Monday, June 2, 2014

Learning to Ask Deep Questions

It's hard to exaggerate the importance to education of asking good questions. To interrogate an idea, a dataset, or the basis of theorems, is to become intellectually active.

In the past, I have required students to bring one discussion question on a pre-assigned day. I've also required all students in a course to bring a question on the same day. I've met with limited success. Often the questions they bring are comprehension questions rather than discussion questions. I explain that a discussion question is one without one obviously correct answer, one we can debate. I even give an example of both types of questions. Yet, they don't ask the questions I want, the deep questions.

I read an article last fall that suggested having students ask a question on the exam and explain why that was a good question. I tried it in my British literature class, but the results weren't great. I hadn't prepared them enough, given them enough practice with asking questions.

One thing I must do is to teach students about different kinds of questions. I especially want students to learn to ask questions of interpretation, of assumption, of implication, of point of view, of relevance, of accuracy, of precision, of consistency, and of logic. I want them to use questions to probe and explore. I can do this by having students formulate questions in small groups during class or by preparing them in advance. But probably the most important way to teach asking questions is to model them. 

Modeling is the recommendation of Faculty Focus's "The Art of Asking Questions," by Maryellen Weimar. Specifically, she recommends:

  • Prepare questions.
  • Play with the questions. 
  • Preserve good questions. 
  • Ask questions that you don't know the answer to.
  • Ask questions you can't answer. 
  • Don't ask open-ended questions when you know the answer you're looking for. 
I do prepare questions in advance, but most of them are comprehension. I often ask open-ended questions when I know the answer I'm looking for. It's hard when it's a question without one answer, but I can predict their arguments from years of experience. I preserve questions in my lesson plans, and I often ask questions I don't know the answer to or that I can't answer. 

The area I plan to immediately address is playing with the questions.  Too often, when a question is asked, someone will give a pat answer, the quick answer, without exploring it (always an extravert). To include more members of the class and to encourage thoughtful answers, I can put the questions on the board or PowerPoint and ask them to write them in their notes. It can be a question addressed at the end of the class session or asked over several sessions until the best answer is found. This will also create unity in the course.

What techniques do you use to get students asking meaningful questions?