I have thought a lot about the nature of questions and their relationship with my teaching.
Of course, I always want students to ask questions in class. I welcome all questions, because they show engagement with the class (even if superficial), but I do certainly savor the insightful, penetrating student question that takes discussion to the next level.
On a bigger scale, I want my class to be about students’ questions so that the topics feel relevant and interesting to them. I don’t always know what students want to know or to be able to do after the end of a course. I often do surveys at the start of a semester to see what they’re thinking. And, naturally, I’ll always need to supplement their interests with other things they didn’t know they’d be interested in; they don’t know what they don’t know yet. But I want their curiosity to guide a great deal of our class.
I tried one semester to designate a question of the day for each class session on the schedule. We ended up talking about different things than my questions had originally mentioned. Again, though, that’s me imposing my questions on the class.
I really like this idea from the Teaching Professor blog by Maryellen Weimer at Faculty Focus, which combines a question from the professor with students’ own questions, generated after they have gained knowledge about the subject:
Victoria Costa writes about teaching introductory biology and chemistry courses to nonscience majors and beginning the courses with what she calls a course question: “How does chemistry (or biology, depending on the course) impact my personal life and society?” This question forms the basis of the course final, provides the framework within which students pose for themselves a “personal perplexity” or question of particular interest to them. In their final, an essay, they explain this question’s relevance to them and society, and they use course content to explore the question’s answer.
Costa’s course assignments also connect to the “course question.”
This semester, I’ve had my grad students in Qualitative Methods submit five questions about their assigned readings instead of the assignment I’ve previously used, which was a one-page response to the readings. I read over the students’ questions and use them in class. The questions highlight their areas of uncertainty, make connections among the readings, and help me get everyone participating in discussion.
I have also had my 110-student undergraduate class divided into teams this semester and last fall. Each team of five students submits a form at the beginning of class that asks for a discussion question related to the reading. I read the forms as they finish them, highlight interesting or recurring ones, and talk those over with the class before we begin the rest of the day’s activities. This has also been pretty successful.
I know many faculty bemoan students’ seeming lack of curiosity about the subjects we teach, but if we get them started by asking them to take time to examine their knowledge and think about the topic’s complexity, they often find provocative and fun issues to ask about.
I’ve struggled, though, with finding more ways to elicit and integrate students’ own interests and questions into our class — particularly in the large undergraduate class I teach, and especially “on the fly,” when questions are sparse in the middle of an activity or a lecture portion in class.
What other methods have you used to help students’ questions guide your courses and class sessions, and to keep the questions and curiosity flowing?