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The Effects of the COVID-19 Shutdown on Graduating Grade 12 Students’ Physics Studies

Chris Meyer, President, Ontario Association of Physics Teachers

High schools were shut down this past spring [2020] due to the pandemic, causing learning to move online for the final three months of the school year. What effect has this had on the learning of our grade 12 students who have now graduated and are entering university this fall? I have been working with the U of T Engineering Outreach Office to try to answer this question. This spring, they created an online Engineering Academy to help grade 12 students improve their skills prior to starting their first-year courses. I was involved with the physics component of this Academy and surveyed the students to find out more about their COVID-19 learning experiences. The Academy was free to any student who accepted admission to U of T Engineering and many of the incoming students took advantage and signed up.

Time Spent Learning Physics
During the first week of the Academy, I surveyed students to find out when they studied grade 12 physics. I knew that students studying in second semester would experience the greatest effect, but I didn’t know what proportion of students were semestered. Now I have a good idea:


Students studying physics during the first semester and in the previous year will have completed their grade 12 physics studies without any interruption. After March Break 2020, the schools closed due to COVID-19, causing a three-month loss of in-class learning. Students studying physics for the full year this school year will have had roughly 7 months of in-class learning and 3 months of remote learning, and students studying in the second semester had about 6 weeks of in-class learning before the shutdown. It is hard to equate the number of months of remote learning with an equivalent of in-class learning. Consider the circumstances of second semester students: during remote learning, instructions from the Ministry of Education limited student work to a total of three hours per week for semestered courses. Under normal circumstances, students would have had six hours of in-class work per week plus perhaps three hours of homework. If a simple comparison was possible, this means the three months of remote learning would roughly replace one month of in-class learning, except that the quality of the remote learning was likely very different. All this suggests, a solid half (59%) of incoming university students, those who were full-year and second semester, will have very real learning deficits due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

What did they learn?
I asked students to identify which grade 12 physics topics they learned in class, which they learned remotely, and which they did not see at all. Here are the results from the students unaffected by COVID-19, which form a helpful baseline for comparisons.


This provides an interesting snapshot of what actually gets taught in high school physics. The totals don’t add to 100% because some students left out a response or accidentally chose the “Remote learning” option even though they completed their grade 12 physics course before COVID. Here are the definitions I gave students to help them identify the topics:
  • 2-D motion (components and projectiles)
  • 2-D forces (forces on inclines, components)
  • Circular Motion (centripetal acceleration and forces)
  • Momentum (2-D collisions, elastic/inelastic collisions)
  • Electric Fields (Coloumb's law, forces due to fields)
  • Magnetic Fields (left/right hand rules, F = qvB sin θ)
  • Light (2-D waves, diffraction, single/double slit interference)
  • Modern Physics (special relativity, wave/particle duality)
In the data from full-year students, we begin to see the effects of remote learning:


I think it is fair to say the typical full-year course had completed the curriculum up to momentum before the COVID-19 shutdown. After that, we see a significant drop off for in-class completion. Due to the work time constraints imposed by the Ministry, teachers had to triage the course content and cut material. The most dramatic effects are found in the experiences of second semester students:


In my school the shutdown hit at the topic of circular motion and that seems to match the pattern in the data: after 2-D forces, there is a huge drop for in-class learning. The 17% who show they learned 2-D motion remotely might have reached this topic after 2-D forces, when they study planar motion in general as a preparation for circular motion. The triage has been severe for these students, with large proportions not seeing the topics of fields, light and modern physics.

The Quality of Remote Learning
This is difficult to accurately depict but is likely best described as poor. Two official restrictions had very real effects: the three-hour limit for weekly work slowed down learning and the Ministry instruction that “marks cannot drop” below their March Break value led to declines in participation (certainly the case in my school). Instruction likely shifted to textbook readings, asynchronous lessons, or pre-made videos (Khan Academy, for example). No doubt, some very innovative learning happened and there were engaging synchronous lessons, but due to the sudden nature of the shutdown, I estimate this benefited only a small fraction of students. In particular, the immediate feedback and hands-on learning that takes place in physical classes was not likely replaced. As a result, students will have had less coaching on the thinking processes involved in understanding and applying physics ideas and less time developing laboratory or scientific inquiry skills. High stakes testing and final exams were likely very different or did not occur (our physics courses did not run tests or exams), which would have effects on course content consolidation and practice for future testing experiences. Due to course content triage, both smaller side-topics and major topics were omitted. All these effects are magnified greatly for second semester students.

