Preparing one of the plenary sessions for the recent Teaching Professor Conference provided me the opportunity to do some more work on questions, which if you’re a regular reader of this blog you will recognize as an ongoing interest of mine for more than a year now. In fact, the post on May 28, 2014 is a reprint of an article I wrote for the March 2013 issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. It represents some of my early thinking on the topic, including ways of emphasizing questions in our teaching and modeling good question types for our students. The ability to ask good questions is often an underrated and underdeveloped skill, yet questions can play such a significant role in learning when used properly.
At one time or another, most of us have been disappointed by the caliber of the questions students ask in class, online, or in the office. Many of them are such mundane questions: “Will material from the book be on the exam?” “How long should the paper be?” “Can we use Google to find references?” “Would you repeat what you just said? I didn’t get it all down in my notes.” Rarely do they ask thoughtful questions that probe the content and stir the interest of the teacher and other students.
For some time now my good friend and colleague Larry Spence and I have been discussing the role of questions in the college classroom. The conversation started with concerns over the quantity and quality of questions students ask—those earnest questions about what’s going to be on the exam and gently demanding queries about what the teacher “wants” in almost any kind of written assignment. Those questions are important to students, but they certainly are not the questions of curious learners nor are they the type of questions that motivate learning and intellectual development.
Questioning skills are essential to good teaching. Teachers often use questions to ensure that students are attentive and engaged, and to assess students’ understanding. What is important to note is that in addition to the intent of the question, the question itself matters. For instance, to ensure that students are attentive, a teacher could ask the students “Are you listening?” To assess if the students have understood, the teacher could ask “Do you follow me?”
The Socratic questioning strategy described in the article appealed to me. I could see how it would cut down on quizzes, grading, and the whole sad enterprise of writing multiple- guess questions that dulled students’ thinking. I made some adaptations and expectantly implemented it in my introduction to political theory course.
Those expectations quickly dissolved. At her desk, one of my best students…