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May 13, 2004

Faculty Share Their Insights on Best Questions in the Classroom

“What was that question?” – Something every teacher must think about.
Five Pitt instructors presented their thoughts on the use of questions in the classroom at a May 5 forum presented in collaboration with the Office of the Provost and the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education.
Some 65 Pitt faculty members attended to hear presentations that ranged from using questions in large lectures, in peer instruction, and in homework assignments, to using them in understanding models, in the case method and in the technological form of the electronic student response system.
Chandralekha Singh: When do two wrongs make a right?
A proponent of interactive and peer learning, Singh, senior lecturer in physics and a recipient of the 2002 Chancellor’s Distinguished Award for Teaching Excellence and the 2000 College of Arts and Sciences Bellet Teaching Excellence Award, structures her lectures so that physics principles are brought out through real-world, everyday-life examples.
“I interrupt my lectures perhaps four or five times, with multiple-choice questions which are typically applications of the concepts I’ve just discussed,” she said. “I tell the students to take a couple minutes to discuss the question among themselves. Learning is social, and they seem to be having a good time. Then I poll the class for what they think is the right answer. [This strategy] benefits at least 95 percent of the students by talking to their peers, and you can do it in a class of any size.”
The advantages include keeping students actively involved, and helping them organize and articulate their thoughts. “They know they have to discuss it with their peers and to defend their answers, which keeps them on their toes,” she said.
After polling the class, Singh asks students who answered correctly to explain their reasoning. “If people are shy and you call on them, they think you are picking on them. But if they got the right answer, they’re much more willing to express themselves. There is a much higher percentage of response after peer discussion takes place.”
Singh can then elaborate on the explanations of the students for the benefit of those who answered incorrectly.
The multiple-choice questions are tailored with attractive alternatives to the correct answer in order to get to the heart of common misconceptions, she said. The responses therefore give the instructor feedback as to how many in the class are grasping the concepts and whether the concepts need more attention. “If only 25 percent of the students got the correct solution the first time around and after peer discussion only 50 percent, then maybe you need to go back to that concept for more work,” she said.
In a very high percentage of cases, peer discussion builds consensus toward the correct solution, Singh said.
She and colleagues set up a control study in a class of 25 to see to what extent students are able to co-construct knowledge. “By co-constructing knowledge I mean, in the case where each gets the answer wrong, but in talking together, can they examine each other’s reasoning and eventually come to the right answer?
“What we found is that it happens more often than you think: If I have a different misconception from you and we have to argue about why my reasoning is incorrect and why yours also is incorrect, we might come to a third alternative. What we find when both students had incorrect answers [is that] about 25 percent of the time together they were able to come up with the correct answers.”
Barbara Kucinski: What will you tell your mother?
When her class sizes jumped from 35-45 nontraditional students at the College of General Studies, to upwards of 200 traditional pupils in Arts and Sciences, Kucinski, a lecturer in psychology, said she had to make a big leap in her instructional approach.
Her first question was one to herself: “How was I going to reach all these students?”
That dilemma, coupled with the realization that her new charges typically were not well prepared for exams that require synthesis and analysis, led her to develop a series of short homework assignments designed to hone those skills.
“Because my exams are typically on applications of the material, I started giving homework assignments, about seven or eight a semester, of various difficulty, that are designed not only to show they’ve read the textbook and been to class, but that they’ve given the material a little bit of thought,” she said. “Students were memorizing bits of information but not putting them together, so I directed them to write two or three pages explaining to their mother how a synapse works, how cells communicate, and to do it in plain English the way they would describe it to someone who has no idea what they’re talking about. Because if they can explain it to someone like their mother, they’re really getting the information.”
Using assignments from her biopsychology course as an example, Kucinski discussed various formats for such topics as neuroanatomy, stress and addictions.
