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.