Tag Archives: language

Analyzing IB Physics Exam Language Programmatically

I just gave my IB physics students an exam consisting entirely of IB questions. I've styled my questions after IB questions on other exams and on homework. I've also looked at (and assigned) plenty of example questions from IB textbooks.

Just before the exam, students came to me with some questions on vocabulary that had never come up before. It could be that they hadn't looked at the problems as closely as they had before this exam. What struck me was that their questions were not on physics words. They were on regular English words that, used in a physics context, can have a very different meaning than otherwise. For these students that often use online translators to help in decoding problems, I suddenly saw this to be a bigger problem than I had previously imagined. An example: a student asked what it meant for an object to be 'stationary'. This was easily explained, but the student shook her head and smiled because she had understood its other meaning. On the exam, I saw this same student making mistakes because she did not understand the word 'negligible', though we had talked about it before in the context of multiple ways to say that energy was conserved. Clearly, I need to do more, but I need more information about vocabulary.

It got me wondering - what non-content related vocabulary does occur frequently on IB exams to warrant exposing students to it in some form?

I decided to use a computational solution because I didn't have time to go through multiple exams and circle words I thought students might not get. I wanted to know what words were most common across a number of recent exams.

Here's what I did:

  • I opened both paper 1 and paper 2 from May 2014, 2013, 2012 (two time zones for each) as well as both papers from November 2013. I cut and pasted the entire text from each test into a text file - over 25,000 words.
  • I wrote a Python script using the pandas library to do the heavy lifting. It was my first time using it, so no haters please. You can check out the code here. The basic idea is that the pandas DataFrame object lets you count up the number of occurrences of each element in the list.
  • Part of this process was stripping out words that wouldn't be useful data. I took out the 100 most common words in English from Wikipedia. I also removed some other exam specific words like instructions, names, and artifacts from cutting and pasting from a PDF file. Finally, I took out the command terms like 'define','analyze','state', and the like. This would leave the words I was looking for.
  • You can see the resulting data in this spreadsheet, the top 300 words sorted by frequency. On a quick run through, I marked the third column if a word was likely to appear in development of a topic. This list can then be sorted to identify words that might be worth including in my problem sets so that students have seen them before.

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There are a number of words here that are mathematics terms. Luckily, I have most of these physics students for mathematics as well, so I'll be able to make sure those aren't surprises. The physics related words (such as energy, which appeared 177 times) will be practiced through doing homework problems. Students tend to learn the content-specific vocabulary without too much trouble, as they learn those words in context. I also encourage students to create glossaries in their notebooks to help them remember these terms.

The bigger question is what to do with those words that aren't as common - a much more difficult one. My preliminary ideas:

  • Make sure that I use this vocabulary repeatedly in my own practice problems. Insist that students write out the equivalent word in their own language, once they understand the context that it is used in physics.
  • Introduce and use vocabulary in the prerequisite courses as well, and share these words with colleagues, whether they are teaching the IB courses or not.
  • Share these words with the ESOL teachers as a list of general words students need to know. These (I think) cut across at least math and science courses, but I'm pretty sure many of them apply to language and social studies as well.

I wish I had thought to do this earlier in the year, but I wouldn't have had time to do this then, nor would I have thought it would be useful. As the semester draws to a close and I reflect, I'm finding that the free time I'll have coming up to be really valuable moving forward.

I'm curious what you all think in the comments, folks. Help me out if you can.

Your students might not be cursing at you...

One of the students I had the pleasure of teaching in AP physics in the Bronx started with quite a reputation. As a student that spoke Chinese and little English in the 9th grade, he was placed in the entry level math class. It took only a short time for his teacher to notice that, given his background and obvious mathematical skills, this probably wasn't the right place for him. He was quickly moved up the sequence of courses until he ended up in a Math B course that included trigonometry as I recall.

This was not just a case of this student having memorized mathematical concepts from his time in China, though he had seen a lot of math by the time he arrived at Lehman. In his junior and senior years, the quality of his insights and ability to predict, comprehend, and connect ideas in both math and physics were truly impressive and indicative of a strong talent. As his teacher in physics, the greatest challenge I had was not in teaching him how to solve a physics problem, but to write down his line of reasoning that scattered together with frightening speed in his head. My favorite teaching moments with him came on the rare occasion when he had an actual misunderstanding and I witnessed the exact moment of his realization of what he did not get; the physical change in his face was unforgettable.

I was brought back to a story I heard a while back from colleagues about his early times in the classroom. He had a tendency to mutter to himself during class. On an occasion when a student made a comment that was an oversimplification of a concept, this student started saying at a noticeable volume something that sounded like 'bull-shit'.

The teacher, clearly shocked by this, reacted softly with a word after class. Given the student's limited English ability, the message had little chance of making it across. The outburst happened again under more unlucky circumstances when the assistant principal and principal were both in the room observing the teacher - this time, the consequences were a bit more serious. The fact was that, given his personality and the directness associated with translation into a second language, it didn't seem completely out of character for him to call out a teacher on glossing over a math concept. He saw past the simplification for the sake of his classmates. Calling a teacher out publicly like that, though clearly inappropriate to all of us, might have just been a side effect of being in a new place with new people.

If math was the only language he understood well, and he witnessed math being communicated in an way that was not fully clear to him, of course those moments would attract such a reaction. Over time, we learned to react constructively to these reactions and counsel him into more appropriate ways to ask questions or address his usually correct abstractions of the ideas presented in class.

Fast forward eight yearsto when I was with my ninth graders on our class trip to Shandong province a week ago. As a reward for a hike up thousands of stairs the day before, we spent the final night of the trip visiting a hot springs pool. While the students were splashing around, our tour guide was having a conversation with one of the other tourists in the pool. I was relaxing my eyes staring out at the rocks around the pool when I heard something strangely familiar in their conversation.

"Bu shi...Bu shi..."

I knew both of these words now with my limited experience, but had never thought of them together before. The character bu (不) negates whatever comes after it, and shi (是)is essentially the verb 'to be'. Putting it together in my head while getting prune fingers at the time, I realized that the phrase bu shi must then mean 'isn't'. I confirmed my reasoning with the guide: she was saying that something the tourist was saying wasn't true.

There I was, seven thousand miles away, realizing long after the fact that this student we all came to admire was probably not cursing at us. He was just saying he thought something he was being taught wasn't entirely true. It's the sort of thing we hope our students are thinking about during lessons, questioning their understanding of the content of a lesson. I've had students do this in English and never felt threatened by it.

There are many different lessons to take from this. I have been cursed at as a teacher, and I knew it was happening when it was happening because, well, it's pretty hard to ignore it when it's happening to you. The fact that this student was having a fairly normal reaction when something wasn't making sense to him was overshadowed by our misunderstanding of what HE was saying. We assumed he was being out of line. He was innocently saying what was on his mind.

How often do we assume we know what our students are saying without really listening? I'm guilty of wanting to hear an answer that moves a lesson along, but it's not right, especially when the understanding isn't there. My students in the Chinese student's physics class would say an answer they thought was right, and I would on occasion fill in the gaps and go on as if I had heard the correct answer I wanted to hear, even though what the students actually said wasn't even close to what I wanted. Over the years since they called me out on that, I've worked to make that not happen.

In an international school like the one at which I am now teaching, there are languages on top of ideas on top of personalities in my classroom that mix together every day. It is incredibly important to make sure that with such a complex mix of factors, you really know what your students are saying to you and each other.