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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.


The first-year students are shocked that we accept all these ideas about electrons just because the sources support each other, even though no one’s seen an electron, and even scientists aren’t completely sure what’s going on. They’ve been asking a lot of questions about “how can we ever be sure of anything?”  We’ve talked a lot about the difference between accepting an idea based on evidence and believing it on faith, how to judge the quality of sources, etc.  They’ve been practicing asking clarifying questions, summarizing each others’ ideas, and identifying cause and effect.  In that vein, a student came into my office the other day to tell me this interesting story…

I lead an alliance of players in [online game] and the other day I couldn’t log in.  I checked all the computers at school too, and they did the same thing.  So then I called tech support for [internet carrier], they said it’s not them.  So I asked, “Well, how is it not you??”  They eventually said that GoDaddy hosts [game server], and GoDaddy’s servers were down.  So then I tried to call GoDaddy, because I want to post something on facebook but not until I checked my sources.  And I was like, ‘it’s just like school, whoa.’  I tried to explain it to my boyfriend but he said ‘I think you’re @#$%ed.’

She laughed in delight.

This morning, my students are reading about negative feedback and assessing the information provided using our standard rubric, which asks them to summarize and write their questions.  They’re finding it difficult to understand, almost too confusing to summarize.  I remind them that that’s ok — to summarize what they can, if they can.  I also tell them to write questions as they read, not to wait until the end of the passage to write them down.

Especially, I remind them that common cause of “getting stuck” is waiting until they understand the paragraph before writing down a question.  The problem, of course, is that you might not be able to understand the passage until after the question is answered.  Waiting for understanding before asking questions is like waiting to be fit before going to the gym.

I have this conversation with one student:

Student: “What I’m afraid of is, if I get partway through the paragraph and write a question, then I get later in the paragraph and write down another question, I’ll get to the end and realize, Oh, that’s what it meant, and I won’t need to ask that question any more.”

Me, joking: “So what happens then?  What horrible consequence ensues?”

Student: “I have to kill an eraser!”

Me: “No need to erase it.  Just write a note that says, ‘oh, now I get that… [whatever you just understood].  Have you ever noticed how often I do that on your quizzes and papers?  I write questions as I’m reading, then I cross them out when I get to the end and write a note that says “never mind, I see that you’ve answered the questions down here.”

Student: [noncommittal shrug, smiling, seems willing to try this]

I think that’s an ok way to get the point across.  I sit back down.  Then I need to be a smart ass.  I go back to chat with the same student.  “You know, from our conversation earlier, it sounded like you were saying, ‘I’m afraid that if I ask questions, I’ll get it.’ ”

My point, of course, is that asking questions, thinking through our questions, and clarifying to ourselves what question we mean to ask can be an important part of sense-making, and can even help us answer our own questions.  But that’s not how it comes across to the student.  Now he’s been backed into a corner, shown the absurdity of something he just said.  He scrambles to defend his statement.  “No, what I meant was that if I ask questions while I’m reading, I might get to the end and not understand my… [pause] I can’t put it into words.”

Notes to self

  • Students sometimes think they should delay asking questions until after they have understood something.  This causes deadlock and frustration.  Strategize about this with students.
  • Pointing out someone’s misconception, especially in the middle of class, does not usually result in a graceful acknowledge of “oh, yeah, that doesn’t really make sense, does it?”  It usually results in backpedaling and attempts to salvage the idea by re-interpreting, suggesting that I didn’t understand them, or saying “I understand it, I just can’t put it into words.”
  • The phrase “I understand it but I just can’t put it into words” is highly correlated with “You just pointed out a misconception to me and now I must save face by avoiding your point at all costs.”  Use this clue to improve.
  • Dear Mylène, you think you’re too highly evolved to use “elicit-confront-resolve” to address student misconceptions, but you’re mistaken.  It’s causing students to avoid their misconceptions instead of facing them. Find a way to do something else.