November 2nd, 2010

Are We Answering Too Many Questions?


“For the most part, college students enrolled in beginning chemistry courses do not, during laboratory-based experiences, learn to follow directions. Instead they learn to depend excessively upon oral directions presented by the instructor in response to their queries.” (p. 103) When I happened on this quote (referenced in another article) it reminded me of my chemistry lab experience—I took a chemistry course with 20 beginning students as part of a first-year seminar program. The teacher, also our lab instructor, refused to answer questions in lab, and we hated him for it. Ask him a question and rather than answer he’d ask you a question back. It was infuriating—you had to figure everything out for yourself or with your lab partners.

He should have explained what he was doing and why—it would have helped with the frustration. I figured out after the fact that it was actually a great technique. If you could get past the frustration of not having your question answered and attended to the question he had asked in response, answering his question almost always led to the answer needed to your question. And this exchange provided you with the opportunity to figure it out for yourself. I should have seen the value of the approach as I experienced it.

Do we help student learn when we answer all their questions? What about those we’ve already answered in class or that are answered in the text or that you’d know if you’d done the homework? What about those procedural questions—like how many pages, do you want margins, does spelling count, do we have class the day before Thanksgiving—carefully and completely answered in the syllabus? If you answer questions like these, is there any reason why students should read the syllabus?

Why do students ask these kinds of questions? Partly, I think, because they lack confidence in their ability to make decisions. If you get an answer you know what you need to do next—somebody who knows the right answer has told you what to do. But does that grow your confidence and make you able to make decision on your own? I don’t see how. Rather, it makes your learning more dependent on having someone around to answer your questions.

I do remember what happened in chemistry. We basically stopped asking the teacher questions. We asked each other. Sometimes we even asked each other follow-up questions. And, for the most part we figured things out for ourselves. The only rub in this story is that we (yes, that includes me) thought the instructor was really unhelpful. We didn’t leave class giving him credit for having devised a strategy that actually promoted more learning and developed confidence.

Reference: Hilosky, A., Sutman, F., and Schmuckler, J. (1998). Is laboratory-based instruction in beginning college-level chemistry worth the effort and expense? Journal of Chemical Education, 75