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Teaching Activities

Formative use of DQC’s and Active Teaching in Subsection of Course: Suggested Student-active Approaches

In subsections (e.g. modules) of a course, Diagnostic Question Clusters (DQC’s) can be used for formative feedback in conjunction with active teaching. Given as a pre-test, a few selected DQC-questions provide information about students’ poor reasoning and misunderstandings of particular biological processes? or ideas (e.g. photosynthesis). With this information, a faculty member could then select or design an active teaching approach (or approaches) targeting what is most problematic for students. After the approach is used in class, the post DQC’s (matched with the pre-DQC’s) indicate possible gains in students’ understanding and where problems remain. Since application of understanding of processes across scales is challenging for most students, faculty should pay particular attention to problematic thinking seen early in a course (e.g. cellular processes) so that they can address this again later in the course (e.g. organismal or ecosystem level). Again, the same pre/post test with active teaching strategy in between would be used.

General patterns in student reasoning that span across processes include: 

  1. Students often use energy as a convenient "fudge factor" when they either can't or don't see the necessity of tracing matter and energy.
  2. Students who lack a robust understanding of atoms and molecules will not be able to apply principled reasoning to problems.
  3. Students reason at the macroscopic scale even when questions are posed at the microscopic or ecosystem scale. 

These general problems underlie the specific problems and misconceptions listed in the table below.

DQC by Processes

Example TopicsExamples of Problem Thinking

Student-active Approaches


1. Cellular (Biochemistry and energetics)

2. Organismal (Plant physiology)

3. Ecosystem (C cycle)

1.Students recite equation mechanically but can’t describe the process; they conflate energy and carbon

2.What happens to C/energy within plant vague

3.Source of carbon and energy for plants poorly understood

1. Process Tool*

2.DQC as Discussion Question**

3. “von Helmont”


1. Cellular (Glycolosis; Krebs cycle;energetics)

2. Organismal (catabolism)

3.Ecosystem (Decomposition)

1. Student recites Krebs cycle but can’t trace C and/or energy in and out of cell; ATP is energy

2. Loss of energy (heat) by organisms not associated with cellular respiration

3. Decomposition and respiration seen as separate processes

1. Process Tool

2. DQC as Discussion Question

3. ” Mice in a Box"

Digestion / Biosynthesis

1. Cellular

(Anabolism, catabolism)

2. Organismal (Consumption, movement)

3. Ecosystem(Food webs)

1. What biosynthesis is as opposed to cellular respiration very unclear

2.  Food broken down by organisms leave as urine or feces only

3. Students can’t trace a C molecule through organisms and/or processesin an ecosystem

1. Process Tool

2. DQC as Discussion Question

3.” Follow the Carbon”


*The “Process Tool” can be used for any biological process. It requires students to account for matter and/or energy and is therefore a very useful tool to help students understand what this means and how to do it. Follow the links from the table below to more information on the "Process Tool."

**Discussion questions are DQC questions (or your modification of DQC questions) used in class as the basis for student engagement with the question and discussion of it. For instance, “clicker questions” are typically used in large classes as a way to allow students to discuss a carefully conceived multiple-choice question that brings out expected student misconceptions. These misconceptions can then be discussed with the class as a whole.  In smaller classes, such questions can be used in many ways to engage students in small group and whole class discussion. Follow the links in the table below to suggested discussion questions.

Additional Active Teaching ideas

In this table, DQC's and Active Teaching Strategies are shown together. The topic links will lead you to some ideas on using DQC's and accompanying active learning strategies. The topic links will lead you to some ideas on using DQC's and accompanying active learning suggestions which are designed to match the concepts and reasoning needed to understand the DQC's in the table.

Show DQCs: Show Teaching Activities:

DQC's Organized by Ecological Topics
Carbon Cycling Energy Flow in Ecosystems Climate Change


Teaching Activities


Teaching Activities


Teaching Activities