08 February 2010

Designing Effective Questions

Good questions that engage students in discussions are essential in peer instruction, whether these questions are posed after a mini lecture (Mazur, 1997) or as the core of in-class instruction (Beatty et al, 2005). Every good question should try to achieve three goals: content goal (deals with the subject material that you want to illuminate, or the what's), process goal (deals with the cognitive skills you want students to exercise, or the how's), and metacognitive goal (deals with the beliefs about learning, thinking, the subject area, etc.).

Beatty et al. propose four tactics in designing good questions. They are listed here in the order that may be appropriate for an one hour lecture where usually four questions can be quite easily incorporated into the lesson:
  1. Tactics for directing attention and raising awareness. Focusing student attention and increasing student motivation in learning are important aspects at the beginning of each lesson. Some of the ways to achieve this are to ensure the questions (or invention activities) have all nonessential material removed, provide opportunities for students to compare and contrast different cases, extending a familiar case to something different, setting a trap to show student misconceptions.
  2. Tactics for promoting articulation discussion. Using unstated assumptions, deliberate ambiguity, questions with multiple possible answers, students can be challenged to discuss and articulate their thoughts, ideas, and to clarify the topic to be further presented.
  3. Tactics for stimulating cognitive processes. The fundamental rule here is to ask questions that cannot be answered without exercising the desired habits of mind. Some of the methods include asking questions that require students to interpret representations, understand a process or algorithm (rather than just memorizing a formula), having students describe the meaning and to choose from a set of possible ways of solving a problem, comparing and making contrast of different cases, and having students identify the necessary information to continue in their learning.
  4. Tactics for formative use of response data. By revealing other students' response to a question posed before via a response histogram, a follow up question can be used to drill further down into common student misconceptions and clarify the differences among them. Having students to explain their choice of answers also promote learning and discussion in the classroom.

Beatty, I., Gerace, W., Leonard, W., Dufresne, R. (2005). Designing Effective Questions for Classroom Response System Teaching. American Association of Physics Teachers, American Journal of Physics. 74(1), pp 31 - 39.

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer Instruction: A User's Manual. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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