Val's Blog - The Importance of Questions
Working together to create knowledge is a fundamental Higher Ed goal. Ever since Socrates peppered people with questions instead of just wowing them with his wisdom, we’ve been aware of the importance of being actively engaged in our own learning.
A well-placed question can move us from a passive state of listening to an active state of thinking. Instructors spend a tremendous amount of time trying to develop “good” questions to engage the curiosity of their students and to help students develop their own lines of inquiry to delve more deeply into learning.
Thinking in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, questions may be designed to help with the recall, understanding, application of facts, or analyze or evaluate concepts, or even create something new. The question should match the goal.
When giving a lecture in person, instructors seldom talk for an hour straight. Most likely they are raising their voice to emphasize an important point, telling a joke to reengage the students, and asking and responding to questions.
When presenting information online, those same techniques are still important. Although the loss of spontaneity may seem to be an insurmountable barrier, online tools like discussion threads, announcements, written annotations, audio and video feedback on assignments, and techniques like designing short lecture segments with focusing questions at the beginning and end of the lectures can change a static online course into a dynamic learning environment.
Without an instructor physically present, well-designed questions help guide students through the online content and help them delve deeper into the content. Content in an online environment is available for review and for more introspective analysis than a classroom lecture. By asking good questions, instructors are modeling this important skill for students. The anytime, anywhere online environment gives students more autonomy about when and where to focus their attention and time, but they need assistance in creating their own lines of inquiry most effectively.
A pitfall of the sudden move to remote learning was that, in the haste of the moment, not all the established best practices of online learning were able to be employed. The quickly generated remote classrooms, by necessity, focused primarily on delivering content rather than instructional interactions. Many classroom activities and opportunities for formal or informal interactions were lost in translation to a new delivery medium.
Experienced online instructors give an immense amount of attention to designing a course that facilitates interactivity. A course designed intentionally to promote student opportunities to actively engage in constructing their own knowledge takes a tremendous amount of time to develop even in a face-to-face setting. It takes even more time and effort when teaching at a distance.
Asking questions is one important tool to promote interactivity in a remote/online class. Discussion threads can be a useful forum for posing questions, encouraging student-to-student interactions, and providing feedback. Discussions can be powerful learning exercises but if poorly done can also turn into busy work just to show attendance. Online instructors quickly realize that they haven’t asked a higher-level, open-ended question that will help stimulate thinking when the discussion thread dissolves into “I agree” type answers.
Learners need to see the relevance of a topic to be interested participants in a discussion. Does the question clearly relate to the lecture or readings? Does it guide students into a thoughtful analysis of the content given to them?
It’s often helpful to break students down into smaller groups to hold discussions. If the class is synchronous, it may be a good idea to set up “breakout groups” where students have more opportunities to talk. Student working groups can be consistent throughout the semester to promote connections between the students or regularly changed to promote diverse engagement.
Questions can also be an important element of comprehending a lecture or reading. When recording a lecture, break it into smaller, consumable sections. After each section, give the students something to do that reinforces the most important points, just as you would in a physical classroom. The questions may range from simple recall (to emphasize content that should be memorized) to process and reflective questions that may help guide more in-depth thinking. These questions in the form of a short quiz, discussion, or exercise will focus attention and reinforce learning. Automatically graded “quizzes” are easily set up in the learning management system. These may or may not be recorded grades and are used to help students identify gaps in their understanding. Giving students a question to think about before and after introducing a new topic helps them realize what they don’t know and why the new information is relevant.
Part of the importance of asking questions is to model for students how to ask good questions about what they are learning. Students need help in developing their own lines of inquiry. Inquiry-based learning encourages the development of student skills in understanding what needs to be learned, how to ask good questions, and how to be able to conceptualize learning in a way that may be shared. Inquiry-Based Learning from Queens University is a good resource for exploring this instructional strategy.