February 25, 2016

The Benefit of Student-Generated Questions

by Theresa Brush, Pharm.D., PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Suburban Hospital

How many times have you sat in a classroom and had an instructor ask, “Do you have any questions?” What follows, most often, is silence. The silence does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest by students, but they may feel uncomfortable asking questions or have not sufficiently digested the information in order to even ask one. A possible solution to this problem has been explored — student generated questions.

Questions are such an integral part learning.  Indeed, “the act of asking questions and the consequent search for answers is key to active learning.”1 Student-generated questions are exactly as the name implies; students create their own questions regarding the subject matter and this, in turn, directs their learning.

But how can we help students create good questions?  One of the methods that has been successfully used to develop student-generated questions is called the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).2 The QFT is a step-by-step process that helps students learn how to produce their own questions, improve them, and strategize how to use them. This six-step process includes:

1. The Teacher Designs the Question Focus
  • The teacher presents a Question Focus in the form of a statement, visual, or auditory stimulus that focuses and attracts student attention. This focus is not in the form of a question but rather a prompt from which students develop questions.

2. Students Brainstorm Questions
  • Working in small groups, students brainstorm and record lots of questions. Students produce as many questions as they can.  They should not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions.  The questions should be written down exactly as stated.  Any statements should be changed into questions.

3. Students Improve Their Questions
  • Students then improve their questions by categorizing them into one of two categories:  open-ended and close-ended.  At this point the teacher should have a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of both types. Students are then asked to change at least one of their open-ended questions into a closed-ended question.  And vice versa. This step furthers students’ understanding of how the phrasing of questions can affect the depth, quality, and value of the answer.

4. Students Prioritize Their Questions
  • The teacher then offers criteria or guidelines for selecting questions. For example, the criteria may be, “Choose the three questions you want to explore further.” Students then select their priority questions based on the criteria.

5. Students and Teachers Decide on Next Steps
  • Students and teachers decide together on how to use the questions. For instance, the questions may be used to stimulate discussion during the next class.

6. Students Reflect on What They Have Learned
  • The teacher reviews the steps of the QTC and has students reflect on what they have learned through the process.

This method of having students develop their own questions encourages them to go deeper into their thinking and (hopefully) develop a new thirst for learning.2 One study demonstrated the impact of student-generated questions on learning.3 In an undergraduate psychology course, students were given the opportunity to earn extra credit by submitting questions to the instructor concerning the material covered in class the previous week. The questions could be regarding concepts that were unclear, additional information the student would like to explore, or how the issue applies to other courses or relates to other concepts. The performance of students who developed questions was compared to students who did not write questions. The results demonstrated that the slope of improvement in performance on the exams was directly proportional to the number of questions generated. These results provide some evidence regarding the effectiveness of student-generated questioning to motivate learning and promote deeper understanding.

Seeing the Forest Through the Icicles
Not only have student-generated questions helped improve students’ understanding of course material, but student-generated questions can be used to evaluate and assess students’ learning. Instructors can use student-generated questions to construct multiple-choice examinations and open-ended essay questions.4 Learning activities that involve student-generated questions help students shift from merely acquiring knowledge (from the teacher) to learning knowledge (self-directed learning), increasing their confidence about the subject matter, and promoting more diverse and flexible thinking.5  However, student-generated assessment questions have been criticized because it forces students to focus their attention on finding details in the material around which they can construct questions.  This may limit their understanding of the material and they may not comprehend “the big picture.” If a teacher uses this technique, awareness of this criticism should force the instructor to use a set of parameters for students to follow when creating questions.  Moreover, students should be encouraged to give feedback on how to improve the use of this technique.

Techniques to improve student-generated questions can be used to enhance class participation and engagement as well as to construct evaluations and assessments. This QFT is a great tool for instructors to have within their toolbox and promotes deeper learning.

  1. Chin C. Student-Generated Questions: Encouraging Inquisitive Minds in Learning Science. Teaching and Learning [Internet]. 2002 Jun [cited 2016 Feb 3];23(1):59-67.
  1. Rothstein D, Santana Luz. Teaching Student to Ask Their Own Questions [Internet]. Cambridge (MA):Harvard Education Letter; 2011 Sep [cited 2016 Feb 3].
  1. Berry JW, Chew SL. Improving Learning Through Interventions of Student-Generated Questions and Concept Maps. Teaching of Psychology. 2008;35:305-312.
  1. Pittenger AL, Lounsbery JL. Student-Generated Questions to Assess Learning in an Online Orientation to Pharmacy Course. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 2011;75(5) Article 94.
  1. Yu FY. Scaffolding student-generated questions: Design and development of a customizable online learning system. Computers in Human Behavior. 2009;25:1129-1138.

February 17, 2016

Breaking Down the Barriers that Hinder Class Participation

by Teyrra Crawford, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate 2018, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

“Show of hands. How many students think the answer is choice A.”
As instructors work to incorporate review questions and checkpoints in their presentations, many students decline to participate out of a fear of being wrong.1 The lecturer is unaware of their students’ gaps in understanding the material and students miss opportunities for clarity out of fear of saying the “wrong” thing.

