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Types of Questions in School-level Science

Dr. Prathik Cherian, Senior Research Associate, Department of Physics, Prayoga, Bengaluru

prathik@prayoga.org.in

 

The importance of questions in science cannot be overstated as the entire scientific process is founded on the spirit of inquiry. So it is perhaps not very surprising that questions are vital for teaching and learning of science as well. The kind of questions that are posed to the students by the instructor during various stages of teaching (instruction, consolidation, assessment etc) play a crucial role in making the learning effective for the student. This holds true for any level of science learning be it in school or at graduate level. In this article, we will attempt to look at an extensive albeit not exhaustive list of the types of questions that can be used in the teaching of middle and high school-level science.


Before we delve into the list, let us address some key questions regarding questions. In the context of student interactions in a teaching-learning environment (such as in schools), (i) why do we ask questions? (ii) what are we trying to assess through questions?, and (iii) when do we ask questions and which questions?.


The why of it is arguably the simplest to answer but equally, the easiest to lose track of. Questions can engage, guide and inspire students. Questions can also help students consolidate their understanding of the concepts. Questions can elicit further questions which is nothing but the reinforcement of the spirit of inquiry! In short, we must recognize the fact that questions are necessary to make learning truly effective for the student.


So what are we looking for when posing questions to students? In certain situations, we are trying to nudge them in a certain cognitive or conceptual direction. This is especially true for in-class situations such as during the instruction. But most often, we are trying to make an assessment of some kind. We can assess understanding at different levels - from basic recall ability to deeper conceptual understanding to higher order thinking abilities such as analyze and create. It is also possible to develop tools that can assess student skills such as problem solving, attitude towards science etc.


Finally, when are questions appropriate? And knowing the importance of questioning students, do we simply bombard them with questions? Of course not! Everything turns sour when doled out in excess.


There are scenarios when questions prior to instruction (eg: pre-tests) can serve a purpose (such as identifying preconceptions held by students). During instruction, well-timed questions (eg: guiding questions, probing questions etc) are appropriate to keep students engaged and motivated. Often, it also allows the instructor to get a feel for how the class is progressing. Post-instruction, there can be consolidation sessions and further, practice worksheets, and evaluations. Our main focus is going to be on the questions useful for the post-instruction phases.


But which types of questions are appropriate for us to use post-instruction? It is imperative for us to have a clear idea about this and so we will now go into the classification. On a broad level, based on the topic-specificity (or lack thereof), the questions are divided into general type of questions and a second category which consist of subject specific types. The latter category of questions mostly are derived from physics education research at the undergraduate level, but even so these are applicable at the middle and high school-levels as well.


  1. General Type of Questions


As the name suggests, these are the types of questions that are not restricted to any specific science subject - be it physics, chemistry or biology. These types of questions are listed below.


True or False

Well, we are all aware of what these are. True or false? Jokes aside, these questions are meant to probe simple factual recall or understanding in students. Because of the binary choice, its efficacy as an assessment tool is called into question. Students could simply guess the answers and have a 50-50 chance of getting it right. These could be made more effective through clever framing of questions. We do not necessarily have to stick to the classic single line questions such as :


● CO2 is a byproduct of photosynthesis.

● Energy is always conserved in the universe.


We could instead describe a particular scenario and make a statement related to it. Let us see an example from physics:


● Two bodies with different masses (m and 3m) are moving with different speeds (v and 3v respectively) collide head-on inelastically. Is the following statement true/false? During collision, the more massive body exerts more force on the less massive one than the other way around.


This type is a classic example of questions that assess lower order thinking skills (LOTS) such as remembering and understanding [1,2]. Typically, this type of question is better used with lower middle school grades and is appropriate in worksheets and evaluations.


Fill in the _______

Once again, we are well aware of what these are. Typically, they assess just whether a student remembers certain specific information such as terms or names. These questions are mainly useful for assessing lower order thinking skills in students such as remember and understand. Once again, these are better used with lower grades, if at all.


Some examples are:

● ______ is the byproduct of photosynthesis in plants.

● The process occuring in classic titration is ________.

● If a body of mass 3kg is experiencing a force of 15N, its acceleration must be _____.


Match the Following

This is another type of question which is limited by the fact that it is typically assessing LOTS (remember, understand). Another drawback is that a student who is smart enough could make educated guesses without actually knowing the ideas. If we must use it, once again preferably stick to the worksheets and evaluations in the lower grades.

