January 27th, 2011

Teaching Students to Ask Better Questions


“Rarely does an examination ask students to list questions that the course posed for them.” C. Roland Christensen made that observation. “Rarely?” I can’t remember ever hearing of an exam that asked students to list questions. One time early in my teaching career, I came to an exam review session with a list of answers and asked students to pose the questions. It was April Fool’s Day, but my students didn’t find the strategy the least bit funny. It was a much more difficult task than I anticipated and the possibility that they might have to do this on the exam created near panic. I think that was the first time I realized how answer oriented students are. Later I came to understand that the same applies to many teachers.

Asking students to list questions raised by the course is such an interesting idea. How do you think students would respond? I’m thinking most would be confused—“what do you want us to do?” “Questions about what?”

I was rereading an article this morning that offers an interesting way to prepare students to think about questions posed by the course. Victoria Costa writes about teaching introductory biology and chemistry courses to nonscience majors and beginning the courses with what she calls a course question: “How does chemistry (or biology, depending on the course) impact my personal life and society?” This question forms the basis of the course final, provides the framework within which students pose for themselves a “personal perplexity” or question of particular interest to them. In their final, an essay, they explain this question’s relevance to them and society, and they use course content to explore the question’s answer.

They work on two other assignments related to the course question. In groups of three, students evaluate a current newspaper or magazine article, a movie, TV program, book [it could be a website or something else online] in terms of the course question. They prepare a written response and make an oral presentation. Finally, students complete a class project that explores how chemistry or biology impacts their career or personal lives. The article includes descriptions of several of these projects. I like the idea of a course question, but a unit question or even a question for the day—one that opens the class and is then revisited at the end of the period—could be used to illustrate the importance and intrique of questions.

We really must look for ways of getting students more question-oriented starting with the questions they currently ask. So much of what they ask focuses on course details—“how many pages do you want?” “when is the next test?” “does spelling count?” A lot of these kinds of questions are answered in the syllabus but beyond that, these queries reduce questioning to such a banal level in the class. I know, students want to be sure they’ve got the details right, but not only is the ability to ask questions a skill that merits developing, good questions are what make our material fascinating.

In the upcoming February issue of The Teaching Professor, Eli Merchant writes eloquently about what questions can accomplish. I love this quote. “Good questions are treasure troves … because they so effectively open new vistas, provide new perspectives, and challenge our most basic assumptions. Good questions are those which the questioner cannot answer. They are used to initiate a dialogue where answers, even short and partial ones, begin to crystallize and shape themselves, provoking still other questions and answers, like waves rippling onto waves, interminably.”

Reference: Costa, V. “The Use of a Course Question to Facilitate Student Learning: How Does Chemistry Impact My Personal Life and Society?” Journal of College Science Teaching, 1993, (September/October), 49-53.