April 17th, 2013

Helping Students Discuss Technical Content


“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.

  • Howard Shapiro

    I teach engineering thermodynamics, a subject that involves conceptual understanding and problem-solving skill development. I find that it is effective to ask questions that require metacognitive thinking, like "discuss with your partner how you would approach this problem." Or, "diagram the key elements of the solution." I also use mind mapping to have my students identify key definitions, key concepts, and key skills. These activities foster transferability of skills and understanding from the problems that I assign to new situations.

  • Perry Shaw

    I have found a question such as, "Have you ever seen this principle/process at work in practice? Describe what happened." Another possibility: "Give some specific contexts where you think this principle/process but be the preferred approach. Why? In what contexts would other principles/processes be preferable? Why?"

  • Sydney Fulbright

    I teach in Health Sciences so yes, there is typically A way to do things but every situation and every patient is different so I ask a lot of "What if" so they can critically think through a situation that didn't go exactly as the book says it should.

  • Sheryl L Bishop

    I teach advanced statistics to doctoral nursing students. To avoid the 'recognize and regurgitate' rote learning through memorization, I make all my homework, practice and test questions based on research vignettes which asks them something that they have to apply reasoning and the concepts learned in class (e.g., what would be the most appropriate analysis to compare across the genders on blood pressure?). This forces them to engage principles of level of measurement, assumptions that must be met for each type of analysis, and so forth in order to arrive at the 'right' answer. It works for multiple choice questions just as effectively as other kinds of test questions which is a time saver for me. We always review these exercises and test and discuss why each of the wrong answers is wrong. My set of 'wrong' answers typically represent the most common misconceptions or errors in understanding for a particular issue so it's also a great diagnostic for me to help the student as well.

  • Lisa Benson

    In science, engineering and mathematics, contrasting cases can be used to help students cognitively engage with the subject matter by doing things such as making decisions about what procedure to use when solving a particular type of problem, comparing features of different designs or cases, etc. The instructor presents two cases/problem solutions/designs/etc. side by side, poses questions about specific features and has students discuss questions in small groups. Groups present summaries of their discussions to the class; this is followed by (brief) instruction about the content. This cycle can be repeated through a class period, or interspersed with regular class activities. This method is described as part of the "Preparation for Future Learning" approach developed by Dan Schwartz and others. See Schwartz, D. L., & Martin, T. (2004). Inventing to prepare for future learning: The hidden efficiency of encouraging original student production in statistics instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 22(2), 129-184. Also see Bransford, J. D.,&Schwartz, D. L. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. In A. Iran-Nejad & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Review of research in education, 24 (pp. 61–101).
    Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

  • Bob Turner

    Some great ideas; now if only there were time in a class, a terma, a year, to try them!!

  • antonemgoyak

    I have found as a teacher that there is plenty of information out there for any topic I am teaching. And there are plenty of opportunities to just "discuss the reading." I really like the ideas above and my overall assessment of them as tools is that they help bridge islands of thought or help to create new bridges that were not even being thought about. One other comment I would add to the good discussion so far is that I have found it helpful to "introduce" the reading to the students in terms of why I am even having them spend time reading – whether it be a textbook or a journal article. We make assumptions sometimes that students automatically know why a piece has relevance or importance, when the truth may be that to the student it is just "one more thing" compartmentalized among many things.

    To set up a chapter nicely is worth the time – our students, as Gen iY students, have so much information coming at them that pretty soon, everything has the same value and it becomes difficult for them to discern true value. Taking a few minutes to say "Now the chapter you are going to read has these features and you will see a link to what we just discussed" is appreciated by your student. Or if it is an article, you can provide a WOW factor of creating bridges before it is even read. An easy tool that can provide a lot of useful profit.

  • Gretchen Bingham

    I have found as a learning strategist working with students, that the why and how questions successfully guide students into creating logic maps that facilitate the writing of a paper or reach a set of potential or optimal solutions to a complex problem. As well, the responses to why/how when mapped visually, provides the learner with a landscape of these associations that contributes to the learner's understanding. When working on a specific problem, using a stem such as "how might this work, or .in what ways might this be demonstrated, elicit a number of concrete options, set of facts, ideas, or assumptions. By focusing on the detail, the learner can then flip the question to a why: if I were to apply this, why would that be important? Working between the how and why creates logical links between broader concepts/problem definitions and the associated detail or solution.

  • Carla Barber

    I teach college level reading and study skills. The mentioned strategies for comprehending technical reading are great, yet I find many students try to just memorize the info. without really letting the informative reading 'sink in' – I found students may not use the strategy of visualizing and restating the information.

  • Mary Fatora

    I teach elementary and intermediate Spanish. This involves reading grammar rules and studying verb conjugation charts. I will give a brief introduction at the end of class (tomorrow we will learn how to make informal commands), and assign the reading and online tutorial for homework. The next class I will ask for a volunteer to explain the rules. If everyone averts their head, I call on a student at random. Sometimes the student will skim the book and then regurgitate what they are reading. I ask them 'what does that really mean' and can they put it in their own words. I also ask questions such as – what do you have to remember if you want to make an informal command / what's a trick to remember some of these irregular verbs in the future tense etc. This will start a discussion. Sometimes students have a new way of looking at these rules which others find helpful. By listening to the student explanations, I learn what they have mastered, and what needs further review and practice. After students are done explaining, I will add anything important that might have been left out. By giving the students an opportunity to discuss the rules as opposed to listening to me lecture, they are more engaged and retain more information.

  • Larry Spence

    Asking questions isn’t the best way to get students thinking and yet we tend to ignore the alternatives. I found a better way to ignite discussion and promote student questions is to start with a statement. It must perplex and provoke. For example you could begin a discussion of survey research methods by quoting the finding that even as more guns in circulate in the United States today the rate of gun related homicides has declined over the last several years. Mini case studies of research gone awry also worked. Assigning student teams to critique a piece of research produced highly technical discussions. We overwork the questioning approach and ignore the way it discourages student questions. Those questions are the gold standard of classroom discussion.

  • Philip

    What Larry has suggested is very similar to the Question Formulation Technique, which partly consists of the teacher providing a "question focus" statement and then turning over to the students the responsibility of asking questions . This is proven to be very effective in generating deeper and more critical thinking from students. Teachers do need to ask good questions of their students, but in order to become lifelong learners and critical thinkers, students need to be taught how to ask the good questions themselves. If you are interested in this strategy, you can check out this Harvard Education Press Letter, http://hepg.org/hel/article/507 or rightquestion.org. Hope that helps! Great responses everyone!