It is possible to make the question more challenging by allowing multiple items to be matched or even by having more than two columns. But it is arguable whether the payoff is worth the trouble.


Board Exam Questions

These questions are primarily LOTS assessing questions which as we know is a big drawback of our standard mode of summative assessment in Indian school system. At the end of the day, the students need to appear for the board exams in the format that they are currently in. So these are better included as part of practice sheets. Hopefully, in the near future things will change, but until then it is a necessary evil.


Some examples are:

Very Short Answer Questions: Typically for 1 or 2 marks.

● State Newton’s law of gravitation.

● Give four examples of biomolecules.

Short Answer Questions: Typically for 3 or 4 marks.

● Explain the principle behind classic titration and give an example.

● Define total internal reflection and explain how it is relevant to formation of rainbow.

Long Answer Questions: Typically for 5 or more marks.

● Explain the structure of the human eye and the function of each component.

● Define biomolecules and the various types of biomolecules with examples.


Numericals or Quantitative Questions

This is another category that is quite prevalent especially in the context of board exams. Whilst they do not necessarily have to be assessing LOTS, more often than not that is the case. They can be useful when administered in consolidation, practice worksheets and evaluation.


Typically, these questions are such that the students simply have to remember the correct mathematical formula more than the actual scientific principles. Depending on the complexity of the formula, the calculation itself might be tedious. But ultimately, it is a mindless, procedural exercise. Even though such questions can play a role in giving practice for mathematical skills, they rarely contribute to enhancing the conceptual understanding.


Example:

● A point charge -1C is at a distance 3m from an unknown charge. What is the nature and magnitude of the unknown charge if the coulomb's force experienced by the 1C charge is 15N?


Conceptual Questions

These are questions which do not expect the student to simply recall or engage in an algorithmic behaviour of mathematical manipulations. Conceptual questions are useful to probe higher order thinking skills (HOTS) of the students such as analyzing and evaluating.

It is the conceptual understanding of the student that is being assessed and therefore, the question need not be quantitative. Students may be required to identify relevant details from an excess of information. Students may need to adapt an explanation to a new/novel situation.


Some simple examples:

● Why does Coulomb’s law have the specific mathematical form that it does?

● If you have two objects (initially held at room temperature 30oC) made of two different materials (a conductor and an insulator) and different volumes (V and 3V respectively), immersed in a heat bath (at 60oC), what will be the final equilibrium temperature of the objects? Density, latent heat etc are also given.


We can also have conceptual questions that include some numerical part where the student first has to identify which principle is at play and then has to apply it. These questions may have more than one acceptable answer.

Conceptual questions can be used for consolidation, as part of practice sheets and evaluations. In short, they are appropriate in most scenarios and aids in developing student thinking and understanding.

It is important to move away from the typical questions mentioned earlier and stress more on conceptual questions. These enhance student learning by forcing them to think and not just relegate the mind to recalling or executing an algorithm. Examples can be found in classic textbooks [3-5].


Assertion-Reason

The students are presented with two statements. One is named assertion (A) and the other, reason (R). The task for the student is to identify which of the following options is right:

  1. Both A and R are true, and R is the correct explanation for A.

  2. Both A and R are true, but R is not the correct explanation for A.

  3. A is true but R is false.

  4. A is false but R is true.

  5. Both A and R are false.

This is an interesting type of question and can be challenging for students to answer - especially when their understanding is not solid. We can include them in consolidation, practice sheets, and evaluations.


Examples:

● A: Sodium and potassium are stored in kerosine. R: Na and K belong to group IA, so they are alkali metals.

● A: Sky appears to be blue during daytime. R: Red light has the longest wavelength in the visible spectrum.


Structured Questions

These are questions which have multiple parts/layers. The questions are typically about an established context and can get progressively more difficult. One cannot necessarily progress to successive parts without solving the previous questions if the layers are interdependent. In such cases, if a mistake is made in a layer, then the subsequent answers will go wrong. These questions can be included in consolidation, practice sheets, and evaluations.


Example:

● A car is travelling at 20ms-1 before slowing down to a velocity of 5ms-1. a) i) Calculate the change in velocity of the car. ii) The driver of the car has a mass of 60kg. Recall an equation and calculate the change in momentum of the driver. iii) The car slowed down for 6s. Calculate the force acting on the driver if it is equal to the change in momentum/time taken. State the unit. b) In another situation, the car slowed down from 20ms-1 to 5ms-1 in less than 6s. Explain what effect this has on the force acting on the driver. c) Seat belts help to keep drivers and passengers safer when the car stops suddenly during an accident. Can you name two other safety features that help achieve this.


