Using MOP

An excerpt from the MOP teacher's guides about how to use MOP effectively


This section describes how to get started with MOP. Ideally a teacher would work through all of the student activities and read through all of the accompanying materials in the MOP Teacher's Guides. Only then can a teacher make well-informed decisions about how to best use the MOP materials to meet their instructional needs and goals. Our experience, however, is that this ideal is unrealistic for most teachers. Teachers have little disposable time they can devote to mastering a new curriculum, and so, teachers must "learn as they go." It can take teachers as long as three years to become thoroughly comfortable and familiar with a new curriculum. We hope the contents of this section will help make getting started with MOP as efficient and effective as possible.

Getting Started covers the following areas:

  • MOP Curriculum Materials
  • Components of a MOP Activity
  • About the MOP Reader
  • Contents of the Teacher Aids
  • A Note on Laboratories, Demonstrations, and Hands-On Activities
  • Global Issues: Planning the School Year with MOP
  • Creating a Lesson Plan Around a MOP Activity
  • Formative and Summative Assessment with MOP

To get the most out of this section, it is best to have your copy of the MOP materials handy and refer to it as needed. MOP Curriculum Materials

There are two sets of materials with MOP, a set of four booklets for students and a corresponding set of booklets for teachers. The first three booklets deal with topics in mechanics: Motion, Interactions, and Conservation Laws & Concept-Based Problem Solving. The fourth booklet --- Fields, Complex Systems & Other Advanced Topics --- applies the principles developed in the first three booklets to a wide range of physical phenomena.

Each student booklet is divided into two parts: The Activities form an integrated set of thoughtful engagements for students, and the Reader organizes and summarizes the ideas of the physics content and is meant to be read after students have engaged in associated activities.

Each corresponding Teacher's Guide also has two parts: Answers and Instructional Aids for Teachers, which provides advice for how to optimize the effectiveness of the activities, as well as brief explanations and comments on each question in the student activities, and Answer Sheets, which may be duplicated and distributed to students as desired. Use of the answer sheets is particularly recommended for activities requiring a lot of graphing or drawing.

The first booklet in the teacher series contains three supplements:

  • Supplement A: Collaborative Group Techniques provides a short list of ideas for structuring in-class group activities.
  • Supplement B: Concept-Based Problem Solving gives a more detailed account of the MOP approach.
  • Supplement C: A Comparison of the Minds•On Physics Approach with the NRC's National Science Education Standards presents a list of the core standards contained in the published 1996 National Research Council Science Education Standards and a brief description of how MOP addresses each standard.

Components of a MOP Activity

The MOP activities all have the same basic structure:

  • Purpose and Expected Outcome. In this section, we tell students the specific concepts, principles, and other ideas that will be raised and addressed during the activity. This section also tells students what they are expected to learn.
  • Prior Experience / Knowledge Needed. We first list for students the concepts and principles they should know or be familiar with before attempting the activity. Then, if necessary, we provide any additional background needed to do the activity.
  • Main Activity. This section contains the specific questions and problems that probe students' understanding and prepare them to make sense out of the ideas.
  • Reflection. After finishing the Main Activity, students re-examine their answers to look for patterns. They are also asked to generalize, abstract, and relate concepts to the situations they have studied.

Occasionally an activity will contain an additional component:

  • Integration of Ideas. This section is used to get students to bring together different but related ideas --- often dealt with using separate situations in the activity --- to analyze a single, often more complex, situation.

Although a MOP activity has several components, the Main Activity and Reflection are the most important. We recommend getting students to the Main Activity as quickly as possible and not overdoing the preparation of students. Students may struggle, but most of their difficulties can be addressed as they proceed through the activity. Students may feel frustrated initially, but with some reassurance from the teacher and a little experience facing and overcoming the inevitable confusion associated with starting something new, students will grow into confident and independent learners.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile helping students become aware of the structure of the MOP activities. This can be done gradually and indirectly by meta-communicating with students. For example, on occasion ask students if they learned what they were expected to learn --- and how do they know. Sometimes have students consider whether they have the knowledge needed to do the upcoming activity. Test their knowledge by asking them some basic questions. Another good idea is to check whether students understood the directions given in the Main Activity. This can be accomplished by stopping the class (after students have had a reasonable chance to get started) and asking individual students or groups of students to share with the class how they are approaching the activity. Ask the class whether the approach meets all the requirements set forth in the directions. After students finish an activity ask students to tell you what is the purpose of the activity from their perspective.

