We are re-writing a bunch of our lab manuals for a first year circuits course. We want to make a mix of focused questions ("what was the voltage across X?") and thought-provoking questions.

At the moment, the "thought provoking" questions in the current lab manuals are all variations on "comment on the differences between your pre-lab and your experiment". These invariably get students to just chime off a litany of "errors in the equipment" without really thinking it through. What I would like to see the students doing is a thorough comparison and making a value judgment, and mentioning their observations.

I feel that the issue I'm having is that the focused questions are way too specific (just write down the number) but useful for learning certain things like how to take measurements. Thus they are valid questions if not outstanding ones. The thought provoking questions, though, are vague and don't get us what we're really looking for. Can anyone suggest some in-between questions that give students a hint at what we are looking for without just asking them out right?

  • 2
    What -> why, maybe. So, why is the voltage X across Y? Feb 21, 2018 at 18:02

3 Answers 3


I can tell you how I've been seeing this handled at the K-12 level. (I don't know if this is a good way to do it at that level or at the college level.)

A math problem is posed. Then the narrator outlines how a fictitious student, e.g. Marisol, reasoned. Often, this reasoning is flawed. Then the student is asked to evaluate Marisol's reasoning.

  • I haven't really tried that in our class, but it's worth thinking about, thanks! Feb 23, 2018 at 15:10

There are multiple ways to do this!

From your question, I deduce that you are asking how to evaluate students' thought processes without explicitly asking. One way to introduce this (and perhaps the most effective) is to ask them, not to show their work, but to explain using words. This helps them figure out exactly their thought process and also gives you, as a Professor, an inside look into their brains to tell exactly what they are doing wrong and you can, as a Professor, help to fix their mistakes if they got it wrong.

@aperente001 Also had a good strategy for this, which was to have an example of a problem done incorrectly and asking them to identify this mistake and correct it.

Another way is to give a multiple choice question and to then ask why it was correct, just make sure to emphasize that "Because it is the correct choice" is not an answer. My final suggestion is to try using problems (or questions) that are open ended vs. those that are multiple-choice (if the questions are not terribly difficult, try to make the most difficult questions multiple choice using the above strategy) Open-ended questions require work, and if work is shown you can draw a conclusion of what exactly went wrong.

Thought-provoking questions are the best kind of questions, and using words instead of work is the best way possible to accomplish this.


The problem with what I am about to suggest is that these don't apply to first year uni. But anyway, here are some examples.

The lab involves a Wheatstone bridge. The question could be something along the lines of "explain how a Wheatstone bridge works within the context of this experiment."

The lab involves mapping out the electric field around a pair of electrodes. This involves specially prepared (and expensive!) paper that is very slightly conductive. The question (actually copied from a 2nd year lab) is: Can equal potential surfaces intersect? Why or why not?

Generally what you want to do is pick questions that are within the range of ability of the students. And that will get them to pull out information they should have. And ideally, that will require them to put that information together in ways not necessarily explicitly in the text.

However, be careful not to overload the students. If you wind up giving them X amount of work where the lab course is only (say) 0.15% of the course mark, then X should not be a lot more than 0.15 of the work expected for the course. You should not be assigning things on a lab that will require them to be doing huge amounts of calculation or library research.

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