Wednesday, May 24, 2023

How I Helped My Students Ace Difficult Questions

(Estimated Reading Time: 1.5 minutes)

All teachers have their pain points - students struggle with <this>, students just can’t do <that>. By stepping back and focusing on the problem, trying something different, eventually most problems can be overcome. In this post I am going to explain how I overcame my students' struggle with osmosis questions in tests and exams. 

I realised that my Biology students struggled with conceptual questions, such as osmosis. Osmosis is the movement of water through a semipermeable membrane. 

There are three scenarios:

Students could learn these three scenarios, but when they tried to apply their knowledge to a new situation, they had great difficulty. I suspected that keeping the basic understanding of these three different situations in their working memory while at the same time trying to decode a new situation was too much to do in their heads. 

So I tried an experiment. I included this diagram as shown below in a formative mini-test (assessment for learning). 

Student results improved dramatically as they referred to the diagrams and applied them to the new situations in the questions. 

My next step was to train them to rote learn the diagram, first we used the look, cover, write, check method. Then at the beginning of each lesson the students had to try and reproduce the diagram from their memory. After a few lessons all students all had nailed this task. I sporadically sprung the task mid-lesson, just to make sure they had it.

When I handed out the summative test (assessment of learning) they were instructed at the beginning of the test to draw that diagram on their scrap paper. When they got to the difficult osmosis questions they were to refer back to the diagram as they had done in the formative test. The results in the osmosis questions were outstanding. My final step was to remind the students before the final year external exam to use the reading time in the exam to write their osmosis reference diagram on their scrap paper. 

What conceptual questions in your subject would benefit from this approach in reducing cognitive load? 

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