Saturday, May 03, 2014

Outline of a system for asking, answering and discussing student and teacher questions

I give my students weekly quizzes to focus their studying on key skills and concepts and to encourage them to keep up with the class. The quizzes typically have 7-9 questions and a typical answer is a couple of words or sentences.

After they take a quiz, I post it online so, by the end of the term, they have all the questions. I refuse to give the students answers (that drives some of them nuts), but am willing to discuss the questions and encourage them to discuss them among themselves. (I curve grades relative to the top person in the class, so helping another student does not hurt one's grade).

Each semester, an enterprising student sets up a forum for collectively answering the questions -- perhaps on a blog with a post and comments for each question or, more likely, as a shared Google doc.

I like that because it provides an example of a student assuming leadership and illustrates the use of the Internet to facilitate collaboration, but I very much dislike the focus it puts on memorizing the "right" answer rather than discussion and explanation and, more important, raising new questions.

A blog or shared document with comments or a vanilla threaded discussion, allows for questions and discussion, but the students take the easy way out and pretty much focus on a single answer, period. (I find that the first answer someone posts is usually accepted without question or discussion, even if it is incorrect).

So, I would like a collaborative system that encouraged discussion and questioning. What might that look like?

I would seed the discussions with the sorts of weekly quiz questions I currently give and students could respond by suggesting an answer or asking a related question. A simple answer would not suffice -- it would have to be supported by a brief explanation and/or a link to its source. The system would present the student with a simple answer submission form (with all fields required):


There would also be a mechanism for the other students to evaluate the answer and its explanation. A simple mechanism like a "Thumbs Up" button would encourage voting, but is somewhat superficial and easily gamed (though one might detect that through statistical analysis -- or at least tell the students you could :-). More elaborate systems in which students have to fill out a simple form in order to vote for an answer would also be possible. That would discourage thoughtless voting and also provide more fine-grained data for determining the value of an answer, but would discourage voting.

The system should allow the teacher to customize the answer-evaluation mechanism and to allow or disallow anonymous contributions.

More important than answering questions, students should have a mechanism for posing questions. (Our education system focuses on getting correct answers to questions, but raising questions and seeking satisfactory answers is a more valuable skill -- life is not a series of multiple choice exams).

The same answer-submission form would be used for a question asked by a student as one asked by the teacher.

In addition, there should be a means of evaluating a question -- again, ranging from a simple "Thumbs Up" to a short form.

In addition to student evaluation of answers and questions, the system should be instrumented to give the teacher feedback on what is working and what is not and for (optional) use in grading. (Like it or not, grades are the primary motivation for most students). The teacher should also have the option of sharing those statistics with the students or keeping them hidden.

Well, that is a rough sketch of the question discussion and answering system I would like to have. The closest thing I have seen is Stack Overflow, where users post technical programming questions, answers are voted up or down and a contributor's reputation is a function of the ratings of his or her answers over time -- perhaps that could be a starting point for implementing what I've outlined here. In the meantime, I plan to take a look at QSQA, an open source question answering system that I may be able to use for my class. Has anyone reading this post used it?