Does the Question Determine the Answer?

Regular readers of this blog know that I sometimes ponder the clarity of my assignment and exam prompts (some past posts on this subject are here, here, and here). Students sometimes don’t hit what, in my mind, the question targets, so I revise in the hopes of creating a prompt that is more transparent. But I don’t want prompts to be answerable with a Jeopardy-like regurgitation of facts. I want students to exert some cognitive effort to figure out how to apply concepts that are relevant to the question at hand.

Usually this situation occurs with my undergraduates, but I’m noticing it more frequently with master’s degree students. A recent example is an assignment from my graduate-level introduction to comparative politics course:


  • Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, Ch. 1-3.
  • Reading guide to the above text.
  • Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link Between Modernization and Democracy,” Perspectives on Politics 8, 2 (2010).
  • Pankaj Mishra, “The Western Model Is Broken,” The Guardian, 14 October 2014.
  • Rachel Nuwer, “How Western Civilization Could Collapse,” BBC, 18 April 2017.

Write a response to this question:

  • What most accounts for developmental differences between Western Europe, the USA and Canada, and Latin America? Why? Is culture a factor? Why?

The objective of the assignment — which, again, strikes me as obvious — is to craft an argument with information pulled from the chapters from Huntington’s book and the article by Inglehart and Welzel. But students flubbed it; their arguments were vague and badly organized.

This is a graduate course that begins with a broad introduction to modernization theory. I believe that graduate students should be capable of engaging with a somewhat abstract, theoretically-driven question — especially since I provide them with a guide to one of the topic’s classic texts. On the other hand, maybe what is obvious to me is not at all obvious to the students. If it’s the latter, I need a different question. I’m on the horns of a dilemma.