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"Guess, reflect and check"

Friday 22 November 2013

26 years in the classroom and this week I had a new experience. It all started with the concept of hypothesis testing.

It has always been the case that students struggle with writing a hypothesis.  Very often students will write something like "the level of noise will have an effect on one's ability to recall a list of words."  It takes a while before they start making a prediction of what the outcome will be.  Usually, after a while students wonder what they ever thought was difficult about this.

But then there was Sara (not her real name).  She came in frustrated that she wasn't getting full marks for her hypotheses on assessments.  Once again, I explained that she had to predict what the outcome would be.  A hypothesis is like a well informed guess, based on previous data.  She looked at me blankly.

Using one of my teacher's bag-of-tricks, I asked her how many people lived in the Czech Republic.  She continued to look at me blankly.  I encouraged her to make an "educated guess."  Her response?  "I don't know."  I tried to cajole her into making a guess, but it was futile.

So, I asked, "Are there only three people in the Czech Republic?"  Now I got the glare.  "Of course, not."  Ok.  That didn't work.  So, if Poland has 40 million inhabitants, how many might the Czech Republic have?"  Now she was frustrated and burst out "Why can't we just look it up?"

I have been thinking a lot about this experience the last few weeks.  I have discussed it with my colleagues - both at our school and with other psychology teachers.  Does this student lack the cognitive skill to predict an outcome?  Does she lack risk-taking skills and fears being wrong?  Is she part of a computer generation that sees Google as the answer to all of her questions?  And how many of my students actually struggle to do this - only to finally memorize a pattern which they can use?  Will they simply memorize that they have to say "the level of noise will increase one's ability to recall a list of words" and then think that this is always the answer?

Potential solution?

Clearly, this is an issue of critical thinking, regardless of its origin.  I have created my own version of "guess, reflect and check."  Here is how it could work.

Let's say that you are starting a unit on abnormal behaviour.  To start, ask a simple question that students probably don't know the answer to.  For example, what is the most common disorder?  All students should silently write down what they think the answer is.  But here is the rub - ask them to write down how they know what they know.  When making a guess, they might say:

  • Prozac is one of the top selling drugs - so it must be depression.
  • PTSD is in the news a lot - so clearly must be a problem.
  • I know a lot of people who suffer from high anxiety.
  • I saw a BBC special on bipolar disorder and it said that it affected x number of people.

Then, after everyone has had time to do this, then have them check it out - either as a class on their own laptops or with a single teacher laptop.  See how many of them were right and have them share how they know what they know.

I am hoping that this pattern of thinking will help students like Sara to develop her prediction skills.  However, I think that this would help all students to develop their critical thinking skills. Another way to do this would be to take a research study and share with them the aim and procedure but have them predict the results.  Or ask them a question like this: In spite of his incredible memory loss, Clive Wearing still could remember complex musical pieces which he could play on the piano.  How was this possible?  Once again, guess, reflect and check. (See this article, for example).

I am hoping to post some of the ideas for the "unfinished studies" on the site to help students develop this skill.  As for students like Sara, I will keep you posted.

Tags: laptops, estimation, critical thinking


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