Teaching Stories

Strategic Students and Question Spotting

The following piece was written by Helen Heath, a BILT Fellow, Reader in Physics and (soon to be!) University Education Director (Quality).

Why do we think that students being strategic in their learning is a bad thing? Is this an example of emotive conjugation as brilliantly illustrated by Anthony Jay and Johnathan Lynn in the “Yes Minister” series, “I give confidential security briefings. You leak. He has been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.” ?

“I only have time for important things, you have concentrated on the wrong things, students are question spotting rather than learning.”

Academics are very strategic in the tasks they decide to undertake. They pick tasks that will result in promotion, they tune their lectures to give students what they want to get those good questionnaire responses and they leave jobs undone that they have decided are not worth the time and effort. Yet we seem to criticise students for the same behaviour. We decide not to read the majority of the 200 papers in the Senate pack. Quickly reviewing the headings and deciding what matters to us. This is sensible use of precious time. A student decides they don’t have time to read and understand the whole textbook so they will look at previous examinations and see what topics are more likely to come up and this is “question spotting”.

But is “question spotting” such a bad idea? There is some sense academically. If a question (or a variation of a question) about the same topic appears every year then the examiner is giving a message that this is a topic they regard as important. We might hope that students had realised what were the key topics in other ways. We might stress these key topics in our lectures. We might like to think our students were able to just “get” what is key but that’s a high-level skill and the key topics may only be obvious when they have reappeared in subsequent years. When students are struggling with the nuts and bolts of a subject it’s not surprising that they can’t manage to see the wood for the trees.

Many weaker students are known to find difficulty with scaffolding their learning and identifying the key elements that will enable them to succeed later. They use every piece of information they can to work out what these key topics are and that includes judging what we regard as important by what we assess them on. The topics we choose to place an emphasis on in our final assessment must be import so question spotting is a way of understanding what it is that academics regard as important.

I’d suggest that this strategic planning is not only useful for passing examinations but it’s a useful life skill. The difficulty arises where students question spot and learn by rote with no understanding. The symptom of this in Physics is often a good response to a question that looked like the one that was asked but was slightly different.

The HEA training materials used in the programme focussed assessment training for the pilot project encouraged academics to consider what are the threshold topics in their area. There is much written about threshold topics in physics a recent paper even suggests that there are too many threshold concepts in physics to count them (“Identifying Threshold Concepts in Physics: too many to count” R. Serbanescu 2017). If this is the case, we need to guide the students by deciding what we think is key. If we fail to do that then we shouldn’t blame the students for looking at what we indicated was key by our assessment. Assessment does drive learning and if we are assessing the same topic repeatedly then it is driving the students to learn that topic.

One mechanism we have tried in physics which has some advantages is giving the students a list of questions of which a subset will be a people be guaranteed to appear on the paper and make up ~40% of the material. These direct students towards the bare bones of the course. If they can answer this set of questions they should at least be able to reproduce the basic information in the course Looking our definition of what constitutes a third class performance in assessment (“some grasp of the issues and concepts underlying the techniques and material taught” UoB 21 point scale 40-50 descriptor) the ability to simply regurgitate with reasonable accuracy some basic concepts could be seen to meet these. Ideally students would want to go further but, in some cases, they haven’t had the time to absorb that particular piece of knowledge and digest it in the depth we would expect. While there are still time constraints on the acquisition of knowledge in a Higher Education programme inevitably almost everyone will come up against a concept that they are unable to grasp before the assessment.

And is learning by rote so bad? I do not set out to prove Pythagoras’ theorem every time I need to use it for a question.

Forms of assessment should have a range of tasks that test both use of tools and deeper concepts, but students should not be criticised for directing their learning towards topics they think are likely to come up in an examination. By putting these topics on the examination regularly we have declared them to be important.

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