So how can we bridge the gap? How can instructors encourage students to be open and engaged during class discussions and when review questions are posed?  By creating a classroom that is psychologically safe – that’s how. The concept of psychological safety, simply stated, is the idea of “feeling safe”2 in the situation or environment. This is not about physical safety (although that may be a factor), it is more about the student’s comfort in sharing their thoughts without fear of being attacked or judged by their peers or the instructor. But the fear of being wrong is not the only barrier. In addition, students need to know their input is appreciated and, regardless of a difference of opinion, respected.

Let’s revisit the example about asking the students to select the correct choice for a checkpoint question:

Several students raise their hands for the various answer choices: A, B, and C. While the students still have their hands raised for answer choice C the instructor points to one of those students and asks her to explain how she arrived at that answer choice.

Depending upon the age of the students/participants as well as the content, this type of “on the spot” attention may invoke anxiety or withdrawal from the student (from a behaviorist perspective) as well as others (from a social learning perspective). The goal in creating a psychologically safe classroom environment based on mutual respect and openness, as well as providing a variety of opportunities for meaningful participation that results in learning success. By establishing a culture within the classroom that fosters active participation and engagement by the students, it will lay the basis for a classroom that is psychologically safe.

Understanding that every student learns differently based on personality and experience, “putting someone on the spot” may be counterproductive and make the student feel less “safe.”3 But fear not instructors — all is not lost! There are several strategies that can be employed to inspire students to actively participate. Instead of students raising their hands, if they have access to electronic devices, they can submit their answer choices through a polling system via the internet, or using software and devices designed to increase interaction. Classroom response devices and online polling, test student knowledge and providing a way to share the results while maintaining a level of anonymity. These classroom aids (like ActivClassroom, iClicker, RW poll) can be used to teach and reinforce concepts throughout the course while still tracking the individual progress and challenges of the individual student. Such technology has been integrated at Ron Clark Academy Middle School4, a school that focuses on making learning fun and effective for students. It can also be used in health professional education!  In a comparative study conducted between 2008 and 2009 at an Indian medical school, clicker technology was used during lecture activities and the researchers measured it’s impact on test scores. The results showed that test scores and retention up to 12 weeks after the course were both higher in the group that used clickers.5

Due to budget restrictions, using such tools may not be an option. However there are other ways in which instructors can cultivate an environment where students enjoy sharing. Instead of simply stating that a student is “right” or “wrong”, open the response to the entire class for feedback. In an article published on Education Week’s website, an instructor discusses the strategy of “sticking with the student” that she learned from the book, The Skillful Teacher.6 In the article, McCaffrey suggests how to engage the student after a less than optimal answer is given without making the student feel like he was on the hot seat. The instructor has to be conscious of their own body language and tone when responding. Additionally, when responding to answers, the instructor should praise the student’s thinking, while encouraging them to think a little more about the answer.  Sometimes the instructor should reword the question to help the students explore the concepts more deeply. Another strategy she suggests using is “turn and talk” session. Using this strategy, students have an opportunity to discuss their responses with peers before having to provide individual responses to the teacher.  This relieves some of the immediate pressure from one student while actively engaging thought and participation from the rest of the class.7 Instructors can incorporate “get to know me” exercises so that students may become more at ease with their peers.

While different tools help to engage students, the fundamental component of building a psychologically safe classroom is consistency.8 For example, let’s say students have been allowed to turn in homework two days late without penalty. Let’s assume, mid-way through the course, a student turns in an assignment a day late and receives a zero. Such inconsistency incites anxiety in students and can destabilize that feeling of “safety” in the classroom. Once standards are set in place, they should stay in place.  Or if changes must be made, adequate explanation for the change should be provided to support consistency and trust between the students and the instructor.

Some points to remember:
  1. Set the tone, be clear of what expectations are, and be consistent!
  2. Provide a variety of opportunities for students to participate and show what they know!
  3. Do some research and prepare activities in advance to maximize outcomes, minimize confusion, and reduce stress.
  4. HAVE FUN!!  Your enthusiasm will rub off on your learners!

****Please share your comments and experiences with establishing and thriving a psychologically safe classroom!****

1.    Schreiner CS. Handbook of research on assessment technologies, methods, and applications in higher education. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference; 2009. p. 53-57.
2.    Preisler J. Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe [Internet]. Fosteringperspectives.org. 2016 [cited 2016 Feb 1].
3.    Nilson L. Teaching at its best. Bolton, MA: Anker Pub. Co.; 2003. p. 129-131.
4.    YouTube. The Ron Clark Academy ActivClassroom - Top Ten Ways [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2016 Feb 1].
5.    Datta R, Datta K, Venkatesh M. Evaluation of interactive teaching for undergraduate medical students using a classroom interactive response system in India. Medical Journal Armed Forces India. 2015;71(3):239-245.
6.    McCaffrey B. Sticking With Students: Responding Effectively to Incorrect Answers [Internet]. Education Week Teacher. 2014 [cited 2016 Feb 10].
7.    Phillips M. Creating an Emotionally Healthy Classroom Environment [Internet]. Edutopia. 2014 [cited 2016 Jan 31].
8.    Coetzee M, Jansen C. Emotional intelligence in the classroom. Cape Town: Juta; 2007. p. 31-32.

9.    Jordan R, Lin Foo M, Hooley R. Science engineering - McGraw Center - Princeton University [Internet]. Princeton.edu. 2010 [cited 2016 Feb 1].