April 17th, 2013

Helping Students Discuss Technical Content

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“What did you think about the reading?” can serve as an acceptable discussion prompt if your class is reading a novel, but a question like that doesn’t generate much response when the assigned chapter is in an engineering mechanics book or a principles of accounting text. For those who teach “technical content” — and by that I mean material with “right” answers and preferred ways of doing things, like problems with specific solutions or checklists of procedures — it can be doubly difficult to get students talking.

I don’t know that I have ever seen or read anything that highlights differences when the discussion is of technical material. Please, point us to useful references if you know some. In the meantime, here’s a first pass at ways these discussions might be stimulated and focused.

Why and How Questions. If there’s a right answer or correct procedure, the “correctness” really isn’t up for discussion but “Why?” questions can lead the student to those deeper levels of understanding. “Why is that the right answer?” “Why does that process work and others do not?” When content has a right answer, students tend to memorize it and think they’ve got all they need to know. True understanding rests on not only knowing the answer but being able to explain why it’s correct.

The “How?” question provides teachers with valuable feedback. It can be used to uncover student thought processes. “Tell me how you got that answer?” “How did you go about solving the problem and why did you use that approach?” As the student recounts the steps taken, the point at which an error occurred is revealed as is the depth of understanding. This feedback helps the teacher respond to the student’s level of understanding.

But students should also be learning to ask themselves the “Why?” and “How?” questions. If the teacher always asks, students often won’t see the value of confronting themselves with the pathway they’ve taken to an answer. Teachers aren’t always going to be present when answers need to be corrected or defended.

Discussion of Errors. If there’s one (or several) “right” ways of doing something, there are plenty of “wrong” or less correct ways as well. The objective is to get students to talk about and learn from their mistakes, which isn’t all that easy. Students don’t want to make mistakes and they especially don’t want their mistakes to be discussed in public venues. Teachers may need to start the discussion with mistakes and errors made by anonymous students, or even mistakes they’ve made themselves. These discussions need to demonstrate that getting it wrong can result in learning—sometimes even more learning than when you get it right.

Discussion of Application. The discussion here is about what can be done with the solution, process, or procedure just learned. Does it apply to other problems? Can you use the procedure in other situations? Many students don’t regularly think about application. This is why they may know how to solve a problem, but when presented with a similar problem that looks a little different from the case covered in class or the homework problem, they don’t think they can figure out the answer.

Discussion of Connections. Much research establishes that learners connect new knowledge to what they already know. The point of discussing connections is to solidify them and help students appropriately integrate old and new knowledge. If that integration doesn’t occur, students can know certain facts but still hold misconceptions—as has been demonstrated by that infamous video of graduating seniors who’d taken all the appropriate courses but still incorrectly explained what causes the seasons.

But the discussion of connections needs to go in a different direction as well. Too often students take from courses a grab bag of facts, ideas, and information “covered” in the class. They still have no idea that all this information fits together nor can then put it together. Getting students to see that the coherence and beauty of that larger picture starts with discussions of how what they’ve just learned fits with the rest of what they’ve learned in this course and connects with content from other courses.

Readers, are there other approaches you take to the discussion of technical material? Please help all of us enlarge our understanding of content that might at first appear difficult to discuss.