Asking a Good Question

My experiment in using modular architecture in course design is coming to a close. I don’t have the result of student evaluations yet, but a few students have commented that they’ve enjoyed the structure of the course.

One part of the course hasn’t worked out as well as I’d hoped. My syllabus contains the following instructions:

Five times during the course of the semester you will be asked to write a brief reflection (equivalent to one half to a full page of double-spaced 11 or 12 point text) and raise a critical question (or questions) stemming from a previous class discussion.  You may want to clarify a particular point made in class, critique a particular point, wonder about the implications of a particular idea, or consider the relationship between one author’s writing and another.  In short, these questions can go in the direction of your choosing, but they should be clear, concise, and original. Discussion reflections and questions are submitted online and questions will be used as a basis for conversation in class.

The above task was intended to 1) get students to write and think more about the reading material, 2) promote peer discussion both online and in class, and 3) get students to create exam questions so that exams became more formative learning exercises.

I had the most success with (1). Students did frequently reflect upon what they had read, and occasionally they connected the ideas of particular authors to what I or fellow students had mentioned in class.

To my surprise students did not engage in online discussion about the merits of each other’s questions, even though they knew I was looking for questions to add to the exams. Instead I had to break students into groups in class, with each group selecting a favorite question that had been posted online to discuss. Each group then reported what it had discussed to the rest of the class.

I would have liked more back and forth between the students, whether online or in the classroom. I would also have liked to see better formulated questions – I was hoping the students themselves would point out the lousy questions, but this didn’t happen.

If anyone has any advice on how I can improve this process, I’m all ears.

5 Replies to “Asking a Good Question”

  1. Hi Craymond, this sounds pretty much like the reading reflections I use in my upper level public policy course. To quote from my syllabus: “Reflections are meant to encourage you to connect the readings to an issue of food policy, serve as an upshot for discussions in class and help you explore interesting research questions. These reflections should take the reading as a starting point and seek to build upon them by trying to apply them to the course context”. I use them as a kind of low-stakes writing that will help students think about the readings and about applications and prepare them for writing the longer paper. They write a total of five which count for 25% of the course grade. I generate the peer discussion in this course by having students present their research plans to the class and discuss them: on the basis of experience I will be fully passive during those discussions, this is the only way students feel confident asking questions and being critical, because they 1) know that I will not pick up the tab for them 2) they don’t have to fear being ‘outwitted’ by me as the professor with even smarter questions. Two students make notes of these discussions and give it to the presenters. I subsequently have bilateral meetings with the students to take stock of the discussion and I will at that point give my suggestions and comments. This set-up works extremely well: students are respectful and critical at the same time. I think you might have tried to achieve too much with your reflections. Indeed getting them to reflect is already a great achievement and you might want to use other methods to get your other goals realized. Best wishes, Herman Lelieveldt

  2. I think you are absolutely correct about trying to achieve too much and that I should use other methods to realize other goals.

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