Asking the Right Questions

There are so many reasons that I want to talk about this, but I’ll stick to two. First of all, as many of you already know, I run an interactive classroom and I’m always tossing out questions for my students to think about. Whether it’s in a small classroom of 30 students, or in a large lecture hall that seats 150, I’m involved in a constant exchange of information and never simply monologue for the full period. The types of question I ask vary based on the subject matter and class size, but I like to pause and see what students can tell me every now and again instead of just yammering away at them. I’m a huge fan of peer-to-peer learning, but I’m not above admitting that I take breaks where I can get them as well.

In order to facilitate a conversation effectively, I come prepared with a set of questions that I want to ask my class. In a large lecture setting, these tend to be fact-based questions, which allow students who have a personal interest in the subject matter a chance to shine. Now, I know what you’re going to say: I can’t expect people to always know what a word means, or to have heard of “the Other.” Don’t worry, I don’t, and my students are told at the beginning of every semester that they are not expected to know this information in advance. Rather, I acknowledge that some of them will already know things from other classes or from personal reading, and explain that class is more interesting if they’re allowed to share their knowledge than if I simple continue to talk at people.

Fact-based questions break up my lecture into more manageable pieces, and tend to be peppered throughout the class. When I ask my lecture classes about the “big picture,” I wait until the end of class, or sometimes pause in the middle. Again, I have 1 or 2 carefully thought-out questions, which I include as part of my slide show; students get 5-10 minutes to discuss these issues, and if I’ve managed to grab their attention during lecture, the conversation can be quite interesting. If not, well, let’s just say I can tell and I try to revise my lecture accordingly.

In seminars, the goal is to construct a meaningful narrative from a series of unique documents, each of which views the topic through a particular lens. Part of this process means discussing the methodology used in secondary sources – what works and what doesn’t – and the goals, limitations, and subject position of the authors who wrote the primary sources. If the class is going to achieve its goal and make sense of all of this information, my individual questions need to be properly conceived. More importantly, however, they need to be ordered correctly. Therefore, sometimes I start with the details and build towards the general, and sometimes I start from the general and work towards the precise – but I always have a plan.

All of this works very nicely since students receive and react to my questions in real time, and we work through the material as a group. This gives me the opportunity to adapt to the needs of each class, and to rephrase a particular question or rethink my line of approach if need be. Let’s face it, if the ups and downs of my academic career have taught me anything, it’s how to think on my feet. And so, at least half of the time, I feel like asking the right questions is a skill that I most definitely possess.

And yet, I’m not always as successful as I would like to be when posing questions. And this brings me to the other reason that I really wanted to write about this topic: sometimes I suck at asking essay questions, particularly when I’m teaching a course for the first time. One memorable disaster of an assignment resulted in this end-of-term evaluation gem: “Assignment 2 was evil! DO YOU HEAR ME?!?! F*cking Evil!!!” Yeah… I hear you. In fact, you didn’t even have to tell me (although I genuinely empathize with your need to scream it to the hilltops), since I’d already figured that out on my own. Assignment 2 – of which I will spare you the details – was based on a poorly conceived question, and I have nothing left to say to my former students other than: “I am so, so very sorry.”

The problem I have in these situations is not that the idea at the heart of the question is flawed, but rather that the question itself has come out garbled in some way. Choose one wrong word – or omit one – and you’ve created the conditions for the perfect storm. When teaching a lesson, things always go relatively well because I have a chance to react, reformulate, or explain. But when asking a question that I wish the students to answer on their own time, that opportunity is taken away from me. In essence, I lose control of the question, and that has a tendency to burn me if I haven’t had the chance to try it out on real, living, breathing, human beings before.

My most recent failure occurred in my Media Ethics class when I asked students to write a position paper based on newspaper articles about Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal. What I really meant to say was: “Was it right for the mainstream news media to publish the materials Edward Snowden gave to them, exposing the NSA’s bulk collection and storage of personal metadata? Discuss with reference to journalism ethics, the need for community safety, and the place of individual rights.” What I actually wrote was: “Should the media expose all government actions in order to keep that government honest and to ensure the protection of individual rights and freedoms; or, should information be censored to protect the community as a whole? Discuss with reference to the readings in your Course Pack.”

In this instance, aside from the obvious awkwardness in the way that the question was phrased, it was the “all” that got me. Despite the fact that I had clearly asked them to answer with reference to the NSA – since the readings in the Course Pack had to do with Snowden’s revelations – students focused on the word “all.” It wasn’t their fault, and I realized my error the moment I marked the first paper. But it was too late. Instead of being able head off trouble as it began, I was left regretting my word choice and faced with the fait accompli of a mountain of papers arguing that military secrets of various sorts need to be carefully guarded and kept out of the public sphere. The bulk-capturing of metadata faded away into the background.

In the end, I wrote clarifying remarks in the margins of all the papers that wandered away from the mainstream news media, Snowden and the NSA, but I had no choice other than to evaluate them with reference to the question that I had actually set, as opposed to the one I wish I’d assigned. As long as students made some reference to materials in their Course Pack, I had to accept submissions that focused more on Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks – albeit usually in vague terms – as legitimate. I therefore assessed each argument based on its internal coherence or lack thereof, and not on its proximity to the question that I really wanted them to discuss.

