Disclaimer: This post might not be one-hundred percent ready yet because I’m still thinking through some things, but writing sometimes helps me clarify what my questions actually are so here it goes anyway.
Have you ever asked a question, either in class or on a test, that you thought was a “gimme” question or a “softball” question only to have students miss it altogether? Have you then ever asked them to explain why and how they missed the question only to listen to some very convoluted over-thinking on their part? I used to think this was the student’s problem, but over the last month or so, I’m starting to think the student was actually doing everything right: thinking and thinking a lot. The student was assuming that I was asking something deep, something complex, something worthy of their deep thinking. In a way, I had failed them by not delivering.
I have a colleague who I respect deeply who recently gave a test built around essential questions. The test was primarily a written test filled with higher-order, critical thinking questions. This was the good, meaty kind of assessment we want all teachers to deliver. She was unsure how the students would do, and while there were a handful that did not fare so well (as there would be on any test), she was “pleasantly surprised” by her students’ performance overall. She reported that some students did better on the tougher thinking questions than they did on the easier fact-based questions. If that’s not food for thought, I don’t know what is.
Some students, for whatever reason, will have difficulty remembering isolated facts, even when the teacher has gone over and over those facts in class. Those same students, however, may be able to think their way through a challenging problem by using logic and reasoning or they may be able to answer more challenging questions about those facts when the facts are put in context. If this is true, then we can’t hold back on the critical thinking questions because “they can’t even get the basics down.” If this is true, then we need to create assignments and assessments that have at minimum an equal measure of lower- and higher-order thinking problems and questions.
This is true of writing as well. Another colleague of mine insists that students learn grammar best by writing their own work rather than using textbook exercises. Which one would most people say is more challenging: editing or diagramming a sentence from a textbook or writing a paragraph and deciding how to punctuate it correctly and make sure subjects and verbs agree with one another throughout the piece? I would venture that most of us would say the latter involves more thinking on the part of the student, and yet, according to my colleague and all the research done over the last 2 decades on the way students learn grammar, students will actually learn and retain more of an understanding of grammar if they write and edit their own work.
And last but not least, there’s vocabulary, whether that vocabulary is related to science, history, math, or English. Memorizing workbook and textbook definitions is not extremely difficult, but how many of our students will retain these kinds of memorized definitions for very long, if at all? But the more a student uses a word, plays with the word, sees and reads the word in multiple contexts, the more likely he or she will be to remember it. Having students contextualize the vocabulary in these ways appears more challenging on the surface, and yet the research again says it’s the only pathway to true and authentic learning of new words.
So could there be some questions so easy that our students think their way to the wrong answer? And if that’s the case, what’s our responsibility as educators in this situation?