About the MOP Reader

There is no traditional textbook with MOP. There is a Reader, but it serves mostly as a follow-up to the MOP activities. The intent is that students begin by working the activities with little or no preparation from the teacher or from any other source material. Any preparation that might be needed is provided in the Prior Experience / Knowledge Needed sections of the activities. The appropriate part of the Reader is designed to be read after the student finishes the corresponding activity (or set of activities), and is intended to summarize, organize and integrate the ideas and issues raised in the activities. The students can then use the Reader as a resource for later activities. Guidance for reading assignments is provided in the Instructional Aids. Contents of the Teacher Aids

The Answers and Instructional Aids for Teachers are our way of communicating the philosophy behind each activity and/or set of activities. We explain our goals and our expectations for each activity, and try to give warnings about student difficulties, misunderstandings, and common responses. We also suggest ways to interpret different patterns of students' responses as well as ways to assess student understanding. The Instructional Aids are intended to prepare teachers in their role as coaches of students' learning.

  • Answers with Short Explanations --- Answers are an invaluable resource. At the very least, they allow teachers to see how we think about a situation or problem. A short explanation or remark is always provided with an answer. Our intent is to emphasize the process of analyzing each question, being aware of one's assumptions, and arriving at an answer consistent with those assumptions. When appropriate we indicate how the question might be answered differently under different assumptions. Frequently we also indicate how students might answer the question or how they might reason about the situation. Although we provide answers, we wish to stress that the focus should always be on students' thinking process and never exclusively on whether an answer is right or wrong.
  • Goals and Objectives --- Identifies the physics concepts that will be dealt with in the activity and gives a brief statement of the expected outcomes.
  • Time Needed for Activity --- Provides an estimate of the time needed to complete the activity. Since there are a number of ways to approach each activity this estimate is very rough. Other factors, such as class ability or path through the material, will affect the time required for an activity. We suggest for future reference that you keep a log of the actual time needed.
  • Preparation for Students --- Identifies what students need to know before they begin the activity. Typically only two or three major items are mentioned per activity. Our intent here is to assure that the majority of the students have been prepared to a certain threshold. Clearly knowledge is cumulative and gaps in students' knowledge/skills are inevitable. Only the teacher can gauge whether or not the class as a whole is ready for an activity. Our advice is not to be unduly timid about moving ahead. However, be prepared to provide students the support they need.
  • Link to the Reader --- Indicates which sections of the Reader the students may read after finishing the activity. Students will often be asked to do several activities in succession with no reading assignment.
  • Suggestions for Classroom Use, Organization, etc. --- Contains a variety of information particularly relevant to creating a lesson plan for the activity. Suggestions are made regarding which parts of the activity to do in class and which parts to do for homework. Sometimes there are suggestions for introducing the activity. There are also suggestions on which parts students might do alone, which parts they might do in groups, and which parts might be done as a class. There are also suggestions for incorporating hands-on materials into the activity.
  • Anticipated Difficulties for Students --- Informs teachers about difficulties students are likely to have with the activity. We list only a few items --- ones we think many students will share. There are, of course, many more student difficulties that we do not list, and some of these might actually be more common than the ones we have listed. It is useful to keep a log of the most prevalent ones.
  • Probing for Student Understanding --- Contains a list of questions that can be used to assess student understanding. The questions can be used to gauge student progress on the activity as well as to identify areas of concern. Many of the items could also be used as exam questions.
  • Suggested Points for Class Discussion --- Raises some important points for discussion. A class-wide discussion provides a wonderful opportunity for students to hear views of others and get feedback on their own points of view.
  • Providing Support to Ensure Student Progress --- Provides some interventions that teachers can try when students get stuck.

A Note on Laboratories, Demonstrations, and Hands-On Activities

The MOP approach stresses the value of building the physical representation for physics concepts and principles, and integrating this with more formal representations. Consequently, some of the activities involve extensive use of hands-on activities. Clearly, laboratory exercises and demonstrations also serve to develop the physical representation and a good course will employ these methods as well. We wish here to argue that simple, unstructured explorations of physical ideas in a qualitative, hands-on manner serves an important function not met by typical demonstrations and formal laboratories.