As I mentioned above, this is not the first time things have gone wrong, and I’ve tried a number of tactics to avoid poorly worded questions. I always have someone outside my field read over my assignment sheets before I release them at the start of term; however, the education gap between my “test subjects” and my actual students tends to show on judgment day. Like all of my peers, I also introduce the assignments and the questions that they pose on the first day of class. Moreover, we talk about these things briefly throughout the semester, and I always hope that students will ask for clarification. Alas, since they do not know what I wanted to ask – as opposed to what I did ask – they have no idea that something is wrong and tend take the question as it stands and run with it. Finally, if students who start early show up to my office with questions, I have taken to sending out emails that attempt to clarify the assignment guidelines. The problem with doing this is that I often can’t see where the real confusion lies until I have seen at least one completed paper.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I feel like I know what I’m doing half of the time, the other half, I really sympathize with my colleagues who have confessed to struggling with this part of their pedagogy. Asking questions is bloody hard, and every time I think I’ve figured it out, the universe reminds me not to be so damn cocky. I’m going to continue experimenting with how to avoid the “poorly worded question” scenario – I think my next move will be to ask former students to look over new assignments instead of my friend in law school – but I suspect there are more train wrecks ahead. Thus, I might also ask students to paraphrase assignments back to me when we go over everything on the first day of class, but I worry that such a strategy would be condescending. As always, I welcome ideas in the comments thread below. If you’ve got solutions, I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to hear them.

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2 thoughts on “Asking the Right Questions

  1. As always, a great post, and important issues. Like you, I feel more confident on my feet responding in the moment to students, and clarifying what I’m asking based on their feedback, confusion, or success. Where I sometimes fail, however, is in trying *too hard* to clarify what I mean when I’m asking questions. So, for example, I’ll ask a question in class to break up lecturing and get students involved. If they don’t readily respond, I’ll rephrase it hoping that something new might click for them. Perhaps I’ll rephrase it a third time, hoping that one of these opportunities for students to grasp what I want from them will hit home. Sometimes this works wonderfully and students engage admirably. Other times, however, something goes off track, they assume that my rephrasings are in face a litany of separate questions, they get overwhelmed, and shut down. Fortunately the latter was less common than the former, and it seemed to depend less on content than on the group I was working with. Some classes are sharper than others, or have more active and engaged group dynamics than others. Sometimes it’s in the hands of the gods. But I like to think that as a teacher I can do battle with the gods for control of my class.

    In terms of essay questions, I always had two strategies. One was to give important terms and ask for definitions and significance. Students might fixate on ‘objective’ definitions, but most of the points went to clarifying terms’ significance. This certainly allowed the more engaged and active students to thrive. But, it also left room for the less engaged memorization-type of student to show their skill, even if more was expected of them.

    My second strategy was to combine two different themes or ideas we had learned about in class to ask a new question that they could not have prepared for directly, but which they could answer if they had studied/learned/engaged with the parts upon which it was based. So, for example, in one class I taught the various waves of feminism and in the same term I also taught the gay rights movement(s). The exam question asked whether it was appropriate to apply the wave model of feminism to understand gay activism? We had NEVER discussed this precise issue, but if students understood feminism AND gay rights, they could answer it. Also, they could argue that it WAS appropriate and get full points, but they could also argue that it WASN’T appropriate to compare they two, and get full points. In both instances it was the supporting evidence that was marshaled in support of a critical engagement with the question that was critical.

    Happily, I had a lot of feedback from students on this question. I think it stood out for them because they weren’t typically asked questions like this on lower-division university exams. They also recognized immediately that YES and NO were both correct answers, and appreciated that it wasn’t an all or nothing risk when answering. They concluded that it was challenging, but fair and interesting. To be fair, that was one of the best groups I’ve ever taught.

    All this is to say that yes, I agree with you. Questions are a minefield, and I think your strategies of responding both to student feedback and peer comments is the best way forward. We talk about active learning, the answer here is also active teaching, which you are doing!

    • Thanks Justin.

      This is so interesting! Like you, I do better on exam questions, and like to ask them things that are open-ended and wide-ranging. That said, I am just getting back into that habit now after several years of being forced into shorter and more restrictive essays.

      The problem with exam questions — at least for many who are teaching intro-level survey courses — is that there are simply too many students in the course to allow people to set the exam they would like. Either people don’t have enough help grading exams (so essays are completely out of the question) or, if they do, they have non-specialist TAs. The latter scenario is what I’ve been facing until recently. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some fabulous TAs. However, they don’t have the contract hours to sit through all of my lectures. This means that they cannot possibly be asked to grade essays that allow students to draw from anywhere in the course because they simply do not know the material. Instead, I have to set short answers and smaller essay questions, since I can provide my TAs with an “answer key” for that (ie, my lecture notes — which is the other reason I always have such complete lecture notes).

      Now that I’ve got smaller classes again, I’m setting the type of question that you described. I like to make sure students can play to their strengths and interests, and that there’s no “right” answer, per se… only good and bad arguments.

      In the meantime, it’s these essay questions that keep getting me. I do think I get a bit better at it every year, but I do still feel like kind of a dunce every time I realize something has gone wrong. Some of this is level though, and I have noticed that my CEGEP students are more literal than my university students were. Also, I am currently teaching at a very good school, so the teachers are some of the best I’ve ever seen. This means that students are used to profs doing it right, and assume that when something looks a little “off,” it’s their own fault and not mine. That’s a good problem to have, but it means I need to be even more careful. As always, so much to learn!

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