Using clickers in social sciences and humanities: No-one-right answer questions

by Stephanie Chasteen on September 4, 2014

This is a re-post from my work on the iclicker blog.

There are lots of different types of clicker questions you can draw from (see last post for some examples), but there’s a clear distinction between two types of questions:

Questions that have a right answer
vs.
Questions that don’t have a right answer

Questions that DO have a right answer are the canonical fodder of many a clicker-user – we ask students a question, have a list of answer choices that represent common errors that students can make on that question, and ask them to hash it out amongst themselves.

But in the social sciences and humanities, often such questions don’t quite cut the mustard – what instructors in these disciplines often want students to do is to wrestle with course content, arguing for a position or a point, or juxtaposing two theories or points of view. While it’s important to be able to know certain facts, or to understand certain concepts, in order to argue for a position, such knowledge or understanding is not sufficient. Thus, it may be fruitful for instructors in the humanities and social sciences to move beyond one-right-answer conceptual questions, to a broader range of questions that force students to delve into their own experience, opinions, or arguments. Questions with no-one-right-answer can be very effective at doing this.

Note: I do also believe that instructors in the natural and physical sciences could also benefit from the use of more questions with no-one-right-answer, and many of these techniques can be used in such courses. However, for the sake of focus, this article will address only the social sciences and humanities.

A recent article by a pair of sociologists gives a wonderful framework for the types of questions that can be used in sociology, and forms the basis for this article: “A Meeting of Minds”: Using Clickers for Critical Thinking and Discussion in Large Sociology Classes (Mollborn and Hoekstra, Teaching Sociology, 28, 2010).

The authors identify several types of questions for achieving various goals.

Some types of one-right answer questions. The following could be used to address student understanding of the material:

  • Reading quiz questions
  • Concept questions

For example, one might ask students to state ideas from the reading, to test their comprehension or attention. Or, ask students to apply an idea or concept to predict an outcome.

An example from Molborn and Hoekstra:

Does the sex labeling of occupations affect supply-side gender discrimination, demand-side gender discrimination, or both?

  1. Supply side only
  2. Demand side only
  3. Both
  4. Neither
  5. Don’t know/other

In this case, there is a correct answer, “C”. Such questions have their utility, but Mollborn and Hoekstra remarked that using too many such conceptually-oriented questions resulted in “a learning community that felt examination oriented, rather than a cooperative exploration of course material, and these questions seemed too ‘detached’ from real-life experience.” This led them to explore other types of questions to support students’ ability to apply, discuss, evaluate, and critique.

Some types of no-one-right-answer questions. On the other hand, a rich set of question types can be used to get at higher order thinking skills, and do not have a right answer:

  • Demographic questions
  • Opinion questions
  • Past experience questions
  • Student-designed questions

Such questions can help an instructor, in an active way, help students wrestle with ideas in a deep way, through relating material to real life experiences and data, critiquing sociological theories and methods, or improving the learning experience.

For example, opinion questions can be used to determine students’ incoming ideas of a topic, and initiate discussion. Or, they might be used after a lecture, to see whether students’ ideas were changed. Students can also be asked to give their opinions as a way to directly build disciplinary skills, such as whether they agree with a particular research findings, or whether they feel a survey question is well-worded.

A particularly powerful example of an opinion question is given by Mollborn and Hoekstra:

How much do you personally think cultural factors explain differences in evidence of violent behaviors between men and women?

  1. Not much at all
  2. A little
  3. They are sometimes useful
  4. They explain most of what we see
  5. Don’t know/other

The social sciences are particularly rich areas for such questions, since the topic of study are very accessible to students through prior experiences and knowledge. However, the physical sciences can also leverage students’ interest in course material through such opinion or prior knowledge questions, which can motivate students to engage in the lecture topic.

Past experience questions are also highly relevant in the social sciences, since we (humans) form the unit of study in the social sciences. Students can compare their experiences with those of other students in the class, or to the population of a particular research study. One of my favorite example questions in this area is given in the paper:

When you were growing up, which of you parents earned the most money?

  1. Don’t have two opposite sex parents, one or both didn’t work/ varied year to year
  2. Dad usually earned a lot more
  3. Dad usually earned a little more
  4. Mom usually earned a lot more
  5. Mom usually earned a little more

Dr. Mollborn tells me that, in her class, students usually don’t quite believe that gender can influence wages, and that the gender-wage gap seems like something that happens to other people. However, class results for this question consistently show the same results as in published research studies – that men typically earn more than women in a household.

Demographic questions are another question type that are highlighted in the article. In the social sciences, often data is presented about a particular population – such as ethnic diversity. In the article, the authors describe asking students to use clickers to indicate their race, and overlaying this data with US census data, and using this to prompt a discussion of how the wording of survey questions can impact results.

Lastly, the authors recommend that upper-level students can even design their own clicker questions as part of an assignment.

All these types of questions place a heavy emphasis on discussion – but unlike conceptual questions, where students need to discuss the answers with their neighbors in order to construct their understanding – with no-one-right-answer questions the power often lies in the aggregate student responses to the question.

Thus, the instructor must learn to gracefully facilitate a whole-class discussion using the results of such real-time class statistics to build the point that he or she wishes to emphasize. Often, such no-one-right-answer questions serve as a springboard for a broader class discussion.

Reference: “A Meeting of Minds”: Using Clickers for Critical Thinking and Discussion in Large Sociology Classes (Mollborn and Hoekstra, Teaching Sociology, 28, 2010).

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