Reflections on the second year of using Modeling Instruction in AP Physics C: Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism

Dr. Nathan Belcher
6 min readMay 2, 2018

After completing my dissertation research in the 2016–2017 school year, I used the results from the research to change the AP Physics C: Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism courses for the 2017–2018 school year. This document is an update of some information in the dissertation according to the implemented changes.

Issue 1: The model format was too complicated for students to understand.

Although the language in Appendix B describing a scientific model may be technically correct, the definitions were too advanced — even for intellectual high school students. The students had a difficult time deciphering the descriptions and formulations, leading to frustration when building their models. As a result, students did not build sufficient models, which is a poor implementation of Modeling Instruction.

To remedy this issue, the 2017–2018 students received a simplified version of a model. This version contained the following categories as representations for a model:

- Written Statements — Explanations and Predictions

- Equations

- Graphs

- Diagrams

- Applications

- Limits

Students were able to understand these categories of representations for a model and used the representations during discussion, labs, and problem-solving. I am much more satisfied with the simplified version and will continue using this version in future courses.

Issue 2: The Rigid Body Rotation Model contained too much information.

During the 2016–2017 school year, the order of models in the Mechanics course left rotation until students had finished learning all models in the linear directions. This presented a large amount of information about rotation in the Rigid Body Rotation Model, which caused students to have difficulty with this model.

To help students see the similarities and differences between linear and rotational models, I interwove linear and rotational models — see Appendix D for the sequence of models. Students responded positively to this strategy, appreciating how the connections between linear and rotational models. I am optimistic that students will perform better on the rotational questions on the AP exam due to this change.

Issue 3: Students needed more guidance during AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism.

As the 2016–2017 school year progressed, I had students perform more work to make connections between labs and the concepts instead of guiding students through lecture and discussion. Students developed reasonable conceptual models during the first several units of the Electricity and Magnetism portion of the course, but had difficulties with the concepts of electromagnetism — Faraday’s Law, Gauss’s Law, and Ampère’s Law.

To help students develop more robust conceptual models, I have implemented more days of lecture and discussion rather than problem-solving. This has allowed students to ask questions about the concepts and integrate their understanding into a conceptual model. In addition, I have selected and/or created better laboratory activities to provide concrete examples of the concepts in electromagnetism.

Issue 4: The both courses were too “problem-focused” instead of “model-focused.”

One of the criticisms of AP courses is that courses can focus too much on the AP exam at the expense of other learning. Although my dissertation research focused on implementing Modeling Instruction into both courses, I fell short in 2016–2017 by focusing on problems rather than models. Although students received information about models — including a short lecture on the Modeling Theory of Cognition — and went through the Modeling Cycle for each unit, I did not focus enough on creating and using models.

During the 2017–2018 courses, I have focused more on model creation and application. Students have progressed through the Modeling Cycle for each unit, finishing each unit by writing their full conceptual model. I have also been better at explicitly identifying parts of a model, referencing these parts throughout each unit. Although problem-solving is still a major part of the course, I have shifted the focus of the course from problem-solving to modeling.

An area of improvement for 2018–2019 is to incorporate more “goalless” problems. These problems are excellent because they force students to choose the appropriate model, make assumptions, and develop a solution. I am excited to implement these problem types into the course because they further shift the focus of the course from problem-solving to modeling.

Issue 5: I have not received enough training in Modeling Instruction pedagogy.

Although I love Modeling Instruction, I am continually improving my implementation of Modeling Instruction pedagogy. My experience with Modeling Instruction workshops has been limited to two one-week Introduction to Modeling Instruction workshops; I hosted the workshops two consecutive summers so that teachers — especially in South Carolina — would have an option in South Carolina. The American Modeling Teachers Association highly recommends that teachers participate in a full three-week workshop; after completing my dissertation and teaching with Modeling Instruction pedagogy, I now understand this recommendation. The three-week courses provide an opportunity to deeply understand Modeling Instruction pedagogy and the connection to content areas, leading to higher fidelity of implementation. I plan to take a three-week course in Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism in the future so that I implement Modeling Instruction in a better way in the courses.

Table 1 and Figures 1 through 6 provide information related to the performance of students in the 2016–2017 and 2017–2018 courses.

Students had similar Raw and Normalized Gains for both years on the FCI, MBT, and EMCA (see Table 1 and Figures 1, 2, 4). Students in 2017–2018 had a higher Raw and Normalized Gain than 2016–2017 on the BEMA (see Table 1 and Figure 3); I believe this increase was due to a better implementation of Modeling Instruction in Electricity and Magnetism. For the combined Mechanics data (see Figure 5), 2017–2018 had two students reaching the “Near Mastery” level and four students reaching the “Mastery” level; for the combined Electricity and Magnetism data (see Figure 6), two students in 2017–2018 reached the “Near Mastery” and three students reached the “Mastery” level. Both combined sets of data show the student scores progress from the lower left-hand part of the graph — in the Pre-Newtonian and Pre-Maxwellian stage — to the upper-right part of the graph. This progression is the desired shift, showing that students have increased their understanding of Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism.

Overall, I am pleased with the results for the 2017–2018 students; they have been an excellent group to have in class. I am also pleased with the improvement to my implementation of Modeling Instruction in AP Physics C — and I am looking forward to further improvements!



Dr. Nathan Belcher

Founder of "The Learning Engine" -- Helping people learn and grow through the principles of learning. W&M: B.S '08, M.A.Ed '10, U of SC: Ed.D. '17