) comes by to check on them.
  1. Arlo: All right, let’s start thinking about the acceleration at the moment the car reaches its peak.
  2. Claire: The acceleration starts out fast, like high…
  3. Dawn: It’s gonna be going from positive to negative, they're gonna reach
  4. Arlo: So it’s zero, it's (with Claire:) zero at the peak.  Yeah.
  5. Claire: That we know.
  6. Bella: Right, because the slope was the.
  7. [To Luke, who just arrived] Bella: Yeah we figured it out.
  8. Arlo: We fixed it.
  9. Bella: You tried to fool us.
  10. Luke: What does it look like?  Hm. [Examines Arlo’s sketch.]
  11. Arlo: Cause it’s going the opposite direction, so thus it would have a negative velocity.
  12. Luke: I see.
  13. Arlo: We’re guessing.
  14. Luke: Do you guys agree that it’s curved like that?
  15. Bella: Hhh
  16. Arlo: Ummm
  17. Bella: We did.
  18. Dawn: We used to agree with that.
  19. Luke: I’ll let you guys discuss.  That’s uh, an interesting question to consider.
  20. Bella: Torture. This is torture.
  21. Arlo: I know.
  22. Dawn: Where’s that other guy?

Video adds information that is difficult to convey in a transcript, including the hesitation with which Luke backs away from the table during line 19, and Bella’s exasperated tone as she drops her head into her hands at line 20.

Each Periscope lesson includes a one-page handout; the front page has a photo of the student group in the video episode, site acknowledgment, the physics task the students in the video are working on, and discussion questions that target that week’s topic, and the back page has line-numbered transcript and suggestions for further reading. For the episode above, discussion questions support pre-service teachers in making evidence-based interpretations of the events in the video and connecting those interpretations to key issues in teaching and learning, particularly (in this case) formative assessment:
  1. The students’ graph has both correct and incorrect features. What features of the graph are correct?
  2. For the specific features of the students’ graph that are incorrect, in what way do they make sense? What reasonable ideas might be supporting their incorrect answer?
  3. Judging by the end of the episode, this interaction was not a pleasant one for the students. It seems that they place some responsibility for this unpleasantness on Luke (since they want to talk to someone else). What did Luke do that might have contributed to unpleasantness?
  4. It is worth considering the possibility that this interaction is not pleasant for Luke, either. Did the students do anything that might have made Luke uncomfortable?
  5. The first step in formative assessment is to find out where your students are coming from. Is Luke effective at this? Does he get a good picture of their ideas? If so, how does he do so? If not, what might he do next to learn more?

Periscope materials are designed to be used in courses, seminars, or workshops in which discussions are facilitated by physics faculty, education faculty, a Teacher in Residence, or any other leader with expertise in physics education. An article about Periscope in the forthcoming book Effective Practices for Pre-service Teacher Education: Recruitment, Retention, and Preparation offers extensive suggestions for facilitating such discussions as well as more information about the materials.

Periscope lessons provide a forum for instructors at all levels to talk substantively about teaching, providing a means for shaping educators’ values. They promote individual and group reflection on teaching and learning practices, support engagement with key pedagogical concepts, and provide a glimpse of interactive teaching and learning in action at a variety of institutions. Pilot materials produced with support from the Physics Teacher Education Coalition are available free to educators. Periscope itself will be released in Summer 2014 (still free to educators), featuring more topics in teaching and learning, classroom video from a wider variety of institutions, and an updated interface.

Rachel E. Scherr received her doctorate at the University of Washington and is a Senior Research Scientist at Seattle Pacific University. She is a consultant with the American Physical Society on physics teacher preparation.

Renee Michelle Goertzen received her doctorate at the University of Maryland and is the Education Programs Manager at the American Physical Society, where she works on projects to increase the quality and diversity of physics education. Her research has focused on the professional development of physics instructors.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.