Thursday, December 31, 2009

To Pose a Question

When thinking about what I should cover for this post, I pondered on this question for a fair amount of time. And as I focused on this question, it soon made sense to me to write a post that itself focuses on questions. In particular, focusing on the questions one should be asking when using an Audience Response System, such as TurningPoint. Previously, I described how to create a TurningPoint slide to incorporate a question (or opinion). Now we delve into creating the questions themselves.

The primary purpose of using clickers in the classroom is to promote a better learning experience. Typically, clickers allow a teacher / professor to 'engage' their students in the material; it is entirely necessary for the student to be actively thinking about the material. From various articles and papers that I have read, one way to get your students actively thinking about course content is to devise good questioning.

It has been argued that designing effective questions for classroom response system teaching (PDF) is an important aspect for student understanding. The abstract for their paper is presented as follows:

Classroom response systems can be powerful tools for teaching physics. Their efficacy depends strongly on the quality of the questions. Creating effective questions is difficult and differs from creating exam and homework problems. Each classroom response system question should have an explicit pedagogic purpose consisting of a content goal, a process goal, and a metacognitive goal. Questions can be designed to fulfill their purpose through four complementary mechanisms: directing students’ attention, stimulating specific cognitive processes, communicating information to the instructor and students via classroom response system-tabulated answer counts, and facilitating the articulation and confrontation of ideas. We identify several tactics that are useful for designing potent questions and present four "makeovers" to show how these tactics can be used to convert traditional physics questions into more powerful questions for a classroom response system.

The authors see the development of clicker questions as so important that their approach has been termed 'question-driven instruction' and has been diagrammed (from the same paper):

The model differs slightly from Eric Mazur's Peer Instruction model, which the authors claim is an 'inversion of the paradigm' he uses. Instead of posing clicker questions to reinforce small lectures forming the core, the questions themselves form the core of the class. Within this model, students go over any necessary materials on their own beforehand, either via readings, homework, or some other means. Class time is then focused around what the authors term as a 'question cycle.'

Question cycles are developed as follows. Starting off, a question is posed to the students, who may not yet even know the material needed to answer the question. From here, answers may be polled via the clickers, although the model does not necessarily require this step. Instead, small group discussions may take place (akin to the peer instruction) before polling answers. Thus far, the professor / teacher has not lectured or stated any material relevant to the question; all is discussed by the students, among the students. Discussions could potentially result as class-wide, in addition to small groups.

Correlating with the diagram, the authors take note of three general parts to the cycle. First pertains to posing the question itself, specifying that questions need to be challenging, but not overbearingly so. Next, discussions within both small groups and the class as a whole are imperative to the model's learning process, whereby polling of students occurs afterward. Last revolves around the idea of 'agile teaching,' in which the instructor responds appropriately to the polling and discussions.

What should result from the cycle is a deeper understanding of some fundamental concept of the material. Simple memorization of facts should not take place here, and the concepts covered could be used in future homework, exams, clicker questions, or some other relevant application. For this method to work, however, the design of devising the questions themselves is entirely critical.

Much of the rest of the paper describes a framework for how to design such questions, more appropriately from a pedagogical perspective. Although the context of the questions described (as examples) are associated with physics classes, explanations are provided in such a way that generalize the approach. One important distinction the authors make is what distinguishes a good clicker-based question under this method, as opposed to good exam questions; they stress that what may be good in one context will not necessarily be good in another, a common mistake some instructors make.

When designing clicker-based questions, they argue, three pedagogical approaches should be taken. The first focuses on the content, or what the question should pertain to. Next exemplifies how the question or problem should be solved. And third revolves around the why for looking at the question, particularly in some specific view. By focusing on these three approaches to designing clicker questions, the instructor should simply 'guide' the students into understanding of the material. The paper provides several various 'tactics' on how to design the questions to guide students in specific directions.

Designing effective questions for classroom response system teaching provides an interesting look at posing questions as the core of using clickers. The paper was written to 'address the need of a comprehensive or systematic framework for developing and evaluating CRS questions.' It is a highly valuable read for any who create and/or use clicker questions in the classroom.

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