Thursday, April 21, 2011

"I'm confused"

I'm thinking of playfully "banning" this phrase from my classes next semester. ("I'm confused.") Why? Because it drives me nuts. Because too often it's said to cover up the fact that the student did not read the syllabus, or the assignment instructions, or both, carefully. Plus, it's too often said whiningly.

So I'm thinking of requiring students to ask clarification questions instead, and requiring them to preface those with something like, "I'd like to ask a couple clarification questions so I can better understand what is expected of me here; I've already read the syllabus and instructions."

Your thoughts? Any ideas for some general constructive clarification questions? Plus, I'm thinking of supplementing this with "I'm confused" hang man in the first couple weeks (draw a hang man on the board, off to the side; every time someone says "I'm confused" instead of the above, a body part gets drawn in...)


  1. Fortunately I don't hear this very often.

    I suppose and hope you ask, "What are you confused about?" What do they say?


  2. Hi Nathan,

    You suppose correctly. I do ask. And in doing so, I've come to conclude that in many, many cases they're saying things like "I'm confused!" to cover up for the fact that they didn't do the readings in the first place.

    I conclude this because frequently, after I ask, "Did you do the readings? Carefully? Did you take notes, draw diagrams, and so on, in an attempt to figure it out yourself, first?" or, in other cases, "Did you read the syllabus? The instructions?"

    Too often, the answer is "no".

    So there are a couple issues here. One, they're not always doing the readings or reading the instructions / syllabus. Two, they don't always take responsibility for this.

    I'm sure this happens, to some degree, in every classroom. I want to find more constructive ways of dealing with this because, nor surprisingly, repeating "You guys need to do the readings" over and over doesn't work.

    I guess I'm thinking, hoping, that by requiring them to bypass "I'm confused!" altogether, and to have open ended questions prepared instead, maybe they'll (1) be a little more likely to do the readings on non-homework days, (2) further develop their question asking skills, and (3) better appreciate and better understand how they might go about holding themselves accountable.

    So whattya think? Could banning those "cover up" statements, and requiring good ole Socrates questions instead, be one way of accomplishing all that?

    Speaking of helping students develop question asking, I recommend:

    "Teaching students how to ask questions instead of answering them" by Matthew Bowker.

  3. Karla, I like your proposal! Try it out and report back...

  4. I haven't seen this behavior enough to notice as a distinct "student tic." (I have, of course, heard lots of questions that are clearly answered in the instructions, syllabus, or whatever.)

    As for framing constructive questions, it might help to offer them a template like, "Based on _________, I understand that _______, but what I don't get is _______." For example: "Based on the instructions on the assignment sheet, I understand that I'm supposed to summarize Descartes' argument for the existence of God, but what I don't get is whether you want me to say what I think about that argument." Making them fill in the first blank makes them think about potential sources for information. Making them fill in the second part makes them accountable for bringing something to the table instead of waiting for you to do everything for them.

    Also, what happens when the hang man is finished?

  5. My feeling here echoes a point made during our 'Academically Adrift, part 5' discussion: Orientation to college life needs to be orientation to college *academic* life. I too get plenty of questions that are answered on the syllabus, and all I can think is 'do you not understand what a syllabus is?' Turns out, the answer is often 'yes' — no one ever told them that practically everything they'll need to know is on the syllabus. Someone needs to lay this sort of 'College 101' stuff out to students.

    There's also this weird idea among students that we have hidden expectations, stuff we're looking for that's not on an assignment sheet, say. I don't know where this gets started, other than perhaps students have bad experiences with unclear expectations and become compulsive double-checkers.

  6. @ David:

    Thanks for the input, I do indeed like the idea of templates. What you propose can be done in a pretty playful way. For instance, here's how I currently respond to questions already answered in the syllabus, book, or directions:

    Student: So how many points do I lose for ____?

    Me: can you find out?

    Student: Um....the syllabus?

    Me: Yes! Good idea! (always said with a big grin of course)

    With the template idea, perhaps I could try something like this: I always write a daily agenda up on the board the minute I get into class. I put the date, day, assigned readings, and then each action item we'll strive to cover, in class, with a check box by it. I prompt them each time to write this in their notes, too. By the middle of the semester, they do it automatically. I can imagine also putting up a "Question template of the day" item. And explaining that today's "question challenge" is that I'm challenging them to ask clarification questions using this particular template, instead of "I'm confused!"

    As far as what happens when the hang man is finished...I don't know. LOL. I've done this before...when they ask, "What happens at the end?!" I say, "Oh, you don't want to know..."


    Then, of course, they realize we're having fun, and THEN I run the risk of them purposefully violating the challenge, to see what DOES happen. Which is fine with me--so long as they're increasing their awareness of the issue, and what we're trying to accomplish, and why, I consider it a success. Or at least a step in the right direction!

  7. I haven't had this particular issue, but I can think of lots of examples of similar problems. Michael brings up a really good point. There is a difference between a kind of passive and disruptive attitude (we've all seen it) and genuine disorientation. So much of what we take to be obvious is far from it, especially for first-generation college students.

    I try to rely on other students in these situations. I ask the other students to help the questioner by giving some answers. If the question is intended to disrupt and annoy, the other students often pick up on it too. If the question is genuine, they pick up on that as well. If it is the first case, they often firmly but politely point out the obvious answer. If it is the second case, they are often very concerned to be helpful to their classmate.

