Dot Physics

Tell and Repeat courses

Even though I have taught courses like this before (in a sense, my last physical science course was like this), I really don’t like these courses. I will classify a “tell and repeat” course as one where the instructor tells the students stuff and then the students repeat this on the test. Look around, it happens a lot. But really, what is the point?

Here are some example questions from a tell and repeat course (most of these I have used in a course – when you point a finger, 4 are pointing back at yourself):

  • What is the difference between a meteorite, a meteor, and a meteoroid?
  • Which has the longest wavelength? Radio waves, visible light or infra red?
  • What is the energy source of the Sun?
  • What is the difference between jovian and terrestrial planets.

Like I said, I am guilty. I think I have asked all of these questions on a test at some point. What would a good question look like? This is my favorite:

If the moon where a cube instead of a sphere, what would the phases of the moon look like?

I can’t remember where I found this question, but it is awesome. Why? Well, to answer it you don’t just memorize the phases of the moon. You don’t even memorize “what causes the phases of the moon”. To answer this, you really have to understand what happens with the phases of the moon.

The only bad thing about this question is that they aren’t trivial to create. Oh snap – well, I just gave away an awesome question. Truthfully, this question has been “out in the wild” for a long time. It is still a great question and you could probably use it on a test. The problem with a question being in the wild is that students can just memorize the solution – this means that question no longer tests for understanding.

I guess this would be a good time to mention Bloom’s Taxonomy – a classification of learning objectives. Here is one of the famous diagrams of this taxonomy.


There are several variations of a diagram like this, but in short it shows the things students could do in a class or on an exam. The lowest cognitive level is the “remembering”. An example of this would be the names of the planets. Oh, sure, this has a place in learning. If you don’t remember the parts of the human body, how can you go any further in your study of anatomy?

Now look at the top two levels of the taxonomy. Evaluating and creating – these are the highest cognitive levels. The great cube moon question would probably fall just below this at the analyzing level. Creating evaluating level questions isn’t really simple. The Physics and Everyday Thinking curriculum does a great job at this though.

Oh, one more thing. If you are interested in Bloom’s Taxonomy, my favorite introduction is Richard Felder’s introduction (a chemical engineering professor at NC State).


  1. #1 Gastineau
    May 27, 2010

    It’s good to bring up this hierarchy once in a while. Too often college instructors know the content but have no tools to deliver the content. I was certainly in that category when I first picked up the chalk.

    I’m pleased to see you reference Rich Felder. I taught a blended physics/engineering course with him some years ago. He’s a brilliant and gifted teacher. You can spend a very productive day reviewing his teaching articles.

  2. #2 Cherish
    May 27, 2010

    Felder’s site is so full of win! 🙂 Of course, now I want to go read, and I should be getting things done…

    (of course…I say this as I’m reading blogs…)

  3. #3 Jody Bowie (fzzxtchr)
    May 27, 2010

    I appreciate your thoughts here. I’m working on another education degree right now and they are constantly talking about Bloom’s in our classes. this is good since it encourages me to constantly think about it in my own classes. I’m working on overcoming these “tell and repeat” questions and it certainly takes a lot of work! Its definitely not the easy way, but then nothing worthwhile ever is. Its certainly a skill to be learned, to write a question that is in the upper level of Bloom’s.

    Thanks for making me think more about it!

  4. #4 Stephanie Chasteen
    June 23, 2010

    I can’t recommend enough the following Bloom’s handout, which includes question stems for all the different levels. Whenever I’m writing learning goals, or clicker questions, and am trying to “dial up” the level, I turn to this sheet. I use this in workshops all the time with K12 teachers and faculty to help them increase the level of their clicker questions beyond factual recall, and something “clicks” when they see this sheet, they love it.

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