Traditional formal labs tend to be cook-book in nature, to involve large amounts of data manipulation and analysis, and frequently culminate in time-consuming lab reports. They are often unmotivated from the students' point of view and do not seem to impact learning of physics. To be sure, there are a multitude of skills to be learned from good laboratory experiences, but command of the physical representation is not a common result. Many excellent laboratory materials have already been published and we have elected not to duplicate that effort. In our experience most teachers have strong preferences for the laboratory exercises that they use and just about any laboratory is compatible with MOP.

In many classrooms, demonstrations are used to exemplify a particular concept or principle, with the interpretation, description and explanation provided by the teacher. For a thinking student, however, a demonstration often raises many more questions than it answers, and without the opportunity to investigate those questions, students can come away with very distorted views about what the demonstration means. To become convinced of this, ask your students what they think they have observed after a demonstration before you tell them what they should have observed. We recommend a broader use of demonstrations as a means for students to explore the features relevant for understanding physical systems and the reasoning used to analyze them. To maximize the effectiveness of demonstrations, we encourage teachers to use a reason-predict-show-explain sequence of activities, in which students think about the demonstration apparatus, predict what they believe will happen, observe the demonstration, and then describe the reasoning behind their predictions. (This is sometimes called an interactive demonstration.)

In our view, simple commonplace manipulatives, such as balls, marbles, springs, strings, and toy trucks, should be well integrated into the course. Students should have continuous access to these materials, and they should be frequently asked to employ them to demonstrate physical ideas and principles in a qualitative manner. This is a very difficult task for students. Perhaps the only thing more difficult for students than translating their ideas into physical reality is explaining what they are trying to accomplish to another person. For this reason small group or class discussions of hands-on activities are particularly fruitful for interrelating the linguistic, formal, and physical representations. Global Issues: Planning the School Year with MOP

How you implement MOP during your school year depends strongly upon your instructional objectives for your specific class. There are many possible objectives, ranging from preparing students for college science courses to exposing students to the broadest possible range of physics phenomena. Faced with a particular class, many teachers feel that these two objectives are in conflict and they must strike some compromise. Indeed, because time is limited, every teacher is constantly making choices regarding how to spend their class time.

We would argue that your most important objective is to make your students self-aware and self-motivated learners, and that MOP can help you accomplish this. Many students are intimidated by physics, feel inadequate to do physics and, consequently, disengage. Students spend far too much time looking for the right answer or, even worse, the answer they think you want. Discussing these issues and your expectations openly will help them focus on the only meaningful outcome, their own learning and development. Obviously, it is important to reward engagement and effort. Such rewards, however, should not confuse students by creating the impression that all reasoning is equivalent and just a matter of taste.

Touching upon many topics and modern phenomena is a desirable goal. Such exposure, however, is only effective and long lasting if students have some firm ground of fundamental concepts to which they can relate this knowledge. Building a solid foundation is what MOP is all about. Depending upon individual goals, the mechanics portion of MOP (i.e., the first three booklets) should occupy between 1/2 to 3/4 of the school year.

Although the MOP activities are numbered, there is no need to proceed through them in strict order. Nor is there a need to do every activity or any particular activity in its entirety. While there is no single best path through the materials, it is best not to invert related activities designed to target different cognitive stages. As mentioned in the Letter from the Authors and as elaborated in Supplement B: Concept-Based Problem Solving, MOP activities dealing with the same topic are sequenced in a cognitive sense. Students are encouraged to (a) explore their current understanding, (b) refine and interrelate their physics concepts, (c) enhance their analyzing and reasoning abilities, (d) develop problem-solving skills, and (e) organize their knowledge into a coherent structure.

