By Laura Greene, Augustana College
from "The National Teaching & Learning FORUM"
Volume 14, Number 2, February 2005
I sometimes think that students must feel as though they live in a world of questions not their own. Teachers often provide students with questions for a reading assignment in advance ("Here are some questions I'd like you to think about for next Wednesday's reading"); even more regularly, they assign questions to be answered in papers or on tests. Reasonably enough, most students conclude that it is the teacher's job to ask, and their job to answer. And if they get the answer right, they've learned something.
Most of us who teach make pretty different assumptions. We know that inquiry lies at the heart of every academic endeavor. The best professors don't want to teach their students the "facts" of the discipline so much as they want to help them construct knowledge by asking interesting questions within that discipline. We want our students to inquire - with energy, commitment, and passion.
My First Real Question
My own intellectual life only really began when, as a junior in college, I was finally forced to ask my own question for a paper on Jane Eyre. I had been a good and successful student, unusually perceptive at interpreting what kind of answers I thought the teacher wanted. But when my teacher forced me, terror stricken and crying, to formulate my own question in response to a text, the whole intellectual enterprise changed for me. I was no longer trying to solve a puzzle someone else had set before me. Instead, I was asking a question by myself, for myself. Because there was no hidden answer I had desperately to guess at, I suddenly became interested in how to build an answer that would satisfy me. For the first time in my college career, I learned what it was like to have an intellectual stake in something. After that, the world was different.
So when I became a teacher I would often ask students to generate questions in response to the readings they did. But I soon realized that most of my students didn't have any better sense of how to formulate a question than I did at their age - at least, not the kinds of questions that one associates with deeper intellectual inquiry. Thus, when I applied to Carnegie's Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), I decided to focus on whether and how good questioning could be taught. This seemed an especially pertinent thing to do because the study of student-generated questions still remains largely neglected in the scholarly literature. There are plenty of sources that analyze the questions teachers ask; there is little written about the questions students ask.
What Works vs. What Is
I later learned that the kind of study I was proposing is, in SoTL parlance, a "what works" project. You start out with a technique or a method that you think will improve student learning, and you test it to see if it does. So all I needed to do was come up with a way to teach questioning, and assess student learning to see if it worked.
During my first Carnegie residence, however, my project group's comments and questions helped me realize that I wasn't very sure myself of what a "good" question was, let alone how to teach it. And I was equally unsure about precisely why I was dissatisfied with the questions my students were producing. More experienced SoTL scholars suggested that I might need to study and really understand the questions that my students were asking before I tried to "fix" them. At their prompting, my "what works" project morphed into a "what is" project.
"What is" projects are primarily descriptive, providing rich detail about a behavior or phenomenon rather than trying to find ways to change it. Whereas my "what works" project sought to find ways to improve student questioning, a "what is" project would carefully describe and document what students do as questioners. My job was now to listen hard to the kinds of questions my students were asking, and to see if I could use these questions as a window into their thought processes, motives, priorities, and assumptions about inquiry. My goal was to provide an ethnography of student questioning, to describe what kinds of questions students ask and value - and from there, perhaps, to identify some things that might enable students to become more mature questioners. By seeing what students couldn't quite do yet, I hoped to be able to help myself define what good questioning was.
As an English teacher, I was most interested in seeing the kinds of questions students generated in response to texts. To collect and analyze student questions, I asked my school's ITS department to set up an online "question log." Students in my first-year composition class would read the assignments (primarily argumentative essays) and enter their questions about the texts into the online question log the night before class. Those questions were stored in a database that generated an anonymous list of all the questions the students asked about a given reading. (Anonymity was important, since the entire class would see the list of questions, and I wanted students to feel free to ask any question without fear of looking foolish to their peers. Students knew that ultimately I would have access to their names, but they also knew that their questions could not be graded.)
