Engaging students by increasing curiosity: have I actually been making students *less* engaged with some of my in class activities?

As I wrote about last week, I recently attended a seminar given by José Vazquez from the University of Illinois. He gave a talk in the Inclusive Teaching seminar series that has been hosted by the Foundational Course Initiative at Michigan. Clearly it got me thinking, since it’s a few weeks later and I’ve written multiple blog posts about it! The first was on how students mostly aren’t reading the textbook, and the ones who are might actually end up less prepared as a result. In this one, I want to focus on what was the main theme of Vazquez’s talk: that one of the most important things an instructor does is to motivate our students, and a key way to do that is by making them curious. The main method he talked about to achieve this was to ask questions that focused their attention on a gap in their knowledge or understanding, being careful not to open a gap that is too big.

Early in the seminar, he started by showing us a video of what is apparently a common demonstration used in physics:

still from a video showing someone putting two small metal balls each on two tracks, one of which is flat except at the very beginning, and the other of which is wavy

Source of video

He then polled us to ask us to say which ball would get to the other side first:

  1. The one on the straight track
  2. The one on the wavy track
  3. They will tie

Aside from the physicists in the room, most of us hadn’t considered this problem before. He polled us, and I was kind of guessing and not super curious, but then he ruled out my guess, at which point I definitely became more interested in wondering which was right.

To show that this really did engage me, he didn’t give the answer right away, but waited until the very end of the seminar. The problem for me was that I had to leave a few minutes early to get to my next meeting, which led to me googling to find out the answer at home that evening. Clearly I was motivated to find out the answer! (The answer is that the wavy one will get there first.)

Vazquez noted that, to really open up the curiosity of students, you want to ask them all the same question at the same time, and to force them to make a single choice. His take was that it’s actually good if there’s a spread of the students across a bunch of options. Contrast is interesting and therefore good, since curiosity increases if you know someone close to you has the information you need to answer the question.

One of his key points – and the one I’ve been reflecting on since the seminar – is that instructors should manage information to keep students curious. If the students already know the answer, it’s boring and maybe counterproductive to poll. (This makes me wonder whether I should get rid of some of the clicker questions that 95+% of students get correct. I had thought those might be confidence boosters, but Vazquez argued they are curiosity busters.) But, crucially, you also don’t want the gap in knowledge to be too big – if I feel like it’s hopeless for me to even try, I won’t.

This got me to think about a type of activity I do in my class that I think is important, but that I also have been thinking (even before this seminar!) needs some work. The general idea is to present a hypothesis and the experiment that was done to test it, and then to ask students to draw a figure that would support the hypothesis. Here’s an example:

After introducing interspecific competition, I then introduce Connell’s classic experiment:

slide says Species A is in the upper intertidal zone and is smaller, and species B is in the lower intertidal zone and is larger

I then talk some more about barnacles, including how they feed and how they can only do that when submerged, as well as briefly introducing their life cycle.

I then introduce the experiment:

slide shoes the experiment design, which involved moving rocks from the upper intertidal to the lower intertidal, then removing species B from half of each rock

and then ask a couple of clicker questions: one about what this comparison allows you to tell (the effect of B on A) and which is the control. Then, I ask students to draw figures that would support each of the two hypotheses.

One reason I do that is because I try to emphasize figure reading and applications of knowledge. This is a great way of getting students to think at a higher level…that is, if they aren’t just overwhelmed by the activity.

When I pose this question to students, I tell them I’ll give them a few minutes to work on it and then circulate around to try to help them. But there’s one of me and hundreds of them, and I couldn’t get to most of them even if the setup of the lecture hall allowed that (which is doesn’t). I’ve spent years trying to think about how to solve this, thinking about whether I could have a team of undergrad assistants who circulated to facilitate this (but that adds a lot of work for me, since I then have to recruit, train, and support that team). I thought of possible technology solutions (and this challenge was actually posed as a question to people interviewing for positions with the Foundational Course Initiative).

I realize now I was fixated on the idea of having students draw the figure themselves because I’ve ended up with the idea that we need to move beyond simple multiple choice questions if we want to engage our students. If my students are drawing graphs in class, surely I’m teaching well, right?! But this seminar made me think that maybe my approach is actually counterproductive. It opens up such a big gap in their knowledge that, especially given the physical set up of the room, it probably seems much more appealing to many of them to just check snapchat.

Instead, my guess is that students would be more engaged – and therefore learn more – if I posed it as a set of clicker questions:

  1. What goes on the x-axis? (One thing I’ve learned from teaching: students default to putting time on the x-axis, especially once we’ve discussed population biology.)
  2. What goes on the y-axis? Often times, there are multiple possibilities. Vazquez argued that it’s fine if there’s no “right” answer, and I agree with that, especially in this setting.
  3. How should the data be represented? Bars? Lines? Points?
  4. And, finally, which of these 5 figures shows the pattern that would support the hypothesis?

That could probably all be done in no more time than the time I leave for them to draw the figure and for me to circulate and then draw it up on the screen after circulating. And I suspect it will leave them more engaged and, therefore, probably lead many of them to get more out of it.

I’m looking forward to trying this this fall, and would love to hear if you’ve tried something similar, and to hear how you try to increase the curiosity of students in your courses!

2 thoughts on “Engaging students by increasing curiosity: have I actually been making students *less* engaged with some of my in class activities?

  1. Hmm. Seems like there several things going on here that it might be useful to tease apart.

    One is the various purposes of multiple choice clicker questions. One purpose is to get students curious and thinking, and create a “teachable moment” when many students get the answer wrong, as with the question about that physics demo. I love using clicker questions that way. But another good use of clicker questions is to check if students have understood something you’ve just taught them (because if they haven’t, you probably want to stop and disabuse them of whatever misunderstanding they have). And maybe there are other purposes, though those are the two I use clicker questions for…Anyway, just speaking personally, I never ask deliberately-easy clicker questions just to boost student confidence. Because, yeah, I can imagine that would bore them. But I don’t think you’re necessarily doing anything wrong as an instructor if you ask a few clicker questions that 95% of the students get right. Sometimes, when you check whether the students have grasped something they’ve just been taught, they’ll turn out to have grasped it. Which is good! (right?)

    But the other thing you talk about is getting students to think at a higher level, and preparing them to do that so that you aren’t overwhelming them. I guess my question is, *are* your students currently overwhelmed by those higher level thinking activities? If a solid fraction of the groups are getting it right or at least making a good attempt, I think the activity is fine, right? Here are Calgary in our big(ish) flipped intro biostats course, every unit ends with a class session devoted to small group work similar to your exercise about Connell’s barnacles. Students are given a series of questions that demand some higher-level thinking, that often oblige them to develop hypotheses, design experiments, draw hypothetical figures, interpret data, etc. FWIW, the students are engaged for the most part, and aren’t overwhelmed. Or is it hard for you to tell whether or not they’re overwhelmed because the room is so big that you can’t visit many of the groups as you circulate?

    Making sure most groups stay engaged and on task in a big room in which you’re the only instructor is yet a third issue. Not sure what to say about that. In our intro biostats course, the higher level thinking group activity that concludes each unit is for marks, so the students have no choice but to take it seriously. Though we also have one on experimental design that’s not for marks, that seems to hold their attention too (it’s this case study, which I highly recommend: https://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=51012)

  2. I’m sure you’re doing fine Meghan! You care a lot about your teaching and I’m sure that comes through. Professors / Instructors don’t have to orchestrate the tension in class like Quentin Tarantino orchestrates the tension in a movie – that’s **way** beyond the job description.

    Give a little responsibility back to students! It’s as much their job to learn as it is yours to teach.

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