First semester: How do I encourage my students to wonder?

The past semester has been a tough slog with my first-year class.   I’m slowly figuring out what resources and approaches were missing.  Last year, I launched myself headfirst (and underprepared) into inquiry-based learning because most of the class members were overflowing with significant, relevant questions.

This year, the students are barely asking questions at all, and when they do, the questions are not very relevant — they don’t help us move forward toward predicting circuit behaviour, troubleshooting, or any of the other expressed goals we’ve discussed as a class. They’re mostly about electrical safety which, don’t get me wrong, is important, but talking about how people do and don’t get electrocuted has limited value in helping us understand amplifiers.  I felt like I juiced those questions as much as I could, but it only led to more questions about house wiring and car chassis.

If I’m serious about inquiry-based learning, I have to develop a set of tools that allow me to adapt to the group.  Right now I feel like my approach only works if the group is already fairly skills at distinguishing between what we have evidence for and what we just feel like we’ve heard before, and asking significant questions that move toward a specific goal.  In other words, I wasn’t teaching them to reason scientifically, I was filtering out those who already knew from those who didn’t.  Here are some of the things I need to be more prepared for.

Measurement technique

I have never had so much trouble getting students to use their meters correctly.  Here we are in second semester, and I still have students confidently using incorrect settings.  I’d be happier if they were unsure, or had questions, but no, many are not noticing that they have problems with this.  And I don’t mean being confused about whether you should measure 1.5V on the 20V or the 2000 mV setting… I mean measuring 0.1 Ohms on the 200 KOhm setting.

I switched this year to teaching them about current first, rather than resistance (like I did last year).  I’m loathe to reconsider because current is the only one that lends itself to causal thinking and sense-making early in the year (try explaining resistance to someone who doesn’t know what current is… and “electric potential,” to someone who doesn’t know anything formal about energy or force or fields, is just hell).  Could this be part of why they’re struggling so much to use their meters correctly?  Is there something about the “current first” approach that bogs them down with cognitive load at a stage when they just need some repetitive practice?  I’m curious to check out the CASTLE curriculum, maybe over the summer, to try to figure some of this out.

I created a circuit-recording template last fall that I thought was such a great idea… it had a checklist at the top to help the students notice if they’d forgotten anything.  Guess what?  They started measuring without thinking about the meaning of the measurements — measuring as if it was just something to be check off a list!  No observations.  No questions. No surprise at unusual or unintuitive numbers.  Damn.  The checklist is gone and never coming back — next year I’ll make sure we only measure things that the students have found a reason to measure.

Last term, I waited far too long to give the quiz on measurement technique.  I knew they weren’t ready, and I kept thinking that if we spent more time practicing measuring (while exploring the questions we had painstakingly eked out), that it would get better.  Finally, we were so far behind that I gave the quiz anyway.  The entire class failed it (not a catastrophe, given the reassessment policy), and the most common comment when we reviewed the quiz was “why didn’t you tell us this before??”  Uh.  Right.  Quiz early, quiz often.

Guess what the teacher wants

The degree of “teacher-pleasing” being attempted is disheartening.  Students are almost always uncomfortable making mistakes, using the word “maybe” in situations where it is genuinely the most accurate way to express the strength of our data, or re-evaluating what they think of as “facts.”  But this is unusual.  There’s a high rate of students anxiously making up preposterous answers rather than saying “I don’t know.”

I tend toward a pretty aggressive questioning style — the kind of “what causes that, why does that happen” bluntness I would use with colleagues to bat ideas around.  I’ve changed my verbal prompt to “what might cause that?” and “what could possibly be happening” in the hopes that it would help students discern whether they are certain or not, and also help them transition toward communicating the tentativeness of ideas for which we have little evidence.  Obviously, I take care to draw out the reasoning and evidence in support of ideas, regardless of whether they’re canonical or not, and conversely make sure we discuss evidence against all of our ideas, including the “right” ones. I try to honour students’ questions by tracking them and letting them choose from among the class’s questions when deciding what to investigate next.  But valuing their questions and thinking is clearly not enough.