Open-ended Questions

Open-ended or free-response are questions that allow the students to develop their own ideas regarding a given context. They do not necessarily have a solitary solution and can allow for flexibility and creativity in thinking. They are useful to gain insight into how the student thinks.


Examples:

● Outline the evidence that suggests that light has a wave-like behaviour.

● The modern periodic table is based on the atomic number. Can we have a different basis for periodic tables? Justify your answer.


Multiple Choice Questions

MCQs can be quite useful. During instruction, in-class, if aided with the capability of clickers etc, MCQs allow us to take real time data on student understanding and then to build on it. During evaluation, apart from probing conceptual understanding, they can be used to ascertain student misconceptions through well designed questions and clever choices. In general, they can be included in most scenarios.

MCQs with multiple correct choices is a good way to keep the students honest and keep things engaging. It can also help reduce the element of guesswork.


Example:

● Which of the following statement(s) about the Modern Periodic Table are incorrect? (i) The elements in the Modern Periodic Table are arranged on the basis of their decreasing atomic number. (ii) The elements in the Modern Periodic Table are arranged on the basis of their increasing atomic masses. (iii) Isotopes are placed in adjoining group(s) in the Periodic Table. (iv) The elements in the Modern Periodic Table are arranged on the basis of their increasing atomic number. A. (i) only. B. (i), (ii), and (iii). C. (ii), (iii), and (iv). D. (iv) only.


Alt-lab or Second Hand Investigations

Student investigations can not always lead to observations and experiences that support the targeted knowledge. In such scenarios, it would be useful to introduce these. Students are provided with experimental data/observations made by a fictitious scientist (through sophisticated experiments) and are then asked to analyze. This allows the teacher to direct attention to steps in the scientist’s reasoning process that led to the development of core concepts. These can be useful during instruction, consolidation, evaluations.


Examples:

● Data from a projectile motion experiment (angle of projection, velocity, range, time of flight etc) is provided and the students are tasked with bringing out the qualitative relationships between the various physical variables.

● Results from a salt analysis of a substance can be given to the students and ask them to identify the compound.

  1. Tasks Inspired by Physics Education Research (TIPERs)

These are conceptual tasks/questions that have been developed or inspired by works in the field of physics education research [6]. TIPERs when implemented prior to instruction can reveal student preconceptions, while after instruction, they can be used to assess conceptual understanding of students.

Though these are notionally specific to physics, it is possible for them to find application in chemistry and biology topics as well. TIPERs can be used for consolidation as well as in worksheets and evaluations.

Though these are tasks developed predominantly through research into physics education at the higher levels (typically in the undergrad scenario), they are still very much adaptable to the school levels as well. There are some textbooks on topic specific TIPERs available which can be useful references for teachers [7-10]. We now list the TIPERs below.


Ranking Task (RT)

An RT is an exercise that presents students with a set of variations on a basic physical situation. These variations can either differ in the numeric/symbolic values for the variables involved or may include irrelevant variables. The student is tasked with ranking the variations on the basis of a specified (physical) quantity. The student is also asked to explain the ranking they choose.

These tasks require students to engage in a comparison reasoning process that they seldom engage in otherwise. Such tasks may be amenable for certain topics even in chemistry and biology as well.


Example:


Fig. 1 : Three different circuits with identical batteries and bulbs.

● In these circuits (shown in Fig. 1), all the batteries are identical and have negligible internal resistance, and all the bulbs are identical. Rank the bulbs (A-E) in decreasing order of brightness.


Working Backwards Task (WBT)

The order of the problem solving steps are reversed in these tasks. They are also known as Jeopardy problems [11]. The given information could be an equation with specific values for all, or all but one, of the variables. The students have to construct a physical situation for which the given equation would be applicable and valid.

Such tasks require students to take numerical values, including units, and translate them into physical variables. WBTs require students to reason about these situations in an unusual way and they can often allow for more than one solution. One can also design graph/diagram based WBTs.