Which activities should be used and how much time should be devoted to each of them is something only you can decide. The activities are intended to be a resource, not a recipe. We offer the following general advice for your consideration:

  • Emphasize the need for good communication between students and yourself and among the class as a whole. Students who understand what is being asked of them are usually much more successful. It should be explained to students that it is not the answer alone that is important, but the relationship between their reasoning and their answer.
  • Do not let students get bogged down. Even the best of students may not get the desired idea on the first pass. It often takes students considerable time to accommodate and learn how to use new ideas. Rather than wait for all students to demonstrate the proficiency with a specific concept that you would like, move on, but with the intention of returning to the topic at a later time.
  • Keep course topics integrated with each other. Students often perceive an introductory physics course as a series of unrelated topics. Rarely do teachers ask students to find the velocity or position of a body once kinematics is over and Newton's laws are being covered. Sometimes this tendency to partition is even more common with mathematical topics such as graphs and vectors. Many teachers use graphs extensively while covering kinematics and never use them again. Create opportunities for students to interrelate their knowledge and skills. A spiral, multi-pass approach is more effective for learning and structuring knowledge than a one-pass approach.
  • As a special case of the above points, consider interweaving motion with interactions. The topics of kinematics (vectors, algebra, graphs, rates of change, etc.) are among the most difficult for beginning students. There is no need to wait for this formal math development to finish before beginning to develop physical intuition and reasoning skills. The two can be developed in parallel. This has the added advantage of keeping students more interested and motivated because most students consider kinematics a resounding bore. On the other hand, when they see why one might be concerned about the velocity and position of an object subject to a net force, they are more motivated to learn kinematics.

Creating a Lesson Plan Around a MOP Activity

Once you decide to use a MOP activity:

  1. If possible, invest the time to do the activity yourself. This is the best way to become familiar with the activity, and you will be in a better position to make decisions. Read over the instructional aids to get a general sense of the issues being addressed in the activity.
  2. Choose the hands-on materials that will be available.
  3. Decide how to introduce the activity. Should you let students just jump in, or should you ask a probing question beforehand, or should you do an interactive demonstration? For instance, you might discuss the Goals and Objectives with your class, or work on the example, or even do part of the activity as a class exercise.
  4. Select the portions of the activity you want to do, which parts will be done in class and which parts might be done for homework.
  5. Decide how students will engage in the activity. Should it be done as a class, in groups, in pairs, or individually? When should the class discussion begin? Should students present their answers to the rest of the class and, if so, how?
  6. Think about ways you can support students' progress through the activity.
  7. Select points for class discussion and/or question(s) to probe student understanding.
  8. Look at the explanations and comments provided with the answers to get some sense of how students might respond to the various questions and what these responses might mean.

Formative and Summative Assessment with MOP

Most assessments used by teachers are at the end of a topic and are of a summative nature, that is, they serve to evaluate student progress and assign a grade. Only rarely are tests designed to inform either students or teachers of the nature of student difficulties. Assessments of this second type are called formative because the results have consequences for subsequent instruction. Generally, it is preferred to identify student problems or misunderstandings while there is still time to do something to correct the situation. The MOP approach emphasizes the need for formative, as opposed to summative, assessment.

We know that the traditional ways of testing students do little to uncover conceptual difficulties or to measure knowledge of physical laws and principles. Traditional exam questions tend to stress answers and be numeric and formulaic in nature. New ways of assessing students' progress must necessarily be developed alongside new approaches to teaching. These new assessments need to encourage students to focus on those features that are important for deep understanding. Without new assessment methods, students will remain largely unwilling to abandon formulaic approaches. Examples of how new assessments might be structured to probe students' progress and their conceptual understanding can be found in the "Probing for Student Understanding" sections of the Answers and Instructional Aids for Teachers. Another suggestion is to reserve part of an activity for a later assessment. If students are to demonstrate their abilities, it is important that the assessment item resemble the tasks that they have rehearsed.

Finally, it is our view that tests and exams should serve primarily a pedagogic rather than evaluative function. Students dislike and resent exams because they feel evaluated, i.e. their worth is determined. Failure erodes their self-confidence and self-esteem. Success on traditional exams does not send a much better message. Successful students come to believe that achievement in the form of grades, rather than intellectual development, is the goal to be sought. Exams can be designed to be informative to students and can serve as valuable educational experiences for students. Students need to go beyond being active, or even engaged learners. They need to become self-invested in the entire process of education. They need to develop self-evaluation skills and good exams can help them achieve this goal. Frequently asking students to what they attribute their lack of success or inability to do a problem helps them establish self-reflection as the norm. Teaching self-invested and reflective students is an exciting and rewarding experience.