I gave a test question last semester that asked students to evaluate some “student” reasoning.  It used the word “maybe” in a completely appropriate way, and that’s what I heard outraged responses about from half the class.  They thought the reasoning was poor (and also reported that it was badly written!) because of it.  Again, we practiced explicitly, but sometimes I feel like I’m undermining their faith in “right answer” reasoning without helping them replace it with something better…

On the odd occasion when I ask someone a question and they say “I don’t know,” I make a point of not putting them on the spot, but of gathering info/evidence/ideas from other students for the first student to choose from, or breaking the class into small groups and asking them to discuss.  I try to make sure that the person who said “I don’t know” has as few negative consequences as possible.  Yet the person who says it inevitably looks crestfallen.

Talking in class

The frequency of students speaking up in class is at an all-time low.  I wonder if this has been influenced by my random cold-calling — they figure I’ll call on them eventually so there’s no sense putting their hand up to make a comment or ask a question?  The thing is, they don’t ask those questions when I call on them — just answer the question I ask.

At the same time, the frequency of whispered side conversations is at an all-time high, whether the speaker with the floor is me or another student.  I think I’m unusually sensitive to this — I find it completely distracting, and can barely maintain my train of thought if students are whispering to each other.  Maybe that’s partly my hearing, which is fairly acute — I can actually hear their whole conversation, even if they’re whispering at the back of the room (keep in mind that there are only 17 people and the room is pretty small).  So my standard response to this is one warning during class (followed by a quiet, private conversation after class) — if it happens again, they’re leaving the room.  Is this part of why they’re afraid to talk out loud — because I crack down on the talking under their breath?  I’m open to other ways of responding but out of ideas at the moment.


Even the strongest students are still having trouble explaining causes of physical effects.  They know I won’t accept a formula as a cause, but they can’t explain why, and when I ask someone to explain a cause, they will consistently give a formula anyway (figuring that an answer is always better than no answer, I guess).  Next approaches: asking them to write down the cause, discuss in groups

Scientific Discourse

As Jason articulates clearly, I think that my students need more help motivating and strengthening their scientific discourse.  He summarizes a promising-sounding approach called Guided Reciprocal Questioning as follows:

  1. Learn about something.
  2. Provide generic question frames.
  3. Students generate questions individually.
  4. Students discuss the questions in their groups.
  5. Share out.

I do something similar to #1-3, but I’m ready to try #4-5, with appropriate “discussion frames”, to see if I can help the students hold each other accountable to their knowledge.  Right now, they barely propose questions or answers, but when they do, the class seems to accept it, even if it contradicts something else we just talked about.

Also, Janet Abercrombie wrote recently in the comments about a Question Formulation Technique that I’d like to look into some more.

Conclusion: It works anyway

The whole experience was kind of heart-breaking.  But the conversations with students kept convincing me that I had to do it anyway.  I don’t know how many students took the time to say to me, “whoa, it seems like you actually want us to understand this stuff.”  The look of astonishment really said it all.  The bottom line is, this group is a much better test of the robustness of my methods than last year’s group could be.



  1. Interesting debrief of your semester. I think you’re smart to try to figure out which techniques you’re using will work with all students, though I also think it’s fine to use techniques that work with a particular population. I’m always amazed at how big your teaching tool set is!

    • Yeah, I’m mostly looking for the “particular population” tools. I feel like I have tools that work for last year’s particular population, but I didn’t realize how narrow their reach was until this year. But that’s a good thing to know. As I keep reminding myself when I think I’m going to lose it, “Ok Mylène, would you rather not know??” 🙂

  2. Reading this, 3 things leapt to mind for me. I can’t say for sure why — the third one may not match up at all — but they all seemed relevant in the moment.

    1. Do an exercise where they generate, and you grade, questions — take advantage of their “please the teacher” instinct?

    2. You need to make a circuit that does X (Something hard, from toward the end of the course). What kinds of things might we need to know to figure that out?

    3. The Mistake Game.

    Really eager to hear how this plays out ….

    • Thanks Dan — lots of food for thought here. I agree with you about the mistake game — time to find a way to fold this in. I started to write a response and it turned into a post — coming soon 🙂

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