Question participants effectively to ensure complete understanding

Questioning participants on new concepts in a classroom setting – not simply sharing or discussing experiences – is often unproductive. The core reasons for this?

The majority of questions tend to be fact based
Few, if any, questions check for participant understanding of key concepts
Insufficient thinking time provided by the facilitator for participants to think and reflect, as well as peer pressure or cultural norms that lead to many participants failing to engage

Several hands holding up letters to aks the question 'why'?

Diagnosing understanding

A hinge question is a question based on the critical concepts in a workshop or virtual classroom that need to be understood before moving on to explore and apply. Every – yes, every – participant must respond to the question individually, and you must be able to collect and interpret the responses from everyone.

In a workshop this can easily be done with mini-whiteboards or ‘clicker’ technology; in a virtual classroom polls and private chat work.

The hinge question should not simply test the ‘what’, but must also test the ‘why’ so that it checks either participants’ understanding, problem solving, or out-of-the box thinking rather than simply recall ability.

Harvard Professor Eric Mazur in his university lectures introduced what he called ConcepTests. ConcepTests (spelling intentional) are conceptual multiple-choice questions.

Each question focuses on a single concept. The key is that to get to the right answer participants must think about and apply the concept. It’s crucial to have great multiple-choice ‘distractors’ (incorrect answers) that capture the usual errors or misconceptions, and then to explore why participants made the wrong choice – so that their correct understanding of a given concept deepens.

Take Away

Ensure questions are used around concepts and ideas that evoke and have time allotted for thoughtful reflection, where all participants are engaged to think and express ideas.

Ensure hinge questions are asked that test all participants on their understanding of given subject matter
Allow participants time to respond to questions – a minute (in silence) for thinking before answering
Ask all participants either to write down an answer – or private chat the facilitator in a virtual classroom. Then read out a selected few and discuss
Provide choice between different possible answers with ConcepTests. Provide multi-choice polls ask participants to vote on the options. Then discuss the results
Use peer learning: switch from individual/ pairs/ groups for participants to share their thinking/ understanding. This works equally well face-to-face or virtually

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