Tag Archives: PHIL 102

Student-generated questions and collaborative answers (T-BLE)

I’m taking a three-week blended course in teaching a blended course, and for our last task in week 2, we were asked to come up with a collaborative activity for our blended learning module. We were to include:

  • introduction and instructions for students, including the rationale for the activity
  • grading criteria, if it’s to be graded
  • thoughts about possible problems that might arise and how we might address them

Basics about the activity

In one of the sections for this week there was an example of an instructor who asks students to come up with questions about the course material and submit them to the instructor, who then chooses questions based on the learning objectives and adds more if necessary to make sure all the learning objectives of a particular section of the course are covered. She then asks students to work together to answer these questions in groups. I think this is a great idea, to allow students to both seek help on things that they are having difficulty with, and also come up with questions that test others’ knowledge. So I’m going to do a version of that.

Introduction: student-generated questions and collaborative answers [text for the students]

As part of our exploration of Stoicism, and as a way to help you study for an upcoming exam, we’re going to engage in an activity where students generate questions about the material and work together to answer those created by others. There are several purposes for and benefits of this activity:

  • This gives a chance for you to ask questions of each other clarify things that you don’t quite understand (which is helpful for studying for the exam!)
  • It allows you to raise issues for discussion that are meaingful to you
  • It gives you a chance to teach something to other students (a great way to learn material)

Instructions [text for the students]

This activity will take place both face-to-face and online, through the following steps.

1. First, you will need to generate some questions on your own that you would like to ask other students in the class. Write down at least two questions and bring them to class with you on [date].

  • These questions could either be things you don’t understand well yourself and that you’d like help with, or things that you think you do understand but that might be challenging for others. Ideally they should be fairly complex questions, not ones you can answer with a simple “yes” or “no,” or that are merely a matter of memorizing facts from the texts or lecture. For example, you might ask questions that have to do with one or more of the following:
    • aspects of the material that are either complicated enough to possibly cause confusion or that could be interpreted in more than one way
    • applications of the material to a particular ethical issue or action
    • comparisons/contrasts of a view with another view we have studied

2. On [date], you will meet in your small groups in class, face-to-face, and share your questions with each other. If there are questions that involve things that some students aren’t sure about, discuss together what you think the answer might be. Then, together, the group will choose two questions that they want another group to answer. Again, these could be questions about things the group isn’t sure about themselves, or about things the group thinks they know, but also believes are likely to be challenging for others.

  • Write these two questions down and submit to Christina at the end of the activity (or submit on the course website if someone has a computer with them).
  • Also submit the questions that you wrote down yourself and brought to class (can also be submitted electronically on the course website).

3. Christina will choose among the questions enough for each group to have one to discuss that they themselves have not written. She will distribute these to each group online, in the group’s discussion area. From [date] to [date], each member of the group should contribute to a discussion of a possible answer. You’ll need to come to an agreement on an answer by [date]. Your group should post your answer on the course wiki, under your assigned question [give URL for where to type in the answer, here].

4. After you’ve answered the question assigned to your group, go the question on the wiki that your group originally asked and see what the other group said. Each group member should also comment on that group’s answer to your group’s question: do you agree/disagree? Anything to add?

To make your comment, just write your name under the other group’s answer and make your comment after your name.

  • If you disagree, explain why.
  • If you agree, it’s best if you can do more than just say so; say if there’s something in that group’s answer that is particularly helpful, such as the way they explained something, or an example they gave.
  • If you have anything to add, of course, add it!

Grading for the activity

This activity will be marked on a scale of 0 to 2, or 0, minus, plus:

  • plus (2 marks):
    • you submitted at least two individual questions in step 1 that conform to the criteria in step 1
    • you contributed substantively to the discussion of your group’s answer to the assigned question in step 2 (more than just “yes, I agree,” for example)
    • you added an individual comment to the other group’s answer to your group’s question on the course wiki page
  • minus (1 mark): you are missing one or two of the above
  • zero (0 marks): you did none of the things required for a plus

Discussion/possible concerns

I decided to try to create a collaborative activity that combined both F2F and online aspects, as I’m trying to connect these two aspects of the course as much as possible. I thought about adding another F2F element after part 2, above, where they discuss their group’s answer together before posting it, and I still think that pedagogically that might be best; but I decided that this activity was starting to take up too much time of the class already!