“For neuroanatomy and function, I thought about how to get students to think about the brain and its lobes and what the primary function of each was, which we had talked a little bit about and for which there was much more detail in the textbook,” she said. The first of three questions was a standard textbook-type that required a little memorization of the material.
“But then they had to envision their friend falling and landing on a particular part of the brain, getting a concussion, and to describe what changes they would expect to observe,” which requires some analysis.
“The third question, a writing-synthesis kind of assignment, asked them to describe all the mechanisms in an action potential,” a fairly sophisticated concept that requires some understanding beyond the basic level, she said.
Kucinski said that allowing students to relate questions to their own thoughts and experiences stimulates their interest. For an assignment on stress, for example, students were asked to describe what they find annoying, and how they could change their perception to make annoying and frustrating events less stressful, she said.
“They listed everything from being stuck in traffic, to having to deal with roommates leaving dirty dishes in the sink, to having to cook for their girlfriends. And then they talked about how they needed another point of view, maybe another person’s point of view.”
This led students to thinking about why stress is not always all bad.
“And lastly they had to think about generational issues: Were your grandparents’ lives more stressed than ours today, or are we more stressed than they were? It gets them to think about different angles on the material,” Kucinski said.
The most interesting, if somewhat unintended, outcome of her assignments followed the homework on addictions, where she asked students to rank five drugs from most to least hazardous: tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
“We talked briefly about physical changes that these drugs had on the body and the nervous system,” she said. “What I wanted was the students to take that information and go to other sources and compile a list of major health effects that long-term use of these drugs would predict, and then objectively rank theses drugs and defend their rankings in a two-page statement.”
What she found was that students could not keep their thoughts limited to the assignment. “I found it very surprising from this exercise that students got hung up on social issues and legal issues and said they found it very difficult to step away from saying things like, ‘Heroin is illegal, so we shouldn’t be using it,’ even though tobacco and alcohol actually produce the biggest direct long-term health effects in the population.
“It was one of the most enjoyable classes for me as I listened to how these students took information and integrated it, and really learned to think on their own.” That paid off at exam time, she said, when the overall performance of the students went up by about 10 percent.
In their evaluations, Kucinski said, students commented repeatedly on how these homework assignments, which counted for 20 percent of the final grade, forced them to think and evaluate the material in a different way from simple memorization.
Marla Ripoll: “Who is this woman who is talking to me?”
“Beyond using questions like what or when or how or where or why, I think it is much more important to make contact with the students, so before you worry about what questions you need to ask, you need to have the proper learning environment,” said Ripoll, who is assistant professor of economics, a core faculty member at the Center for Latin American Studies and one of this year’s Bellet Teaching Award winners.
“Wherever you are, when you meet someone for the first time, you’re trying to figure out who this person is,” Ripoll said. “On the first day, the students are thinking, ‘Who is this woman who is talking to me?’ They are anxious to know who you are, and so after you tell them who you are, they relax.”
Winning over the students by setting the tone in the first few classes is crucial, she said. “I think you have to be the model of a curious human being. If you’re not curious, the students won’t be either. And I say human being, because that’s all you are, and they should know that.”
Think of each term as an adventure, where teacher and students progress from what students know to what they will be taught, she said. “For example, in my economic development class, the first day, I ask them to write about, ‘Why do poor countries have problems developing?’ This is what the class is all about. This is the big picture.”
She then prepares the students to watch a video that theorizes an answer to that question by asking the class to write down key words they hear and to keep in mind their own answers to the question. This keeps students engaged in the video instead of being passive viewers.
After the class sees the video Ripoll asks them: What facts in the video are new to you? What questions are not answered? What side of the argument do you identify with?
Beginning each class early in the term with a “hello question” is a good strategy, she said. “Basically, you are asking them, ‘What do you know? What do you bring here?’ You don’t need to know the whole answer, but you are allowed to know something,” she said. “Write what they say on the board; if their thoughts are written down, they feel part of the class, and it encourages them to say things,” she suggested.
