Wednesday, July 3, 2013

3 questions about asking questions

I suspect we all agree that questions are at the heart of philosophy.  I was therefore struck by Maryellen Weimer's report of a conversation she had with a colleague about the use of questions in the classroom.
The conversation started with concerns over the quantity and quality of questions students ask—those earnest questions about what’s going to be on the exam and gently demanding queries about what the teacher “wants” in almost any kind of written assignment. Those questions are important to students, but they certainly are not the questions of curious learners nor are they the type of questions that motivate learning and intellectual development. 
It didn’t take us long to decide that the questions teachers ask students are part (we think a large part) of the problem. Teachers don’t usually prepare questions—we ask whatever comes to mind when it comes to mind. We ask questions we know the answers to and we almost always follow the answers students give with our own bigger and better explanations. In some cases, the way we use questions diminishes their value in students’ eyes. We ask questions to keep students paying attention and direct queries to those who aren’t. We ask questions to see who has and hasn’t done the reading. We ask questions to see how well they understand. Those questions do benefit students because if they don’t understand a concept, we give a fuller, possibly clearer, explanation. But even that doesn’t benefit them as much as it would if we helped them make their own answers better.
Even though I try to be very intentional about the practice of questioning in the classroom, I still had a flash of recognition when reading Weimer's remarks. Despite my best efforts, my use of questions in the classroom too often becomes teacher-centered, an impromptu or on-the-spot technique by which students show me what they know. This "diminishes" questions' value in students' eyes by (1) reinforcing the assumption that the instructor is the source of all the (good) questions in the classroom, and (2) marginalizing student questions as a source of learning.

With that, here are three questions about asking questions I'd be interested to hear thoughts about. I don't have answers to these questions that satisfy me, so they are (for me) genuine questions.

  1. How can we make students more comfortable asking questions?
  2. How can we encourage students to ask questions likely to stimulate their learning?
  3. How we can we use the questions ask to diagnose student learning?


  1. dogmatic answers!:

    show yourself asking questions for more than instructional purposes. for example, asking questions because they are genuine, or you find something genuinely worth asking. don't just ask leadoff questions ('what is X really? here's an account…') or adversarial questions ('what are Y's reasons for this claim? can we think of any counterexamples?') - ask, for example, questions that have arisen from other questions (and the answers given to them), questions that produce more questions. show that it's possible to ask more questions without having settled earlier ones, yet maintain some kind of order or direction to what's going on (without it simply being a matter of mapping out a decision tree or the like). show yourself reformulating questions, on the suggestion of students if possible. show how there may be differences between the roles of asker and answerer that aren't exhausted by knower and non-knower. show how there may be work involved in really being open to a question, or in being able to 'have' one.

    use yourself as a bad example - admit that there are some questions that are supposed to be good ones that you don't cotton to, or that just don't stimulate you to investigation. diagnose your lack of interest; relate how you came to find some question more compelling.

    write materials that anticipate natural or usual questions so that students are set up to have the questions occur to them, so that they have the initiative in asking. assume ahead of time that they, collectively, will be (perhaps unwitting) partners in your classroom performance rather than mainly your instruments for verifying quality of presentation and student understanding after the fact ('ok… that's it… any questions? no?…').

    give them practice IN WRITING, like in handouts and study materials, with addressing and considering questions that go beyond confirmations of information or solicitation of opinion. (anything of the form 'do you agree or disagree? why?' is absolutely terrible practice as far as improving one's ability to work with questions goes!)

    help them try to prepare to ask themselves, and think about, their own questions AFTER (they leave) class, so that they can identify a natural point at which questioning functions in the pedagogical economy / course of learning.

    help them learn to see various kinds of confusion or dissatisfaction as related to questions, so they can learn how to use the former to stimulate the development of the latter.

  2. I think the first hurdle is getting everyone comfortable with asking questions/participate. To do that, every so often, especially at the beginning of the term, I have classes in which I require that all students participate at least once. The second would be to guide those students who don't yet have the "right words" to ask their questions. I have a handout with questions templates that I have given my first year students before. That seems to help guide them towards a better articulated question. And yes, finally, I do think it is important that they practice taking time coming up with questions, written assignments are particularly good for this. Last term, I had a take home "quiz" which was to write a number of questions about ideas/concepts they had found confusing or still weren't quite sure about. This gave me a way to keep track of what they were confused about before the exam and it gave them an easy low stakes assignment that required some reflection on their part.

  3. Of course, there are many teachers who are not at all concerned with this problem. I'm a undergrad who studies philosophy and I've been in more than one classroom where my question asking has been met with serious censure. I've noticed that questions of a critical nature (e.g. about flaws in an argument), which it seems are the type that can really aid learning and which are being discussed here, are particularly disdained. Sometimes this is a result of an emphasis on generosity in receiving new ideas, a faulty approach in my opinion.


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