A Tale of Two Questions

This past week I had a quiz for each of my Geometry sections. The two sections are out of synch a bit due to our rotating schedule. They typically assess on different days with different versions of whatever quiz or test I recently wrote. This week’s quiz had two different forms of the final question. I present them below:

In the diagram below you see a triangle ABC and you see what are called the exterior angles of the triangle marked. What is the sum of the measures these exterior angles? Be careful to carefully show your reasoning. Mark any angles clearly that you want to refer to in your explanation.  

The problem above was presented to my class on Thursday.

In the diagram below you see a triangle ABC and you see what are called the exterior angles of the triangle marked. The sum of these exterior angles is 3600. Write a proof explaining to me why this is true. Mark any angles on the diagram that you refer to in your proof.

The problem above was presented to my class on Friday.

Both classes had the same first problem on their quiz. They were asked to prove that the interior angles of a triangle sum to 180 degrees. This proof was explicitly presented in class and in their text. My thought was that this challenging fifth problem should be a (somewhat) natural consequence of the first problem on the quiz.

The students who took the quiz on Thursday struggled on the first problem and it bled over to the last. They generally performed better on the last problem than on the first. In part, this is due to my decisions about partial credit. I was definitely more generous with partial credit on the problem at the end of the quiz since they had not seen any explicit proof of this fact. My colleague who also teaches Geometry felt that I might be reaching a bit with this last question. My Friday class performed better on the first proof than the Thursday crew and they did a MUCH better job on the last problem. I am trying to sort this out and there are too many variables at play. First, the class who took the quiz on Friday has performed at a slightly, but consistently, higher level overall during the first trimester of our year. Second,there is always the possibility that information about the quiz was discussed in a way that gave the Friday class some advantage. Finally, the problem presented to them gave an answer and asked for justification while the problem as presented to the Thursday class did not provide the conclusion. I was more strict with partial credit with the Friday quiz class since the conclusion was given to them and the whole burden of the problem was the explanation.

The main reason I am writing about this is that I am trying to make myself think clearly about what my goals are in a  problem like this one and to convince myself that I was trying to get at the same thing with both classes. Did I drastically change the nature of what was being assessed by presenting the conclusion already? I have thought out loud on this blogspace about a similar question here – https://mrdardy.mtbos.org/2017/09/22/a-quick-question-about-test-questions/

Did revealing the answer to the question fundamentally change the level of challenge inherent in the question? Is it THAT much easier to reason through the proof when you know what you are supposed to conclude?

Our Geometry course is the last course in our curriculum where there is no Honors option. Everyone who takes geometry takes the same course at our school. This means that there is a wider variety of interest and talent in this room than in my other classes. I think that there is a tendency in a non-honors math class to think that the students cannot tackle challenging or novel questions. I have heard several colleagues over the years say something along the lines of ‘I can’t ask that question if I haven’t shown them how to do it.’ These are terrific teachers saying this and they are coming from a good place, they want their students to succeed and they do not want them discouraged or dismayed by assessments. I think I am coming from a good place as well, it’s just a different place. I’d also say that in the case of the question above, especially in its first form, I do believe that I have shown my students how to tackle such a question. They know that the interior angles sum to 180 degrees. They see three supplementary pairs of angles so that sum is 540 degrees. The difference is the exterior angles. Half of the students in the Thursday group earned four or five points out of five on the problem. Those who earned four generally had sound logic with real flaws in the vocabulary explaining their answers. Maybe my docking them a point is an entirely different question about how I assess.

Another reason I am writing this is that I want to have a conversation with my department about questions like this one, questions that are not a simple transformation of what has already been practiced. I have students who imply that I am the first teacher they have who asks them questions that feel like they might be ‘from left field.’ I know that students (all people, really) will exaggerate their concerns in the face of feeling stressed. I think most of my students do a nice job of stepping up to challenges like this one, especially when points are riding on it on an assessment. But I also know that there is an instinct at times to simply dodge these situations. The same group of kids who took the quiz on Thursday were presented with a problem from Steve Wyborney’s website on Friday in class. I showed them the video of the duplicator lab problem.  When the video ended I asked them to begin talking about the problem with their neighbors – in this class everyone sits in groups of three that get randomly reassigned every fifth day. I was met with mostly silence. To be fair, this was about 8:10 in the morning. However, when I showed them the comments section with teachers talking about their fourth and fifth graders solving the problem, they suddenly started talking. So, I don’t know if they were shamed into action or they simply needed to suspect that they were more than capable of solving the problem before they moved. I have to feel that the struggle with the problem on Thursday and their reluctance to engage with a novel problem on Friday morning are related. I also fear that I have not done enough yet to create a culture where they jump into these problems. I am interested in how the conversation goes with my department on Wednesday morning and I would love to hear from any readers as well.


3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Questions”

  1. Interesting experiment. I think long term exposure is going to be the real measure, but even the instantaneous results are fascinating.

    This is one of the places SBAR helps a lot for me. The standard for me is understanding of angles and intersections, including parallel and perpendicular lines. (Pretty broad but this is a class that covers all of HS math!) I can give hard problems, or open ended problems, because their grade isn’t based on solving the problem, it’s based on showing understanding. I like that, because real math is like that. You don’t immediately solve the best problems.

  2. What stood out to me the most was this question that you asked
    ” Is it THAT much easier to reason through the proof when you know what you are supposed to conclude?”

    I believe the answer to this is a resounding YES.
    I think that the confidence that comes with knowing the conclusion/solution makes the act of reasoning easier.

    1. I hear what you are saying Paula. I wish I felt as strongly that this is clear. I think about most proofs in Geometry where the conclusion is given but students struggle with the process of explaining their reasoning. That being said, I do fear that the tables were less than balanced with these different questions.

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