“Then after a few classes, start by saying, ‘Let’s remember together what we covered last time.” This re-establishes connections with the students and the material; it helps summarize important concepts; it creates continuity, and it continues the class on the path toward the big picture, she said.
“Preferred questions are those that have more than one answer, questions with more than one characteristic,” Ripoll said, “because different people will remember different things.”
This lets more than one person answer, and it helps avoid having the class dominated by a few students. “For example, ‘Do you remember a recession in the U.S. in the last century?’ Of course, there were many recessions, so you get different answers, and you can begin comparing what was different about the recessions they remember.”
A particular issue in economics is to get students interested in theory, she said. “You have to get students to like models, to convince students that models are created to offer some insight, to sell them on the idea that models were created by human beings to examine some important questions.”
Students don’t buy into this easily, she said. They don’t like hearing that in a complex world, they have to approach problems by extracting details.
“So, put it in a model. You say, ‘Suppose my model is that people spend the same amount of money on all goods.’ And, of course, they say, ‘You’re crazy! What are you talking about?'”
But they immediately can find counter examples to analyze that model, which teaches them a skill.
“There is always the chance for the student to have an addition to a model, a variation or extension of a model, or think of an application of the model,” she said. “Then move to another model, and they do the work to extend that model.”
Questioning should have a purpose, she said. “Questions don’t just have an answer, they have a context. For example, you say, ‘You just read how 2 million people lost their jobs during the Great Depression in the U.S.’ Then you say, ‘Did you know that since November 2001, 2 million people have lost their jobs in the U.S.? What does that tell you?'”
Finally, there are “good-bye questions” to end each class, Ripoll said. “Think of a question to interest the class for the next meeting. Let them leave without a solution, with this souvenir of the class: There is not an immediate answer, you have to think about it. This keeps the thread of the class going and keeps the suspense.”
Daria Kirby: “What would I do, and how would I do it?”
Kirby, associate professor of business organization and assistant dean of MBA programs at the Katz business school, discussed questions within the context of the case method.
“Because students often like to leave the theory alone and talk about their experiences, my goal is to link the two, and show the students that you can’t go forward without the two,” said Kirby, who teaches organizational behavior.
A second challenge is to have students with varying personalities contribute to discussions, since communication skills are essential in organizations at all levels, she said. She insists all students participate (one of her four mandatory “P’s,” along with prepared, present and punctual). “An instructor learns very early on who are the silent people and who are the talkers,” she said.
One technique to stimulate participation is to forewarn a shy student that he or she will be called on next. “Right now, I’m asking this other student a question, but I’m going to come and ask you a question next. It’s a way of inviting a student into the discussion without it being a cold-call. We call it a warm-call.”
Kirby also tells students that it’s easier to join in the discussion near the beginning of class than at the end, “simply because at the end a lot of things have already been said; it’s harder to think of something new to offer.”
For the shier types, she also makes a point of putting their remarks on the blackboard, so they can see their contribution and others can see it too, she said.
Kirby encourages “top of the head” remarks as a way for students to participate. “A question or an answer may not directly relate to organizational behavior; it might be about finance. But I’ll find a way to work it around to the discussion,” she said.
The case method also allows for flexibility of opinion, she pointed out. “Sometimes, you want to direct the conversation between two people. When you have two separate views, let them challenge each other,” she said. “I’ll poll the class, and if there is a clear majority, I’ll join the minority view. Not because it’s the right view.
Usually, it isn’t. But when you do that the majority feel they have to really convince you. In management, people have to do that with their managers right on the spot.”
A third challenge is dealing with those many students who want black and white answers all the time, she said. “I’m unwilling to give only two options,” partly because not all behavioral management issues are cut and dried. “But also I don’t want people to go down the path a little way and then say, ‘No, that’s wrong, it must be the other option.’ They need to follow all the paths all the way through.”