Possible concerns:

  • I worry that the questions won’t be the right kind to allow for substantive group discussion. The instructor who did this activity originally asked students to pick questions that address the top levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, and I could do that, but I’m not sure how much time I want to spend in class explaining the taxonomy. Maybe that wouldn’t be too difficult and would help to solve this potentia problem.
  • There is also the perennial worry about group work that some students do very little and others do a lot. I tried to address this by having the mark not be given to the group as a whole but to individual members based on their individual contributions. That’s largely due to the nature of this activity–it doesn’t involve a major group project that one might want to give a significant mark to, and it lends itself pretty well to judging individual contributions.
  • Students may not want to publicly disagree with another group’s answer to their question. I’ll have to think about how to handle that situation. It’s not easy to be anonymous on the UBC wiki, as each edit is attached to your name and anyone can see who made the edits. One option is to move this to a discussion board on which one can be anonymous, rather than typing in answers on a wiki. It’s just that with the wiki it’s so much easier to see all the questions and responses at once, in one place, on one page.

Making argument outlines in groups

As noted in an earlier post, I’m participating in mostly online course about teaching in a “blended” learning environment (partly online, partly face to face). The course is entirely housed within a closed environment on Blackboard Connect, unfortunately, but I’m posting some of my own contributions here so I can have them easily accessible even after the course ends.

During this first week of the course, one of the things we were asked to do was to think about active learning strategies and complete an activity, for which the instructions can be found below in blue. My own answer follows the instructions. After completing this activity we were asked to think about how we might integrate technology into the activity. Since the use of a wiki is already there, I’m not sure I have anything to add to what I’ve already said in the first part of the activity.

Activity Instructions:

1. Identify current practice
To get started, identify a current practice in your course that  you would like to make more active.

2. Identify Active Learning Strategies
Drawing from resources presented above as a reference, explore the wide range of active learning strategies. Identify one of these strategies you’d like to try for your class.

3. Plan and Develop at Least One Learning Activity
Plan and develop at least one active learning activity that you can integrate or scaffold (Bilash, 2009) into your course or module.  

Ensure that your plan includes:
1. A description of the learning activity
2. Your rationale for creating and using it
3. An explanation of how this learning activity links to course materials and objectives
4. Complete and clear Instructions
5. Complete grading information including a rubric should you choose to use one
6. An overview of potential issues and your plan for dealing with them should they occur


An activity I’d like to change

In some of my philosophy courses, I ask students to do “argument outlines,” where they have a passage of text and they need to provide an outline of the premises and conclusion. We practice this in class with me first providing my outlines for arguments, and then they can practice in groups, and then they have to do one or two on their own on a quiz or exam. I would like to expand this activity so that they learn even more from their peers and get even more practice before doing it on an quiz by themselves. The following gives a chance for students to see more possible ways of outlining arguments, and to discuss amongst themselves which they think is best. It can also help them to see that there may be multiple ways of doing so that are all valid.

How I’m thinking of changing it (description of the activity)

I’ll ask everyone to read a short passage of assigned text, then come up with their own, individual outlines of it. Then, in a small group, they should share their outlines and decide, as a group, on an outline that they think is a good one. Hopefully they will get ideas from each other as to what might work and what isn’t the best way to go about outlining the premises and conclusion. 

Then, I’ll have a wiki page for each group on the UBC wiki, where they’ll type in their outline (one person in each group will need to have a laptop or tablet). There is a way (though I’m not sure yet how to do it, I’ve seen it done!) to put all the groups’ individual answers into one page after the groups have finished typing in their answers. I’ll have to figure out how to do that.

Finally, in the last step, each group will take a look at the other outlines on the now-collated page, and decide which of those (including their own) they think is best. I’ll use something like “poll everywhere” to have each group to vote on which one they think is best, and see what the result is. We can then have a discussion about results.

Added July 14, 2014: Actually, I think it would be better if they vote on which outlines they think work, rather than which is best. This can cut down on concerns about students feeling bad that theirs isn’t voted “best,” and also drive home the idea that there may be more than one way to do an outline that works.

Of course, outlining an argument is only the first step; we also need to learn how to criticize arguments well. But that is an assignment for another day!

How this fits with course materials and objectives

Learning to identify, analyze, and criticize arguments is one of the basic skills we teach in philosophy courses. It is something that students can use in other courses and in their everyday lives. They won’t need to sit down and outline arguments as formally as we ask them to do, but to be able to identify what is being argued for and how, and then to be able to isolate particular premises and determine which are weak and which are strong, are skills that can be quite useful in the future. They are also some of the skills I ask students to practice and hone in my courses.


