February 26th, 2009

Realizing the Potential of Good Questions


A discussion with faculty at South Dakota State University got me thinking about questions and how often we forget the power of a good question to stimulate discussion. When discussion plods along without much insight or inspiration, we are quick to blame students and they are not blameless. Some days (in some classes, most days) their motivation to answer questions registers right around zero.

But a good question can make a difference. The first trick is coming up with those good questions. Some days they come to us on the spot, as they are needed, but do we record and remember them so they can be used again next semester? Other days they need to be planned before class; written, rewritten in response to focused thinking about them.

To realize the potential of a good question, we can’t forget that the power of a question to promote thinking happens in the interstice between the question and the answer—in that quiet space between the asking and answering. Most of us are in such a hurry that that space is short—typically less than 5 seconds, according to research.

To realize a question’s potential and to slow down the process, it might be written on the board or appear in the PowerPoint and students might be encouraged to rewrite it in their notes. I like the idea of having questions in the notes to go along with all the answers students collect there.

To realize a question’s potential, that space before the answer might be filled with students jotting down ideas or sharing possible answers with those nearby.

To realize still more of the question’s potential, a small (or maybe on some days there’s time for a large) collection of answers might be assembled on the board, overhead or PowerPoint and discussed before the right or best answer is designated.

To further underscore the importance and relevance of that good question, it could reappear on the board/PowerPoint at the beginning of the next period. “More thoughts, ideas, insights about this question?” Or, “let’s start by having several of you read from your notes how you ended up answering this question.”

Good questions are the key to good discussion, but what a question contributes to discussion is realized when they are used well.

—Maryellen Weimer