Examples:

1.5*10-6N = (1x10-5 C) v (0.010 T)(0.5)

12 V = I {[1/(5 𝛀 + 6 𝛀) + 1/(8 𝛀)]-1+14 𝛀}

N - 60 kg * 9.8 ms-2= 0


WBTs help students develop a better understanding of physics concepts and promotes the use of multiple representations in problem solving. They also dissuade students from relying too much on equation-centric thinking for problem solving. Such questions may be possible in other subjects as well, especially chemistry.


What, if anything, is Wrong Task (WWT)

WWTs require students to analyze a statement, or a diagram, and to determine if it is correct or not. If everything is correct the student is asked to explain what is happening and why it works as stated. Instead if something is wrong, the student then has to identify the error and explain how it can be corrected. These are open-ended exercises so they provide insights into students' ideas. Often students' responses can help with further designing of questions.


Example:

● A truck of mass 1500kg travelling at 60kmph collides head on with an autorickshaw of mass 500kg travelling at 30kmph in the opposite direction. The force exerted by the truck on the auto is larger than that by the auto on the truck.

● If a rectangular loop of copper with a very small resistor is moved into a region of uniform magnetic field, there will be an emf (V) across the resistor in the loop while the loop is moving into the field, but not once it is completely inside the field region.


Troubleshooting Task (TT)

These are similar to the WWTs. In these tasks, the students are explicitly told that there is an error in the given situation. Their job is to determine what the error is and explain how to correct it. We are able to get student insights through these and this further helps to develop additional items.


Example:

● A truck of mass 1500kg travelling at 60kmph collides head on with an auto of mass 500kg travelling at 30kmph in the opposite direction. The force exerted by the truck on auto is larger than that by auto on truck. The collision is completely inelastic and the final velocity of the auto is 75kmph (opposite to the initial direction).


Conflicting Contentions Task (CCT)

CCTs present students with two, or three, statements that disagree in some way. The students have to decide which contention they agree with and explain why. These tasks are very useful for contrasting statements of students' alternate conceptions with physically accepted statements. It is instructive to phrase the question as "which statement do you agree with and why" rather than asking which statement is correct or true. CCTs complement WWTs. These could be used in chemistry and biology as well.


Example:

● A block of insulating material has a positive charge distributed uniformly throughout its volume. The block is broken into two unequal pieces, A and B, as shown in Fig. 2.



Fig. 2 : Insulating material broken into two unequal pieces A and B.


Three students make the following statements about the charge density of pieces A and B. Alice: "Charge density is the charge divided by the volume, and the volume of B is smaller. Since the charge is uniform, and the volume is in the denominator, the charge density is larger for B." Bob: "The charge density of piece A is larger than the charge density of piece B. Piece A is larger, so it has more charge." Charlie: "They both have the same charge density. It's still the same material."

Who do you agree with (or none), and why?



Changing Representation Task (CRT)

CRTs require students to translate from one representation to another. Students often learn how to cope with one representation without really learning the role and value of other representations and their relationship to problem solving. Going back and forth between multiple representations for a concept forces them to develop a more robust understanding of each representation.


Examples:

● An electric field diagram is given and students are asked to produce the equipotential curves/surfaces.

● When mathematical expression(s) are given and students are asked to interpret them through graphs or vice versa.

● Free body diagrams to corresponding equations of motion.


Predict and Explain Task (PET)

PETs describe a physical situation which is set up at a point where some event is about to occur. Students have to predict what will happen in the situation and explain why they think that will occur. These tasks are better if they have situations with which the students are familiar, or have sufficient background information to enable the students to understand the situation. Simulations/demonstrations can also be used.


Example:

● A rectangular loop of wire (dimensions L and W) with a small resistor (not shown) is connected to a voltmeter (refer Fig. 3 below). The loop is going to be moved into, through, and out of a uniform magnetic field at a constant speed v. The plane of the loop will always be perpendicular to the direction of the magnetic field.


Fig. 3 : A rectangular wire loop entering a uniform magnetic field with velocity v.

Predict what the reading(s) on the voltmeter will be from before the loop is in the field until it passes completely out of the field.


Qualitative Reasoning Task (QRT)

These tasks can take a variety of forms, but what they have in common is that the analysis is qualitative. Frequently students are presented with an initial and final situation and asked how some quantity, or aspect, will change. Qualitative comparisons (e.g., the quantity increases, decreases, or stays the same) are often the appropriate answer.

QRTs can frequently contain elements found in some of the other task formats (e.g., different qualitative representations and a prediction or explanation).


