Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Are We Asking the Right Questions

           “So what corners of the periodic table do I have to memorize in order to get an A on the trends quiz?” This was a question that was asked by one of my students at the beginning of our periodicity unit. For countless educators we teach chemistry because we have a passion for trying to understand the world from an atomic level. However many of our students have extrinsic motivators which result in attempts to find shortcuts to recall the material. If we want to avoid responses like the one stated above we have to identify if we are asking thorough questions when assessing our students. 

            Recent revisions in state and national science standards as well as with the Advanced Placement curriculum have seen a transition to expand on scientific knowledge and depth of understanding. In fact the current AP Chemistry exam has been redesigned to focus on essential concepts and explaining the experimentation process. Thus a shift of mentality has occurred, to focus on analyzing data and synthesizing new ideas and to reduce the amount of time on factual recall. In theory these new standards will develop our students into analytical thinkers yet what types of questions are we asking to determine if they comprehend the material? Are we creating higher order questions for our students to improve their understanding?

            Although we want all of our students to engage in meaningful labs and discussions we must provide them with opportunities for rich and meaningful exchange of ideas during the class period and beyond. This shift in mindset can be initiated by the questions asked during the class period, within assignments, and in formative and summative assessments. Developing higher level questions may not be as simple as adding the phrase ‘explain your choice’ to a question. Instead we have to create a culture for productive questioning which will eventually lead to meaningful dialogue and explanations.

            So where to begin? For many, the starting point is to identify the types of questions we are asking our students. If our questions are based on our curriculum’s big ideas then we first need to identify our learning goals and the concepts we want our students to explain. Once goals are established it is then time to determine the manner in which these questions will be asked. A companion resource that can be utilized to improve classroom questioning is the book, "5 Practices for Orchestrating Task-Based Discussions in Science" published by the National Science Teachers Association.  Described by NSTA "the 5 Practices framework identifies a set of instructional practices that will help teachers achieve high-demand learning objectives by using student work as the launching point for discussions in which important scientific ideas are brought to the surface, contradictions are exposed, and understandings are developed or consolidated"1.

            The book primarily focuses on developing meaningful dialogue with the basis of that dialogue initiated from student response and their written artifacts. In addition, the authors emphasize that higher level questions can occur at all times within the classroom and not just during written assignments and summative assessments. Asking the right higher-order questions also leads to identifying and addressing student misconceptions as well as identifying ways to differentiate instruction.

            Student comprehension starts with answering the questions that teachers ask. If we as educators want our students to justify their explanations then we have to continuously provide them with opportunities to do so. With continuous immersion in responding to higher order questioning, students can be transformed to analytical thinkers.  

1Cartier, J., Smith, M., Stein, M., & Ross, D., (2013). 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Task-Based Discussions in Science. NSTA Press Book.