Implications for First-Year Students and Instruction
The COVID-19 shutdown will have significant effects on first-year students this fall, but might be masked by a few factors:
  • Signal-to-Noise. Roughly half of students learned grade 12 physics normally, which will make the signal from the affected students, especially second semester students, harder to notice. This will make it harder to decide how to support students and harder to determine if the right students are making use of the supports.
  • Superficial Learning. Due to the superficial nature of remote learning, students will have “seen” topics without learning them in a meaningful way. Concepts are more likely to have been memorized rather than understood and problem solving more likely to have been algorithmic rather than nuanced. As a result, students might say “I have learned this” and be able to complete simple tasks, but when the tasks are different and more complex, students will bog down more quickly than expected.
  • False Confidence. Superficial learning might also lead to false confidence when students incorrectly assess their skills and understandings and then fail to take advantage of learning supports specifically designed to address the COVID-19 shutdown.
  • False Start. The content covered in the first month of many first-year physics courses is the content students are most likely to have learned well in class, causing early assessments or midterms to show that everything is fine.
  • Next Year, too. Current students finishing grade 11 physics likely have significant learning deficits in the topics of Waves and Sound, and Circuits and Electromagnetism. These deficits won’t appear in universities for another year and a half.
Consequently, depending on how you look for the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown, you might not find them. The learning experience for students will also be different:
  • Anxiety. Students are entering university knowing that they did relatively little during the last three months of high school; diligent students will know that a lot of material was left out. They will have little or no in-person connections to the university. This will be an anxious experience.
  • Cognitive Load and Stress. There will be many small details and topics students will belatedly realize they need to catch up on, so they will be attempting more new learning overall. Also, the experience of struggling with the new work, eventually realizing that there is a part of the learning that is missing, tracking that down, and applying it to the new work will add to stress levels, perhaps significantly for some students.
  • Habits of Mind. Students will be less familiar with the scientific habits of mind, helpful thinking processes, and scientific cultural practices. These are often “hidden skills” that are not specifically named or taught but are picked up through in-class practice. For example: when a teacher talks through a worked solution and explains her thinking process that allows her to start the problem; when a teacher explains the assumptions being used to simplify a situation; when a teacher reinforces a sequence of thinking like draw an interaction diagram, then a force diagram, identify the states of motion and force in each perpendicular direction, then write the second law in the x- and y-directions. These habits of mind are likely to be weak and instructors are likely to be unaware that they need to be explicitly taught.
  • Math. Mathematics is the bogeyman of introductory physics classes. Instructors generally wish students had better skills and often assume some needed skills are not in the Ontario high school math curriculum. Students’ math skills will be weaker this fall. The calculus and vectors course runs in the second semester after the grade 12 advanced functions course so there is a good chance that much of students’ work with derivatives and vector algebra will have been online. Calculus-based physics courses often use integrals in the first unit when equations of motion are covered. This was problematic in the past, since antiderivatives are not covered in high school, and will be more so this fall. Wishing it were otherwise will not solve this problem.
Helping First-Year Students
Here is my advice for how university departments can help incoming students:
  • Study and Track Students. Run your own surveys so you can learn more about your students. Keep in mind that students will have had superficial exposure to many topics.
  • Flexible, Multi-Level Review. For each major topic, provide a review that is easy to use, generates feedback, and works at different levels. High school physics instruction is still largely chalk-and-talk, so most students would benefit from a review that checks for deeper understanding. Because of the COVID-19 shutdown, more students will need a topic review that builds fluency with basic skills. This will be most effective and efficient if students can self-diagnose their level of skills and understanding and choose the appropriate review.
  • Reduce Content. You will need more course time for the basics. Cover less and do it more carefully.
    Take Advantage of Physics Education Research. Provide more structure for student work that includes multiple representations. Use observations and evidence (Etkina, 2019) to introduce concepts. Introduce the math after the main ideas have been fleshed-out (Arons & Redish, 1997). Use rubrics for basic skills and techniques. Use a model-making process to frame problem solving or concept development.
  • Build Online Community. Beginning university through online learning will be very impersonal and isolating. Help students connect with one another and form online study and social groups.
Other Observations About Student Preparation
In my surveys, I have come across a few other things that might help with first year instruction. Half of students have never used a problem-solving process more sophisticated than GRASP (givens, required, approach, solution, paraphrase). GRASP and similar strategies help more with solution writing and less with identifying the physics ideas required for effective problem solving. Here is an example of a rich problem-solving process, which also shows a quick survey of my students’ familiarity with the process:


Most students have not seen a “ball and spring” model for solid matter. Without this, they struggle to understand forces within solid objects, a key idea in engineering.


The Long-term Effects of COVID-19
I hope you find these observations helpful for first-year instruction. The disruptions to high school learning by COVID-19 will affect university teaching for a few years: the school year starting this fall will not be back to normal since students in the larger urban boards will be in class less than 50% of the time and the past year’s grade 11 physics students will have missed important content (likely electricity, magnetism, waves, sound) that might not be visited in grade 12. This means the efforts people make to modify introductory courses this year will likely be useful over the next few years. It might be quite a while before physics teaching returns to “normal” and hopefully it doesn’t if we use these disruptions as opportunities to improve our pedagogy. Best wishes for your teaching this fall!

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