I and my colleagues have, since 2005, been running a large research project that involves giving classroom response systems (CRSs, a.k.a. “clickers”) to middle and high school science and math teachers, spending copious time and energy (and consequently money) helping them to use those systems effectively in their teaching, and studying the heck out of their varied CRS learning experiences. (For more about the project, see its web page. Thanks to the National Science Foundation for funding it — your tax dollars at work via grant# TPC-0456124.)
Of the forty-some teachers we’ve worked with to some degree or another, by far the number one difficulty they’ve reported is the challenge of regularly creating effective clicker questions to use in class. The characteristics that make a question “work” — meaning engage students in quality classroom discussion and promote learning — are not obvious, and typical back-of-the-chapter or quiz-type questions will fail miserably. In the project’s professional development meetings, we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about question creation, and I’ve developed various frameworks in an attempt to help make it more science and less art.
This semester, in prepping my own Conceptual Physics class, I’ve run into exactly the same difficulty. “Today I’m teaching topic X, and I need some good questions. Um, ah, hmm…” Not so easy, even with all the frameworks and such.
One flash of insight I had recently is that, at least for me, it’s not really creating questions that’s tough. The hard part is figuring out what I want my students to learn from the class, and casting that in terms of what I want my students to be able to do. I’ve been trying to shift my thinking from “the material” to “the demonstrable, assessable learning outcomes” (cf. The Myth of Coverage).
Once I can articulate what I would like my students to be able to do after the class, it’s generally relatively easy to invent a few good clicker questions. I just formulate a question asking them to do that (in a particular context), and then much of the class activity is me helping them struggle through the process as they learn how. (This is the principle we’ve called “Question-Driven Instruction”, as articulated in Beatty & Gerace 2009 and elsewhere.)
Which all means that when someone says “Creating good clicker questions is hard”, I’m now inclined to hear that as “Thinking in terms of demonstrable student learning outcomes rather than topic coverage is hard.” And I agree. I also think it’s one of the many desperately needed shifts to how we conceive of this whole enterprise we call organized schooling.
I’m not saying that this is the only difficult aspect of creating good questions, but it’s definitely key for me. I’m curious what others think. If you’ve taught with a classroom response system, what do you think? Does that ring true? Do you have any similar or conflicting experiences to share? Comments are open…