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Digging Deeper With Technology

February 03, 2015

Teachers are often the writers of questions, which is important. But what happens if you let students write the questions? What could be learned about what students already know if the questions come from them? What can students learn about how they think if they write the questions used in class discussion and further study?

In my sophomore and junior history classes, students write questions at the beginning of a lesson cycle. It’s an exercise that allows them to become more aware of their thought process that occurs as they try to understand the demands of a problem. It’s a brainstorm activity that focuses more on process than dumping facts.

Collecting Written Responses

This year, I began using digital learning tools to collect the questions. We use Poll Everywhere because students can submit responses with any type of cell phone, tablet, or computer, and the results can be projected on the big screen and uploaded into Google Drive with a couple of steps.

Since the responses are anonymous and not viewable by students before submission, individuals are not vulnerable to personal attack or swayed by what another has written. These conditions give us the most accurate assessment of what our class thinks about the problem.

In the past, we used small whiteboards or wrote on sticky notes, but it was time consuming working with 60 to 80 questions at one time; someone’s thoughts always got left out. Having all the questions in a Google Sheet (spreadsheet) allows students to work in groups to evaluate the questions and choose the ones we should use to focus our studies.

Organizing the Questions

The students were given a question about the causes of the U.S. Civil War from a past IB history exam. Since a balance between using paper and digital means of communication is healthy, I had the students write their questions in a notebook before submitting them to Poll Everywhere.

To put this into perspective, students thought and wrote for five minutes, we collected 78 questions in about two minutes, downloaded a spreadsheet of the responses in 30 seconds, and within a minute had the spreadsheet uploaded to our class notes folder in Google Drive where groups could access the questions for evaluation. 

Using technology turned a once 30-minute process into about eight minutes. It also put the questions in a place where everyone could see them and work with them at once, thanks to the sharing and collaboration abilities of Google Drive.

Evaluating the Work

To mirror the natural thought process, we had to determine the usefulness of our questions. We used a classroom routine called Plus/Delta. Students choose plus if they like it and delta if they think it needs to be changed.

As we read and discussed the questions, students held their thumb up for plus and sideways for delta. A scribe coded the questions in Sheets according to class consensus, and another student highlighted the questions that were not marked as repeats (strikethrough) or for change (underline). Assigning these tasks to students are huge time savers and productive roles for those who are often fidgety or restless, common afflictions of the gifted and talented.   

The final steps included ranking the questions in order of significance and grouping them under labels that students used to organize note-taking. Before working individually, each student was given a grouping of questions to focus their research. 

The Big Picture

This activity includes thinking about thinking, making predictions, sharing ideas, evaluating work, prioritizing, researching facts, and evaluating sources. The effect of a lesson like this one, however, is beyond the sum of its parts.

For my students, it’s meant an average of about a 20 percent achievement gain on essay assessments. This process of questioning helps students read more critically and develop their ideas when formulating arguments and writing essays. 

Writing questions stimulates critical thinking that helps learners open their minds and connect problems to lines of inquiry. The ability to communicate a thought process in question form is crucial if we want our youth to be able to navigate a world in which technology is king and information is their queen.