Some simple examples:

● Change in temperature of a body when it equilibrates after interacting with a heat bath.

● Change in potential energy after a roller coaster ride.


Meaningful, Meaningless Calculations Task (MMCT)

MMCTs present the students with an unreduced expression for a calculation for a physical quantity for a physical situation. They have to decide whether the calculation is meaningful (i.e., it gives a value which tells us something legitimate about the physical situation) or is meaningless (i.e., the expression is a totally inappropriate use of a relation). These calculations should not be ‘trivially meaningless’ such as substituting a blatantly wrong numerical value into the expression.

These items are best when the quantity calculated fits with students' alternative conceptions.


Example:

● A square wire loop with a very small resistor is moving through a uniform magnetic field B, at a constant velocity v (see Fig. 4 below). The loop is fully in the field, and the loop has side length of l. Is the calculation below for the Emf across the resistor meaningful or meaningless for this situation? Explain your answer fully.

emf = v*B*l


Fig. 4 : Square wire loop moving through a magnetic field B with constant velocity v.


The next three tasks have certain commonalities. They are not pen-on-paper problems and they all involve activities/experiments carried out by the students or demonstrations/simulations shown to the students. These tasks are now described below.


Concept Oriented Demonstrations Task (CODT)

These tasks involve an actual demonstration, but with the students doing as much of the description, prediction and explanation as possible. These demonstrations are similar to Interactive Lecture Demonstrations [12], but are narrower in scope and typically use very simple equipment(s).

These demonstrations should be ones where students feel comfortable making predictions about what will happen, and which will produce results they do not expect. The task sheets used during these demonstrations should be designed to focus the students' attention on important aspects of the situation.


Concept Oriented Simulations Task (COST)

These do not involve a live demonstration but rather a computer simulation of one. They use prediction and explanation before running the simulation, and are followed by a reformulating step. These are focused but require software and computer systems. Ideally, these COSTs should be ones where it would be difficult or impossible to actually do or see the results. These would have use in chemistry and biology where visualizing concepts might not always be easily achieved in reality. The task sheets can be designed to guide and focus the students on important aspects of the concept.


Desktop Experiments Task (DET)

These tasks involve students performing a demonstration at their desks (in class or at home) using a predict and explain format but adding the step of actually doing it. This "doing it" step is then followed by the reformulating step where students reconsider their previous explanations in light of what has actually happened. DETs are narrow in scope, usually qualitative in nature, and typically use simple equipment. The task sheets used for the DET guide and focus the students' attention on important aspects of the situation and thereby solidify their conceptual understanding.


Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my colleagues Dr. S. Athavan and Dr. Venkata Krishna for fruitful discussions and suggestions.




References

  1. Bloom’s Taxonomy, https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/planning-courses-and-assignments/course-design/blooms-taxonomy (accessed October 2020)

  2. Higher and Lower Order Thinking Skills, https://web.uri.edu/teach/higher-lower-thinking-skills/ (accessed October 2020)

  3. D. Halliday, R. Resnick, J. Walker, Principles of Physics, 11th edition, Wiley (2020)

  4. L. A. Urry, M. L. Cain, S. A. Wasserman, P. V. Minorsky, J. Reece, Campbell Biology, 11th edition, Pearson (2017)

  5. S. S. Zumdahl, S. A. Zumdahl, D. J. DeCoste, Chemistry, 10th edition, Cengage (2018)

  6. TIPER Descriptions, http://www.tycphysics.org/TIPERs/tipersdefn.htm (accessed October 2020)

  7. C. Hieggelke, S. Kanim, D. Maloney, T. O'Kuma, TIPERs: Sensemaking Tasks for Introductory Physics, Pearson (2013)

  8. C. Hieggelke, D. Maloney, T. O'Kuma, Newtonian Tasks Inspired by Physics Education Research: nTIPERs, Pearson (2011)

  9. C. Hieggelke, D. Maloney, T. O'Kuma, Ranking Task Exercises in Physics: Student Edition, Pearson (2004)

  10. C. Hieggelke, S. Kanim, D. Maloney, T. O'Kuma, E&M TIPERs: Electricity & Magnetism Tasks, Pearson (2005)

  11. A. Van Heuvelen, and D. Maloney, American Journal of Physics, 67, 252 (1999)

  12. Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, https://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/demonstrations/index.html (accessed October 2020)

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