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Title: Tracking Inequity: An Actionable Approach to Addressing Inequities in Physics Classrooms

Authors: Julie Christensen, Niral Shah, Nickolaus Alexander Ortiz, David Stroupe, and Daniel L. Reinholz

First author’s institution: Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

Journal: The Physics Teacher 60, 414 (2022)

The first step to address the issue of discrimination against marginalized groups in physics is to build equitable physics classrooms. Before we can be ready to realize an equitable physics-learning environment, it is crucial to find a concrete and actionable method to identify inequity in physics classrooms on an everyday basis. As a physics teacher, I find this article valuable as it provides actionable and detailed steps that we can follow to make our classrooms more equitable.

The authors used an open-source classroom observation tool, Equity QUantified In Participation (EQUIP), to intentionally track inequity in classrooms. EQUIP allows teachers to track participation in class and receive reports disaggregated by student identity. To demonstrate how teachers can implement EQUIP in their course development, the article describes a project involving nine high school teachers in Michigan. The teachers used EQUIP to develop and implement new computation-based physics activities. The authors chose to video record two small groups of 2 to 4 students per classroom and the groups were chosen based on parental consent and those included marginalized students, particularly girls and students of color.


Step one is to customize EQUIP based on social markers and discourse dimensions (i.e. what students talk about). Teachers can identify social markers most relevant to their class by answering “what kinds of hierarchies exist in your building, district, and/or your classroom”. While race and gender were most commonly chosen, participating teachers also tracked less common social markers such as attitude toward coding, programming experience, and religious affiliation. To define the most helpful discourse dimensions, being concrete is the key. Two discourse dimensions identified as helpful and informative by participating teachers were content of student talk (computation, physics, or off-topic) and type of student talk (question, explanation, or other). Dimensions such as attitude (positive, negative, or neutral) and participation type (active, or passive) were found to be vague and could not contribute to meaningful or actionable data.

Figure 1: (a) Sample EQUIP heat map showing each student’s participation, through which teachers can see if some particular students dominate a discussion. (b) Sample EQUIP graph: EQUIP can break down participation opportunities by both social markers (language proficiency) and discourse dimension (teacher question type). The graph illustrates total number of contribution from English dominant and emergent multilingual students separately. The right panel shows which emergent multilingual students contribute to the 3 explanations illustrated in the graph. Via the graph, teachers can see if emergent multilingual students get the chance to contribute to scientific explanations. (Figure 1 in paper.)


Next is to add the class seating chart with students’ social markers. Afterwards, the observation data can be manually entered, either in real time by a class observer or later based on a recorded video.

Figure 2: Sample EQUIP observation data entry. Imagine you are sitting in the classroom as an observer and student Julia just answered a question. You can quickly find Julia from the class seating chart and select your observation regarding the 5 discourse dimensions: Teacher Solicitation, Wait Time, Solicitation Method, Length of Talk, and Student Talk. (Generated by author from equip.ninja.)


Step Three is to interpret EQUIP and set equity goals. Take the interpretation of Figure 3 for example. According to the article, some participating teachers found that the pattern shown was problematic because they sought equality, and the ideal case would be that every student contributed 25% of the talk. But some participating teachers found the pattern equitable because the student who dominated the talk was a black male student (Jalen), from a historically marginalized group in science education. The authors suggest that one should differentiate equity and equality. While equality is that everybody gets the same, equity emphasizes a “fair” distribution.

Another noteworthy pattern is that two girls of color (Lequoia and Monet) participated the least. Some teachers might interpret this as individual traits (being shy) or level of accomplishment (say Lequoia and Monet were not as capable as Jalen or Kristy). But the authors suggest against over-individualized interpretations. Instead of interpreting with each student’s individual traits, think about how the pedagogical structure and social-marker biases might have played a role.

Figure 3: Sample EQUIP group work analytics, illustrating two discussions happening in the same group and how the explanation-level talk was distributed among the group by race. (Figure 3 in paper.)


Step four is making an action plan. For example teachers might find that they want to assign roles in each student group, or assign some students to sit closer to the laptop so they could be less easily ignored by their peers. I think this is the most important and maybe most challenging step. Working with other teachers can help motivate teachers to stick with the plan, reflect on how the plan works, and brainstorm next action plan. The authors advise to use existing materials, such as everyday actions teachers can do suggested by STEP-UP materialsR-Cubed from UC Boulder, and Minorities in Physics from APS.

The article introduces a useful tool, EQUIP, to track inequities in our classrooms and multiple resources that teachers can make use of. I agree with the authors that we stand a better chance to make our classrooms equitable when we explicitly analyze our classes in terms of social markers. And only when the vision of equitable physics classrooms is realized, there will be more people from marginalized groups earning physics degrees and participating in physics-related jobs.

Instructors wishing to try EQUIP in their classrooms can do so for free at equip.ninja.

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