    Maybe you could incorporate this into the hangman - if a fellow student can rephrase the question or answer it before you get to the hangman, then the poor guy gets to keep a limb.

  8. Michael,

    Thanks for your reply and reflections. I agree that quite often, they honestly do not realize what a syllabus is. Similarly, they often do not know how to write a basic (philosophy) paper, or know what a basic argument is, or even how to effectively take notes or ask questions.

    I think a too many instructors assume someone else taught students how to do all this; some instructors don't take these basics to be their job. I conclude this based on some things students have said to me, for example, "In my last philosophy class, we didn't get citing help", or, "In my other philosophy class we didn't have a paper assignment".

    That is why I infuse my classes with a ton of "how to" templates. Since I teach all gen ed / intro classes, I take this to be one of my tasks anyway. Luckily I enjoy teaching the more hands on, applied, "how to" stuff.

    I once had a dean who suggested that I should focus more on teaching ethics, as opposed to writing. But isn't teaching them how to write an effective philosophical analysis one key part of honing their ability to think critically about ethical issues? Loaded question, I think the answer is yes. Based on those comments of his, and others, I think he misunderstood what philosophy is, what it does, and how it's done well.

    As I always tell students, Philosophy is an activity. And philosophical skill, which consists of some parts organization skills, clarity skills, question asking skills, attention paying skills, and so on; all that is honed by simple everyday stuff too, like paying careful attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and citing, like knowing how to ask questions in place of making statements, questions that will cultivate understanding and dialogue and learning, not shut those down.

    You note, "Someone needs to lay this sort of 'College 101' stuff out to students." Who do you think should do this? How? What sorts of "College 101" stuff do you use in your classes; which classes do you do the bulk of it in, and why?

    Okay, back to grading for me. :)

  9. Becko,

    "Maybe you could incorporate this into the hangman - if a fellow student can rephrase the question or answer it before you get to the hangman, then the poor guy gets to keep a limb."

    I love that! Great idea!!!

    I also think you put it nicely when you say, "There is a difference between a kind of passive and disruptive attitude (we've all seen it) and genuine disorientation."

    Since I infuse my courses with so many "how to"s, my sense is that it's usually the former. It's usually the case that they're more passive than disruptive.

    The "I'm confused!" monster tends to rear its ugly head most here: after I've put them in small groups, given each group a section of the chapter or concept to present, and then I circulate between groups to answer questions. That is the point I get those kinds of questions. If I get it a lot that day, I'll stop everyone, and say, "OK, honesty check. Who read the chapter?" The amount of hands kept down is usually somewhat proportionate to the amount of "I'm confused" questions I've received that day.

    Hang man, here I come! :)

  10. I feel like this sort of approach to teaching philosophy makes things a little too much like school. I see no reason why the students should be forced to read anything. If their work is no good, let them fail.

    I'm deliberately trying to be provocative, I guess. I'm curious: what do you think is wrong with this sort of laissez-faire attitude?

  11. @ Tristanhaze:

    I agree. I don't think they should be forced to do anything. Which passage in the thread supports your interpretation as such?

    If I had to put my main concern here in a nutshell, I would say this: I'm concerned that some students are dishonest about why they're confused.

    Hence the title of my post.

    Now, since I value their intellectual, philosophical, and professional development, I want to playfully encourage them to look at things another way (see below). I want to encourage them to better hold themselves accountable, and be more honest about the reasons behind their confusion. I want to help them develop their intellectual honesty, through accountability taking, and question asking.

    In short, I want to take them from "A" to "B", below. Not by force, but by encouraged habit. Over time. Ideally. Okay, maybe through a little playful force (if you want to call Hang Man "force"!):

    P: I did not read (the unstated premise!)
    P: This author is confusing!
    C: Therefore I'm confused

    P: If I do not read X, I will be confused about X
    P: I did not read X
    C: Therefore I'm confused about X

    P: I value honesty
    P: Blaming my confusion on X when I actually did not read / consult X is dishonest
    C: Therefore I should not blame my confusion on X

    P: Whenever I'm confused about X, because I did not read / consult X, I should admit it and find productive questions to ask
    P: I did not read / consult X
    C: Therefore I should admit it and find productive questions to ask

    Hey, this is more fun than a morning crossword! Which I don't actually do. Yet.

    Okay, Tristanhaze. Have at it! :) Karla

  12. I was just thinking about a piece of advice—I think linked from this blog somewhere—about encouraging good behaviors rather than admonishing bad behaviors. (For instance, if most students in a class get a question wrong on a test, it's better to say, "Some people did really well on question N by recognizing that X, which enabled them to see that Y," rather than something like, "A lot of people got question N wrong because they overlooked the fact that X, which led them to say Z, and Z is just wrong.")

    Since I was thinking about this in the context of encouraging people to read the syllabus, I thought of your hangman. Building on Becko's suggestion about allowing students to "save" others after an "I'm confused" question, maybe you could erase a limb whenever someone asks a question in the form that you like.

  13. @ David Morrow:

    That's another excellent idea! I like your suggestion, and the reasoning behind it. This has been a very productive thread for me: lots of good suggestions from others, some critical thinking challenges for me, which have helped me hone my reasoning...thanks for your part in that! :) Karla


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