Friday, April 21, 2006

there are stupid questions

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It's a sunny Friday afternoon, and I'm catching up on the pile of Chronicle of Higher Educations that have accumulated in my office the past few weeks. (I guess I've been pretty busy?)

The April 7, 2006 Chronicle Review includes a one-page think piece by Maureen Donohue-Smith called "There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question." The title kinda grabs you, of course, and I read it because I was curious if the title was facetious or not. It's not.

She makes the point that, indeed, in the classroom, there are stupid questions, like when a student interrupts a lecture to ask how the upcoming paper is supposed to be (when it's printed on the syllabus). But then she gets into the necessity for faculty to teach students how to ask good questions.

This reminded me of the interview for my current job, when I was asked to define information literacy, and I responded (mainly flying by the seat of my pants), it's knowing how to ask good questions. I think I made decent sense of that idea then, but it wasn't something I'd thought out too terribly much yet.

But I think Donohue-Smith and I were getting at the same thing: that students who know how to ask good questions are good learners. They know enough to know what they need to know. They enough about the discipline to know what kinds of questions should be asked.

She gives some concrete suggestions for how faculty can teach students to form good questions, such as:

Require students to ask questions in class. Research on students' attention spans suggests pausing every 15 or 20 minutes to allow students to organize their notes and summarize important points. During those pauses, ask groups of three or four students to think of several significant questions about what they're learning. Have them share the questions with the rest of the class, ask why they consider them important, and ask other students to modify the questions.

This suggestion helps teachers move beyond the simple imperative to ask for questions and wait for a response. It guides students to ask questions, rather than expecting that students already know how to ask questions.

Note: the Chronicle online requires a subscription for access to most of its content, but I *think* this article is one of the free ones.


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