Saturday, October 8, 2016

Opinions: Evidence of Thinking

"Hey, Professor this an opinion question?"

A few semesters ago, I had a student taking a test raise her hand to call me over with this concern. She was in the midst of of the test, doing her best to answer carefully, and the thought must have struck her that there were multiple "correct" answers to the question I was asking.

Not every question I ask on a test is cut-and-dried. Some are. Some questions are convergent: there is clearly one correct answer. Convergent questions are usually best for assessing relatively low-level knowledge and understanding. Can the students recall the facts? Have they mastered the vocabulary? Do they have an understanding of the basic concepts? Convergent questions are good for these sort of course material. By asking a convergent question on an exam, I am verifying that my students have mastered a particular concept. And this is valuable in it's way; there are concepts that I want all of my students to learn, and a convergent question is a way of focusing in on their knowledge of a particular concept.

However, I don't think that convergent questions are always the best questions, even on a test. I want my students to provide evidence of thinking, not just rote memorization. How will they use the basic concepts they have learned? I've written before about Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive objectives. Bloom's taxonomy is one way of thinking about different levels of thinking. Here it is in a nutshell:

  • Remembering - the lowest level. Factual recall resides here. (Sadly, this is also by FAR the most common kind of question teachers ask.
  • Understanding - more than just "knowing," this involves, summarizing, explaining, describing, or paraphrasing concepts.
  • Applying - putting knowledge into practice. What difference does it make that they know it, or even understand it? How will they use it?
  • Analyzing - using what one knows to distinguish between concepts. Comparing and contrasting, and making sense of similarities and differences are key aspects.
  • Evaluating - critiquing the ideas of others based on your knowledge and understanding. Being able to judge and justify are key aspects.
  • Creating - the highest level, this is where generating your own ideas, your own creative responses reside. 
There have been arguments made that all of the higher-level thinking skills (applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating) are less of a hierarchy, and more about the different ways we use the things we know and understand. Regardless, however, the benefits of having learners do more than just regurgitate what they know and understand seem quite clear to me. 

Convergent questions seem unlikely to get students thinking at these higher levels. Asking a divergent question, instead, requires students to think beyond just what they remember, and what they understand...but rather use that knowledge and understanding.

So when my student asked me if that test question was an opinion question, I smiled internally.

In the moment, I quipped, "Well sure it is! But I believe that educated people should have opinions. Opinions are evidence that you are thinking. Don't be afraid to say what you think, and then explain why you think so."

This has become part of my teacher toolbox. I use this phrase more often with my students, usually in situations where I want them to show evidence of their thinking, and not just parrot things I have said to them or asked them to read.

What do you think? Do you have opinions--evidence of your own thinking? Or are you just repeating things you've heard other people say?

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