This take on document-based questions turns students into mentors and instructors
For as long as I have been a teacher, I have been showing videos in class. While not a revolutionary idea, back when I first started I would show a video related to the lesson and hand out an accompanying question sheet to make sure the students were focusing on the main ideas. I would call out helpful reminders like “Number 3 is coming up!” to ensure that students were paying attention.
They were not.
My high school students were sometimes doodling on the paper, staring out the window, or hoping to just get the answers at the end from myself or a friend. But the content was so good and so relevant! I thought. These were primary source accounts! How could students not be engaged? What could I change to make the topic and delivery more relevant? That’s when the lightbulb went off.
In a field where lecture-based learning is the norm, I began to reflect on my own education experience and what kept me engaged. I still believed in the power of video to engage students, but that perhaps there was a way to tweak my process.
I took inspiration from the standard document-based question activity, or DBQ. In a DBQ, students are given an essay prompt and must use the given documents and their own knowledge to support their response. There are often specific questions following each document to help ensure understanding of the material. My own take on that, which I call video-based question, or VBQ, is a series of videos with critical thinking and higher-level questions. The novelty of this idea is that students are in control of their learning.
We started this year in September by completing a VBQ on two current events from June on same-sex marriage and the shooting in Charleston. Each student was given a Chromebook and a link to a Google Form. The Google Form had three embedded videos and six questions prompting students to interpret them. Following a video of President Obama’s speech on same-sex marriage, students responded to the question, “What does this court ruling mean for the people of America?” which asked students to think not only about what they heard, but the implications of the decision.
Students were also asked to complete a feedback form about the activity itself. What did they think of this new practice? One student wrote, “It’s easier to answer questions because I can pause the video or go back to something I missed.” Another stated, “I really enjoyed this activity because this is one of the first experiences where we have control over our learning and it suits well because everyone has a different pace.”
Isn’t that what we want for our students: to put them in the driver’s seat and allow them to control their own learning experience? Of course, they still need road signs (what to examine), speed limits (we don’t want them flying through the videos), and occasional policing.
Getting it right
After the initial feedback from students regarding the activity, I decided to take it a step further and allow students to create their own VBQs on topics related to World War II. Students worked in small groups and everyone had his or her own specific responsibility (“tech supervisor,” “question creator,” “videographer,” and “additional sources curator”) for researching their assigned topic. Through their research, students learned about Japanese Internment, the Holocaust, and U.S. battles in Europe and the Pacific. I did not get up in front of the class except to present the goal of the project and the procedures. The learning was entirely in their hands. Students were required to meet the very same New Jersey Core Content Standards that teachers include in their lesson plans; they also had to design their VBQs incorporating relevant videos and additional sources such as maps, graphs, and political cartoons.
During the creation process, I invited my department chair, supervisor, and principal in to observe the activity. They were beyond impressed with the level of engagement. Students who have been known to lose focus in other classes were so engaged in this activity that I felt as if I were bothering them or being disruptive by checking in on their progress.
Students were given three days to work with their partners to create a VBQ that would take approximately thirty-five minutes to complete. Students took this very seriously. In our debrief, students commented that they felt pressure to make their VBQ “perfect” because they knew they were responsible for teaching their peers. One student told me, “If we get it wrong, then they get it wrong.” This part of the project was then followed by three days of viewing the VBQs individually. Each student watched a VBQ that he or she did not create and completed the student-created questions about the topic.
The feedback from the students about each other’s VBQs was quite revealing. They saw the value in learning this way and appreciated having the ability to control their own learning. Pausing to write, replaying to clarify a statement—everything is in the students’ hands. They also had the opportunity to ask me questions without feeling that they were interrupting the class. It was truly wonderful to see such a consistently high level of engagement throughout the project.
Update: In response to requests, I am sharing some VBQ examples. Here is the first VBQ I gave to students with questions regarding the videos and feedback on the activity, and here is one of the VBQs made by my academic-level juniors.
Kelly Grotrian teaches social studies at East Brunswick High School in New Jersey.
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