Kinds Of Questions
At the end of the course I had nearly 500 questions, which I grouped together inductively (a highly interpretive and no doubt error-ridden process). I came up with 10 categories or "kinds" of questions:
1. Basic Comprehension
2. Interpretive Comprehension
6. Loose Implication
My initial sense was that these categories do suggest a kind of hierarchy: that basic comprehension questions seem lower on the intellectual scale than, say, questions that explore implications or ask for integration. And, sure enough, the numbers suggested that these beginning students were much more likely to ask questions that helped them comprehend the text than they were questions that helped them explore the implications or significance of that text.
But what I learned most in coding and classifying these questions is that it's possible to ask very good or very bad questions in almost any category. Some basic comprehension questions - ones that focus on a particularly revealing detail, for example - can rapidly lead to complex areas of inquiry. And plenty of questions involving "higher order" skills were in fact broad, philosophical inquiries that students probably thought sounded smart ("Which is more important: duty to oneself or duty to one's community?"), but that in fact had very little to do with the text at hand. So no simple hierarchy would work here - or at least, it could only be a part of the story.
Kinds Of Motives
Although my categories were less useful as a hierarchical guide to good questioning, they did turn out to be extremely useful as a window into the motives that students have for asking questions. By examining the kinds of questions students were most likely to ask, I began to infer some of the assumptions that students have about what questions are for. In short, these categories enabled me to discern and describe a model of student questioning.
What are the outlines of this model? My data suggest that students see questions as useful for three main things: to seek information not in the text (gather facts), to resolve confusion and misunderstanding, and to oppose a text they disagree with, often dismissively. This seems natural, given that the classroom environment of most high schools encourages these types of questions. Teachers ask students factual and informational questions. When students are confused about something, their obvious recourse is to ask a question. And students like to voice their own opinions; they like to argue with texts (argumentative ones, not textbooks), especially if those texts make claims that seem particularly challenging or foreign to them.
Several different interactions with students over the course of the term gave added support to this model. One student, when I initially explained the question log project to the class, raised his hand and said, "But what if I understand what I read?" The implication was (and is) that if you understand the basics of something, if you aren't confused, then there's no reason to ask a question. The idea of questions that don't clear up confusion but promote deeper understanding and further intellectual inquiry seems not to have occurred to many first-year college students. (Or else, perhaps, such questions seem more trouble than they're worth). Another student assumption the response implies is that questioning is an automatic process: questions "come" to you naturally; they don't require effort.
Perhaps the most important implication of this model, however, is that students tend to see questioning as a process of closing down, rather than opening up. You want information? Here it is, finished. You feel confused? Here's the explanation, done. They tend not to see questioning as a process of opening something up; their emphasis is on getting the answer, getting it fast, moving on - analogous to the "banking model" of education that Paulo Freire describes.
A Process Model?
Can we challenge and reshape the prevailing model that students have for questioning - and if so, how? The next part of my project will be to try to answer that question, but I do have some preliminary thoughts. Composition theory tells us that writing is a process. We assume when students write first drafts they don't really know what they want to say; we assume they need to revise, clarify, re-think. Couldn't the same be true for questions - that on first attempts students may not yet know the real questions they want to ask, and that developing thoughtful questions is a process, one that would be forwarded considerably if students asked themselves, after each question they asked, "Why do I want to know this?" This would lead, almost inevitably, to a chaining process. Students often tend to see questions as largely isolated, one-time events; what if we taught them to use one question to build another, or begin an internal dialogue?
My ideas about good questioning are now very different from what they were when I began this study. I didn't discover any ideal, Platonic question (or set of questions) that I can train students to ask; I have come to think that developing a hierarchy of questions is at least partly beside the point. Listening carefully to student questions - asking myself "what is" before rushing to figure out "what works" - helped me formulate the problem of student questioning differently, and more usefully. I no longer think the problem is that students ask bad questions. I think the problem is that students stop too early in the questioning process and are slow to see that, at its best, it never ends.
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