More Cryptography Questions

Here are a couple more clicker questions I tried out in my cryptography class recently.

“Cryptography was the decisive factor in the Allied victory in World War Two.”

  1. Strongly agree
  2. Agree
  3. Disagree
  4. Strongly disagree

Surprisingly, most students agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.  Arguments for this statement focused either on the tactical role of information gained via code-breaking in particularly important battles (e.g. Midway) or the more generally important role of military intelligence.  Arguments against this statement included the assertion that cryptography may have shortened the duration of the war but did not change its outcome.

Given the lopsided results, I asked for those who agreed with the statement to provide some reasons for their answers.  After hearing from a few students, I then asked those who disagreed with the statement to argue their side.  This didn’t quite generate the discussion I had hoped it would, so I asked those who strongly agreed with the statement to state their reasons.  This back and forth went well enough, but it probably would have worked better had I asked the students to respond more directly to each other’s arguments.  Had the results been more split, this approach would likely have worked very well.  As it was, it probably would have helped for me to play devil’s advocate more actively by defending the “disagree” response.

As you can tell, the question above reads like an opinion question but really calls for critical thinking!

Here are two more clicker questions that go together and worked very well:

Singh writes on page 149 that “the creative codebreaker must ‘perforce commune daily with dark spirits to accomplish his feats of mental ju-jitsu.'”  Which is more important to successful codebreaking–logic or creativity?

  1. Logic
  2. Creativity
  3. Both are equally important.

How would you have answered the previous question before you took this course?

  1. Logic
  2. Creativity
  3. Both are equally important.

I only had a couple of minutes for these two questions, which didn’t provide much time for discussion.  However, the results of the two questions were very different, which was fascinating!  For the first question, most students said that both logic and creativity are equally important in breaking codes.  For the second question, most students indicated they would have said logic was more important than creativity.  The shift was fairly dramatic–over 60% of students chose “both” on the first question and similar numbers chose “logic” on the second question.

I asked my students why their perspectives changed since the course began.  They indicated that learning about the invention of ciphers as well as understanding how difficult it has been and is to break ciphers, their appreciation of the role of creativity has grown.  Inventing a new, secure cipher takes a creative act, so breaking that cipher also takes creativity.  Their own experiences breaking codes this semester in the problem sets have reinforced the notion that creativity is essential.

I hope that this question provided my students with a “metacognitive moment”–a chance to step back and consider what (and, to some extent, how) they have learned in this course.  The dramatic difference in the results of this question likely enhanced this “learning about learning” to the extent that it occurred.

Have you used clickers to help create “metacognitive moments” in your teaching?

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