Rewording Questions

I’m not writing this post as an expert. Rather, it’s from my own thoughts and reflection on the current book I’m reading entitled, “Why Don’t Students Like School?,” by Daniel Willingham. This book is fascinating to me as I love to learn about how people learn. The science behind learning and how t can be applied to the classroom.

When we often think that students are deep in thought with a lesson, chances are……….they’re not. People too often lack the ability to actually think…..really think…….with complex reading, reasoning, or solving problems for 3 reasons. The reasons being: 1) thinking is slow, 2) thinking takes effort, 3) thinking is uncertain. The author posed this problem solving scenario as an example of this:

In an empty room are a candle, some matches, and a box of thumbtacks. The goal is to have the lit candle about five feet off the ground. You’ve tried melting some of the wax on the bottom of the candle and sticking it to the wall, but that wasn’t effective. How can you get the lit candle to be five feet off the ground without you having to hold it there?

I posed the same question to my classes to prove this as well. What I found is students had trouble with solving problem. Most students “thought” about the problem for maybe 30 seconds before giving up. Out of 100 students, 1 of my students got the answer correct after 10 minutes of good, deep thought (no he didn’t Google it). If most students aren’t thinking, what are they doing?

The author suggests they are trying to solve problems with their working memory, or memories of past experiences. When I posed the problem above, most students were using their memories to find a solution. However, the students did not have a memory, or experience, with the problem. Here is my biggest takeaway:

Respect Your Students Cognitive Limits

Most of us begin lessons and/or units with a question. When writing that question, consider the background knowledge your students have. For example, in my unit on the Middle Ages, I used to ask a question, “How did the Magna Carta limit the power of the King?” To me, this question is simple and straightforward. However, to my students, they have never heard of the Magna Carta and have no experience with limited government or limited power. Right away, this question could turn them away, or seem intimidating. As a result, I reworded the question in a way that used language the students had experience with. My reworded question became, “Why did nobles rebel and call for kings to lose power?” My students could define the words: noble, rebel, kings, and could provide examples of losing power. Simple question rewording can make a big difference in helping students understand the Magna Carta.

I looked at data from last year from a Quizizz on the Magna Carta. The highest class averages from the Quizizz after the entire lesson were: 79%, 77%, 65%, and 90%. This year, after going through the same lesson, my class averages were 83%, 92%, 90%, and 92%. Again, I’m not some cognitive scientist or some expert by any stretch of the imagination, but this data suggests that the wording of questions, background knowledge, and working memory play a huge part in students understanding.

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