Tune up Your Teaching
Chuck Downing, Ph.D.
Introduction Most teachers today pay lip service at least to the idea that students need to think conceptually. Many would agree that, in our information society, conceptual understanding is more important than factual knowledge. Toward this end, many teachers try to implement conceptual assessment strategies in their classes. Frequently, the result of this implementation attempt is frustration-student answers fail to exhibit either depth of understanding or the ability to relate one topic to another, or both. Comments like, "I can't believe how much my students did not learn," or "My students can't handle conceptual assessments," abound in offices and faculty lounges. (Actual comments are likely to be much more colorful than these sterilized samples.)
Who's to blame? The blame for such inadequacies usually falls on the student. While much blame legitimately belongs with students, not all blame rests with them. Teachers must shoulder some blame for the lack of adequate student answers to conceptual prompts. Part of the blame lies in the prompts teachers provide students. .
So, there is a need to change our questioning if students are going to change their answers. How do we go about this task?
Now wait a minute, I try to make my course intellectually demanding. But this sounds like theory to me.
What do I do? Look at the map in Figure 1. Without any contextual basis for the question, write a factual question about the map. Then write a conceptual question about the map. Don't continue reading until you have your two questions written.
Figure 1. Map of the World.
Now check you questions. Chances are good that your factual question exhibits many, or most, of the following characteristics. Your factual question:
Sample factual questions are:
Equally likely is the chance that your conceptual question exhibits many, or most, of the following characteristics. Your conceptual question:
Sample conceptual questions are:
What is reasonable to state is that most factual questions require lower level thinking skills.
Remember Benjamin Bloom's famous taxonomy of thinking levels? (If not, see Table 1.) Factual questions generally use thinking skills from low on the taxonomy. Conceptual questions tend to require "higher level" thinking skills.
Table 1. Bloom's Levels of Thinking.
Another organizational scheme for thinking levels is presented by the California Science Framework. This model incorporates student cognitive developmental levels along with the thinking levels.
Table 2. Science Processes and Cognitive Development: Grades K-12.
Comparing Bloom's taxonomy with California's Framework model suggests that Bloom's lower taxonomic levels are developmentally most appropriate in grades K-3. It is, of course, ludicrous to suggest that higher level thinking can take place without adequate prior thought processes in the lower levels. It is equally inappropriate to suggest that once students begin using higher level thinking skills, that the lower levels should be abandoned. What is reasonable to state is that most factual questions require lower level thinking skills.
So how do we move students from factual to critical thinkers? There is a high probability that the bulk of assessment your students have experienced has been at lower taxonomic levels. To expect students suddenly to blossom into great critical thinkers able to provide cogent, coherent answers to conceptual prompts posed in your class is unrealistic. There is a need to transition from factual to conceptual assessment prompts. This "lack of transitioning" is another area where "teacher blame" for lack of quality student answers falls. I recommend that you begin preparing your students for conceptual prompts by providing transitional prompts early in your course. Part of the transition process is teaching some test-taking strategies. Loulou (1995, 2) suggests to students, "If you get stuck on a question try to remember a related fact. Start from the general and go to the specific… When answering an essay question, first decide precisely what the question is asking. If a question asks you to compare, do not explain." I am defining transitional prompts as those whose stem is stated in conceptual verbiage but which also include "clues" or "hints" for students as to the direction a response to the prompt might take. Sutman suggests:
Although Sutman is writing specifically about limited English speakers, we can consider most of our students to be "limited-critical thinkers" and apply his reasoning. We can provide "reference points" of differing degree. For example a transitional prompt might include any one three options shown in Table 3. Each succeeding type of clue provides less direction, helping students to move toward "assist-free" conceptual thinking.
Table 3. Types of Clues and Sample Transitional Prompts.
Another approach to the transition process is provided in the following example:
I've had students who became offended when I assessed with too many factual prompts late in the semester.
It may sound strange to you, but because of past experience, many of your students come into your class with no understanding that assessment relates directly to course content. Hints in transitional prompts help provide content-assessment connections. By starting a course with transitional prompts sprinkled among factual prompts, students will learn the expectations of an adequate answer to a conceptual prompt while achieving success during the learning experience. They also begin to understand how content fits into a conceptual prompt framework. As the course progresses, use of transitional prompts decreases in proportion to the implementation of conceptual substitutes-students are gradually weaned from the need for hints and clues. Transitional prompts can be used for longer periods of time with students who are developmentally unprepared for conceptual prompts. In some classes transitional assistance may be required only briefly in the beginning units of the course. In other classes, it might be appropriate for transitional prompts to be the predominant type prompt used in assessment for the entire course. In either case, or any case in-between, students are more challenged than they would have been by a steady diet of factual-only assessments. You might be surprised. I've had students who became offended when I assessed with too many factual prompts late in the semester or year. "What's the matter? You think we don't know this stuff so you're asking only easy questions?" is a typical complaint. And that is music to any teacher's ears.
Berger, Sandra L. 1991. "Differentiating Curriculum for Gifted Students." ERIC Digest #E510. Council for Exceptional Children, Reston, VA.; ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children, Reston, VA. ED342175
Bloom, et. al. 1956. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1: The Cognitive Domain. California State Department of Education. 1990.
California Framework for Science Instruction. Loulou, Diane. Oct 1995. "Making the A: How To Study for Tests." ERIC/AE Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation, Washington, DC. ED385613
Potts, Bonnie. Feb 1994. "Strategies for Teaching Critical Thinking." ERIC/AE Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation, Washington, DC. ED385606.
Sutman, Francis X.; And Others. Mar 1993. "Teaching Science Effectively to Limited English Proficient Students." ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 87. ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, New York, N.Y. ED357113
Special thanks goes to Dr. Marilyn Stevens, one of the finest professional development presenters I've ever known, for her assistance in developing the concept of transitional prompts.