Building a Model: Part 2 – Alternative Question Types

Week 2 of my advanced modeling workshop has come and gone and we spent a lot of time with alternative question types. As teachers we are always looking for ways to keep our classes fresh. One way to do that is through alternative questions types like ranking tasks, jeopardy problems, context-rich problems and goal-less problems.

I knew about all of these question types before coming to this workshop but I realized this past week that I have no idea what I’m doing!

Through a lot of readings (see problem-type summaries below), I now have a better understanding of alternative problem types and how to use them. The biggest mistake I was making with all of these question types was letting the first time students see these new question types be on an assessment. This is a big “no no” because students need time to practice and adjust to these somewhat unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable types of alternative problems. Make sure to set your students up for success with these new problem types!

Here is a little bit about each type of problem:

Ranking Tasks

Ranking tasks might be my favorite type of alternative problem. Check out the articles “Ranking Tasks: A New Type of Test Item” by David Maloney (1987) and “Ranking Tasks Revisited” by Maloney and Friedel (1995) for an academic overview of this question type.

A ranking task question gives student 4-8 arrangements with the same basic structure but different numbers or data. Student need to rank the items based on given criteria and explain their reasoning for their ranking. The great thing about ranking tasks is students must figure out what variable they are looking for on their own. This question type also gives teachers the chance to see how students think, not just their answer.

For our nuclear chemistry unit, I wrote a ranking task using mass spec data and average atomic mass. Students have to rank the elements represented by the data from least massive to most massive. To solve this problem, students need to understand the graphs they are looking at and then know how to pull data from the graphs to calculate the average atomic mass of each sample using a weighted average.

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 9.11.27 AM

Jeopardy Problems

Jeopardy problems are another fun type of alternative problem. A jeopardy problem is just like the iconic game show, you give students the answer and they give you the question. Again, for an academic overview of this problem type, see “Playing Physics Jeopardy” by Alan Van Heuvelen and David Maloney (1999).

There are two types of jeopardy problems: equation and diagram/graph. An equation jeopardy problem gives students the complete equation for a problem and the students must come up with a scenario that fits the equation. I might give students the following equation:

Q = (205g) (4.18 J/g°C) (56°C – 14°C)

Students would have to come up with a scenario that this equation could describe. An acceptable answer is a pot of cold water, starting temperature 14°C, is heated on a stove to 56°C. Students must truly understand each variable in the equation to answer this question. The question could be made more difficult by using multiple equations.

In a graph/diagram jeopardy problem, students are given a graph or diagram and must provide a scenario that the graph or diagram could represent. I might give students an LOL chart like the one below and have them come up with a possible scenario for it. A possible solution for this problem is a pot of hot liquid water is vaporized into a gas.

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 9.25.02 AM

Jeopardy problems are a great alternative problem type because they evaluate how well students understand the equations and graphs you use in class.

Context-Rich Problems

Context-rich problems are great for chemistry because there are so many real-world applications students can explore. I love context-rich problems because they answer the question “why do I have to learn this?” Check out this overview from the University of Minnesota for a really practical approach to context-rich problems.

The key to context-rich problems is they start with “you.” The problem must give students motivation to solve it. For the nuclear unit, I wrote a context-rich problem about radioactive reindeer in Norway.

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 9.44.40 AM

This problem gives students motivation to solve the problem, students are not explicitly told what they are solving for and it is multi-step problem. I try to give students a context-rich problem within every unit as a group challenge problem.

Goal-less Problems

Goal-less problems are probably the most uncomfortable type of alternative problem for students because they are so open-ended. A goal-less problem provides students with a scenario but no question. Kelly O’Shea has a great blog post about goal-less problems in physics class. I love combining goal-less problems with standards-based grading because the learning targets give students a road map for providing solutions to the problem. A great use for goal-less problems is as reassessments. You can give students a scenario and have them apply the information to the learning targets they want to reassess.

A sample goal-less problem I have used in chemistry for my heat and temperature unit is giving students a mass and having them roll a die to get a starting temperature. See the problem below:

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 10.09.32 AM

Goal-less problems really show what aspects of a model students understand and what aspects they struggle with. The goal-less problem is also easy to differentiate because you can ask students to take it further if you give them feedback as they work.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas for keeping your assessments fresh and engaging! Happy planning!

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