1. Read the following passage [give specifics on what to read] and write down what you think the conclusion of the argument is, as well as the premises (reasons) given to support it. This part of the activity is to be done on your own. You can write this down on a piece of paper or a computer or mobile device. You’ll have just five minutes to do this part of the activity, but don’t worry; you’ll be coming up with a group outline next, so it’s okay if you don’t finish your individual one. You will need to turn in your individual outline, but I’ll just be looking at it to see that you tried to do it, not marking how good it is.

2. In your small group [determined beforehand, making sure that at least one person in each group has a laptop or tablet], share your outlines amongst yourselves and discuss differences. Take fifteen minutes maximum to come up with a group outline of the argument, one that most or all of you agree with. It’s okay if not everyone agrees; know that there may be more than one valid way to outline any single argument, so there may be legitimate differences without someone being “wrong.” It’s best if most of the group agrees, however.

3. Type your group’s outline on the group page on the UBC wiki [URL will be given in advance].

4. After all the groups have finished typing their outlines in, go to [give URL for collated page] to see all the groups’ outlines. I will also show as many of these on the screen at the front of the room as I can, but the space there is limited so it’s best if you can all look on someone’s screen to see them all. As a group, choose which of the outlines you think is best (it may be your own groups’ outline, or it may be that of another). You’ll have ten minutes to do so. July 14 addition: [Instead of voting on which is best, do the following:] As a group, choose outlines that you think offer a good analysis of the argument noting that there may be several different ones that work. So you may choose several outlines.

5. Using poll everywhere, I’ll ask each group to vote on the outline they think is best. One vote per group. Then we’ll discuss the results together as a class. July 14 addition: [Instead of the above, use this:] Using poll everywhere, each group should cast a vote for the outlines they think work (as many as the group thinks are good, not just one only). Then we’ll discuss the results together as a class.

Grading information

This activity counts as part of your participation mark for the course. I’ll be collecting the individual outlines you are going to do at the beginning of the activity, but just to see that you were there and participating. They don’t have to be finished because you don’t have a lot of time for that part of the activity, but you do need to have started and have something that matches the passage at least somewhat closely. If you wrote it on paper, submit it to me at the end of the class. If you typed it on your computer or tablet, submit it on the course website before midnight on the same class day as you did it. You will get either a plus for full marks, a minus for half marks, or a zero for not completing the activity at all.

Potential problems and how to handle them

One potential problem I see already in what I’ve written above is with grading. At first I thought I’d just do this without any grading at all, but I realized that some students just won’t participate if it isn’t somehow monitored. So I decided to have them submit their individual outlines, and just give them a plus or minus or zero. Most everyone would get a plus unless they just didn’t try at all or weren’t there or were there but didn’t submit anything (zero).

This, of course, only means they need to do the individual portion of the activity. They could then just do other things on their computers during the group portion if I don’t somehow monitor that. If I knew everyone’s names I could walk around the room and see who is participating in the group discussions and who is not, and mark accordingly. I have a few small classes in which I could do that, but many of my classes are nearly 100 students or more, and I don’t know everyone’s name. I could potentially have each group give each other marks, but that seems a bit of work when this is just a one-off class activity for which the groups themselves aren’t getting marks. I could give the group a mark for their outline and then ask each group member to mark the other group members. I’ll have to think about that option. it requires more work on my part (marking the group outlines as well as the individual outlines), and all that adds up when you have so many students!

Another possible concern is that students might feel ashamed or embarrassed in front of their peers if they have to share their individual outlines and then the group comes up with one they mostly agree with; perhaps one or two students will feel that their work just isn’t up to par after this process, and they will be unhappy having shared it with others. Maybe emphasizing that there could be more than one way to correctly outline an argument could help, so those students might think their outlines could still be acceptable. I wonder if coaching the students on how to handle differences constructively might help? And if there isn’t a grade attached to the quality of the outline, just that people tried, this may help too–at least they don’t feel like they are getting a low mark in front of their peers. That’s a reason for maybe NOT grading the group outlines for quality; those groups who don’t receive many votes in the last part of the activity wouldn’t then have to feel that they are going to get low marks and everyone else can see that (which may not be true; popularity doesn’t mean correctness, but they might feel that way anyway). Overall, emphasizing that this is just practice and that mistakes are expected at this point might help as well.