Bad and Better Questions

We often encourage students with the promise that “there are no bad questions,” but of course there are. The usual suspects show up with some regularity: the lazy question, the question that’s already been answered, the off-topic or unintelligible question, the mildly insulting question, etc. It should go without saying that good teaching incorporates even misguided inquiries into productive discussion. When we say “there is no bad question,” perhaps we’re thinking “there is no question I can’t use to extend the conversation.”

But of course it’s not just students who sometimes ask the wrong question. Lately I’ve been trying to think more carefully about the bad questions I ask as a teacher. The variety I’m most often guilty of is the quiz question, one that prompts a student to merely regurgitate some idea from the class’s assigned reading or my own lectures.

Now I’m not necessarily opposed to quizzes, but, for the purposes of classroom discussion, I’m increasingly wary of questions designed primarily to hold students accountable for information. A pupil fires back the correct point, and then the class returns its attention to the professor. Quiz questions (“What does Gardner say about the notion of aesthetic laws?” “Can someone define ‘fictional pointillism’ for us?”) may engage a few members of the class superficially, but they rarely facilitate meaningful conversation or challenge students to apply ideas in active, higher-level thinking.

I suspect many new teachers, like myself, get into the habit of asking such blunt questions with objectively correct responses because they are easy and require little, if any, planning. My own tendency has been to outline the topics I want to cover in great detail and then pepper the lecture with off-the-cuff quiz questions to “involve the students.” It’s telling that attempts to spur discussion are something of an afterthought in the strategy. That a certain type of student responds well (or at least quickly and emphatically) to such questions adds to their attraction for new teachers.

Alternatively, more thought-provoking and complex queries seem to risk the silence we dread. And by a month or so into the course, when I realize discussion is lacking and begin to push for more conversation, students are stuck in the mode of quiz answers.

This past semester I tried doing some things differently, and the results excited me. The most important change was simply devoting preparation time to designing good discussion questions from the first day of class, and then allowing significant space for the students to explore those inquiries instead of rushing on to my next point.

I also took an idea from Christopher J. Lucas and John W. Murray Jr.’s New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners and asked students to bring in their own discussion questions for the class to consider. Occasionally I would ask the students to respond to a question in writing, and then we would discuss what they had come up with. We talked about the features of good questions (openness to debate, clear and critical engagement with our subjects, imaginative complications and combinations of ideas, etc.), and we discussed how good answers might use evidence and examples to play with questions profitably.

In short we thought of our in-class questions and responses as practice for the argumentative essays students would be writing outside of the classroom.

Predictably, early in the course students tended to ask short-range quiz questions. I know I asked some clunkers myself, but when I saw that happening we talked about how specific questions might be revised and matured, and I’m convinced I saw real improvement in our discussions as a result.

Even more encouragingly, as a group the students’ essays were probably the strongest I’ve ever received, especially when it came to the questions they were asking of our content and the theses those questions produced.

Now I don’t mean to suggest here that I mastered the art of asking good questions this semester, only that I found some avenues for improvement. One of the things I’ve learned is the real and lasting difficulty of designing questions that energize students to try out a new idea, something they didn’t already “know.” I’m still looking for advice. What are your strategies for asking good questions? What questions do your students respond best to? What is the best way of asking them?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user tj scenes.]

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