Notes from the Classroom: Oops, I asked A Bad Question



On the final exam I gave students several essay question options. Here is one of them:

“Why did the civil rights movement succeed in some ways and fail in others?”

A couple dozen students responded to this prompt, and it turned out to be a bad question. There was a huge gap between what I thought I was asking and what I actually asked. I know this because not a single student out of dozens gave me an answer I was looking for.

I thought I was asking a why question about the key variables that played into success and failure during the civil rights movement. Students could argue that the movement succeeded when it managed to combine powerful symbolic action with a clearly defined end goal (as in the Montgomery Bus Boycott). They could argue that media publicity was the decisive factor, as in Birmingham. Or that divisions within black communities in places like Albany, Georgia were crucial causes of failure. They might argue that whichever side was perceived as the initiator of violence lost, leading to sympathy for the movement in the early 60s and backlash in the later 60s.

After talking about all these factors in lectures, these are the kinds of arguments I was imagining in response to my question. Instead, students treated it as an opportunity to list a series of successes and failures: Brown v Board, success! Lack of enforcement, failure! Voting Rights Act, success! Police brutality, failure!

The consistency of this form of response across dozens of essays clearly shows that my question was hazy. Yes, I did have the word why in it, but as I read it now, I’m all but inviting students to list successes and failures, and that’s what they did.

Put another way, I wanted students to make an historical argument in response to this question, and none of them did. That’s not a sign of lazy students. That’s a sign of a professor who failed to to provide clear instructions and the tools to implement them. So, how could I have asked the question more clearly?

More broadly, what kinds of questions have you found do a good job provoking historical thinking and argument? Are students conditioned to use exams to regurgitate information rather than making arguments?

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