Teaching Tip: I have a question…..

According to many MU faculty, questioning and discussion are favored methods for increasing student activity and engagement in the classroom. These strategies can be highly successful, but only if we are intentional in the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of discussions we start.  Since everyone uses these methods at least some of the time, and many faculty see them as the primary pedagogical method for their disciplines, I thought it would be useful to look at what we know about asking good questions and holding good discussions.  This will take more than one blog post so I hope you’ll add some comments and we can develop some ideas together.

Some educational research suggests that too many classroom questions require recollection of facts or basic information.  Questions that require students to use higher level thinking skills are relatively rare in many college classrooms.  These types of knowledge-based questions are sometimes good openers or fact checks, but they are only the beginning. Good questioning is a skill that can be learned and improved.  Doing so will help students develop their thinking, raise the level of classroom discourse and give you insight into how well your students are learning.

Pose a range of questions

Identify your key questions as you plan your course, and balance the kinds of questions you ask.  For example, you can ask students to draw inferences from a text or image, to interpret what they have read or seen, to transfer information from earlier courses or from earlier discussions, or to generate hypotheses.  Other types of questions challenge students to compare and contrast, probe causes and motives, or give evidence for their opinions.  Asking for student “hunches” or educated guesses can encourage students to think creatively and then develop those guesses through inquiry.  Here are some additional examples of types of questions.

An important but often neglected question asks students to reflect e.g. “how do you know that” or engage in metacognition.  Metacognitive understanding helps students understand their own learning process and thus become more effective.

Pose an arc of questions

Try to create a set of questions that lead the class deeper and deeper into the material being studied.  An arc can start with an open ended question and back up into deciding what evidence one has or needs to answer it.  Or it can build from a definition into applications, evidence and hypotheses.   But these types of arcs do not naturally occur without thought and planning.  As you plan your list of questions, try to anticipate likely answers and think about the follow-up question that will lead the class onward.

How to Question

Sometimes questions go flat not because they aren’t interesting, but because of the way we use them in class.  Here are some points to ponder.

  • Putting your question into written form (on the board or on the screen) can help students keep it in mind and process it more fully.  Not all your follow-up questions need to be written, but key questions that you’ve planned in advance benefit from this dual presentation mode.
  • Calling on people can keep class involvement high, but may be very difficult for non-native speakers, shy and/or anxious students.   Unless it is done with warmth and humor, calling on students can feel threatening.  There may be times when the ability to respond to rapid questioning is part of the skill set you are trying to teach (e.g. legal training) but for most of our undergraduates it is not required.
  • Giving students time to write out a response, confer with a partner, or otherwise engage with the question can help reticent students feel more comfortable.   Doing this type of exercise before calling on students feels less threatening.
  • Asking students to respond to each other can keep the questioning from feeling too much like an interrogation by the professor and more like a discussion.
  • Wait!  Count to yourself to see how many seconds you are used to waiting.  It probably isn’t long enough.  It takes time to come up with a thoughtful response and then get the courage to say it.
  • Keep your questions focused – “what about the theory of x?” will not get you much.  Nor will “Does anyone have any questions?”  Planning ahead will keep you out of this particular unproductive pattern.
  • Your tone of voice and body language speaks very loudly when questioning.  Questioning is at its heart an intrusive activity.  The more inviting your body language is, the more likely your class will respond with enthusiasm.
  • Are your questions sometimes authentic?  Many times, the questions we ask in class are ones we already can answer.  In order to join in the spirit of inquiry with the class, pose some questions that you can’t answer and explore them with the class.   Acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers can be the start of a fruitful and interesting inquiry process.  It also means giving up a bit of classroom control to the learners, which is empowering for them but uncomfortable for some instructors.

Next time I’ll write about responding to student answers — in the meantime, what are your questions about questions?

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