When discussion on a case winds down, Kirby insists that each student form an action plan. “Given this situation, what is realistic, what is feasible, what is relevant?”
And students must put their plan in various time frames: What can we do immediately? What can we do later on? “This helps with priority questions,” she said. “No matter the discipline, you have to decide on a first step and subsequent steps. I push students to decide that in a concise manner: The question is always: ‘What would I do and how would I do it?'”
Moreover, students are asked to describe their plan’s ramifications. “We’ve chosen your action plan. What impact does that have in the rest of our [business’s] environment? We don’t work in a vacuum. If we do one thing, it’s likely to have an impact someplace else. If we’re training our students to think, it’s not just to pick a right answer, A, B or C. What are the implications of A, of B, of C? If I pick B, it’s not that it’s wrong – I’m not asking you to back off of your answer – just what are the implications of your choice on the rest of our system?”
This kind of thought process helps students see that an incorrect or lesser choice made early on can have implications down the road, Kirby said.
Joseph Grabowski: What’s your prediction?
Associate professor of chemistry Grabowski demonstrated a technology-aided questioning format that he uses, called a student response system. Students answer multiple-choice questions shown during Grabowski’s PowerPoint presentations by pushing the corresponding letter on a remote transceiver that instantly records the selections.
Just asking a lot of questions does not a dynamic lecture make, nor does it necessarily motivate students to interact, said Grabowski, who also is a 2003 Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award winner. Neither does being a good person make one a good teacher, “especially if you’re boring,” he said.
“The typical attention span for a 20-25 minute lecture goes like this: You have high levels of audience attention for a few minutes, and then it plummets. It levels off, and then when you get to your conclusions, it usually comes back up.”
So his goal is to pump up the audience’s attention at various times during a lecture. Grabowski’s version of that method is to quiz his students periodically using the student response system, which keeps them actively engaged. “Right now I use completely anonymous responses,” he said. “You could do all kinds of statistics on their answers, but I’m not interested in that. I tell them that so there’s no pressure on them to answer correctly.”
Grabowski uses a Jeopardy! format on the first day his organic chemistry class meets. “The general topic is: things you were supposed to have learned in general chemistry that we assume you know in this class. It’s all multiple choice. It’s for review to get a snapshot of the level of the students.”
He uses three to five multiple-choice questions interspersed during any one lecture, he said. “Sometimes, I’ll have the students talk with their neighbor and re-vote, to see if there’s a shift, depending on how hard the questions are.”
The best questions for getting discussions going are those that 40-60 percent of the students answer correctly. “If a question is too easy, they start talking about last night’s football game; if it’s too hard, then the complications go everywhere and it’s not too productive for discussion.”
The student response system works for various kinds of questions, he said. “Usually, the questions are on material from the last module, and how that ties into the current module. But I’ll also introduce one piece of data to elicit a prediction, to find out what their expectations are, and then I add more data that confronts their expectation, which is almost invariably wrong. I really had to re-focus my teaching strategy, because it was much more effective for me to elicit students’ pre-conceptions, what their ideas are about a topic before we develop it further.
“I will say that writing multiple-choice questions is not as easy as I expected,” Grabowski said. “You have to give your questions to a set of students beforehand, because you need to know what some common wrong answers are so you can put reasonable distracters among the answers.”
He said that although the questions are almost always answered in the next few slides of his presentations, “students do not read ahead. We all know that, because we all give reading assignments,” he quipped.
“I am a strong advocate of PowerPoint. I think students’ learning achievements go through the roof when we use it,” he said. “I used it extensively in the fall term, but I did not use it very much in the spring term and I got roundly criticized for that by the students.”
He said the effectiveness of PowerPoint presentations can be characterized as the “‘Golly, gee whiz factor.’ Students love this. I don’t know if it’s because it’s just different, or because they think it’s an effective teaching tool.
” He added that Pitt is considering putting the student response system equipment in all lecture halls.
-Peter Hart

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