Tag Archives: problem-based learning

Ask, Don’t Tell: the power of questions

Scientists are not trained to ask questions.

No, excuse me — scientists are absolutely trained to ask questions. In the lab. In the lab we are rabid information ferrets, and we will run up every trouserleg that the great wardrobe in the sky sees fit to provide.

Scientists who become lecturers are not trained to ask questions — at least, not questions of the classroom variety (remember, we’re preoccupied with being subject matter experts). We are trained to talk. And talk. Seriously, if you like to pontificate, you could do worse than become a scientist. It’s like our national sport or something.

And so, at the end of class, because we know we’re supposed to ask this, we ask any questions? and nobody says anything — instead, the entire class launches into a frenzied scramble for their bags and coats. Because “any questions?” is about the worst thing you could possibly ask, and my students know it, even if they don’t explicitly realise it.

And yet, in defiance of the mute, are-we-done-yet hordes, a small trickle of students invariably arrives afterwards to ask questions, or to share something interesting and relevant from their lives. And sometimes, it feels like more teaching and more learning happens in those little conversations than in the whole of the lecture preceding them.

I experienced for myself, and am trying hard not to propagate, the cycle of abuse that is didactic, teacher-led education. “Sit down and shut up” is a powerful message to impose on children — and it’s clearly a sticky one, because by the time my students arrive at university, that’s their expectation of what should happen in class1. Ironically, when students don’t want to interact in class, it’s actually even harder not to ask things like “any questions?”, because we do it out of habit, and stressful situations are great for dredging up our most-ingrained routines.

“If you want to improve any element of your life, learn how to ask better questions.” (via Paul at Brain Friendly Trainer).

I’m a huge fan of asking questions: they’re the fast track to learning (a) how interesting the other person is [seriously: people are fascinating] and (b) all the stuff they know that you don’t. And pretty much everyone likes talking about themselves and their thoughts, so asking questions is good social grease, too.

Asking great questions is also a brilliant habit to build in the classroom. It’s a skill I’ve been quite slow to develop, but I’m getting into it. So here are a few ways that I’ve tried to bring more questions into my classes:

I already posted about how I turned a two-hour lecture into a two-hour problem-based learning session. This was great for two reasons: firstly, I asked the students a ton of questions, which normally isn’t something we make much time for in lectures. Second, and even more exciting, was that the students then started asking their own questions. In front of 60 other students. Seriously, if I do nothing else of value this academic year, I’d almost be okay just with that. (Well, not really. But you know.)

I added media clips to my lectures as an excuse to ask concept checking questions. I showed my students Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk about the subjective experience of having a stroke. Watch it if you haven’t already — not only does she bring great insights from her knowledge of the brain (she’s a neuroscientist), but she also gives the talk with great humour and humanity. And instead of giving students multiple-choice questions afterwards (Did the stroke attack (A) the left (B) the right or (C) both hemispheres of Jill Bolte Taylor’s brain?), I asked much harder questions: What are the physical and emotional consequences of a left-hemispheric stroke? How do you see objects that appear in your left visual field? Outline the path taken by information through your brain. And so on. (I let them talk through it with a partner first, before I threw it open to the class. Small steps.)

For reasons outlined here, I changed the format of student presentations to Pecha Kucha (which I must write about soon, because it completely deserves its own post). And we went from from “mostly the student talking” to “the student talks for a while and then everyone pitches in with questions and discussion” — which, for the record, is a way better experience. For everyone. (I collected questionnaire data that says so, too.) Nothing makes a class interactive faster than getting students interested enough in the subject to ask each other questions.

I stopped telling and started asking. This wasn’t a class-specific intervention, just something I’ve consciously started trying to do over the last couple of years every time students get stuck: I answer their questions with questions of my own. It seems especially useful when working with very reticent students, but it’s also a handy tool when guiding students who are struggling to express their thoughts on paper: how do you know that? What evidence do you have? Why is that relevant?

What have I learned? Asking questions works. I’ve had really positive feedback from students about these sessions, and I know in my heart that I’m asking better questions and getting students to think more actively about the problems I’m setting. I’ve also learned that if your concentration lapses, even for a moment, it’s really hard not to reflexively ask “any questions?”, so deeply ingrained is the concept. (I guess the only solution to that is more practice.)

Yes, these activities are all things I should have been doing to begin with — but remember that didactic, scientific background, and show me a little mercy; breaking the cycle of abuse can take a while.

And now I want to add a whole session on “asking questions” to the teaching certificate.

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Edit, one day after posting: One other thing that I learned, just today, is that sometimes it’s okay to ask if there are any [further] questions, if everyone is good and warmed up, and you have time to spare. Because they were, and we did – and students came up with some great questions. Stuff I had no idea about, but about which it was fun to speculate. But I think people really have to be in that headspace and comfortable with the idea of asking questions in class before this will work.

1 Okay, some of students’ reticence in class is also driven by not wanting to look like an idiot in front of their peers, in case the question is “a stupid one” … one day I might turn up at class wearing a t-shirt that says THERE ARE NO STUPID QUESTIONS — ONLY STUPID LECTURERS, but you just know that’s going to backfire in ways that are both immensely embarrassing and completely predictable.

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Everything is upside-down: turning lectures into homework with problem-based learning

The other day, I stumbled (via Tony Baldasaro) on this gem:

How much more could happen in our classrooms if we created more opportunities for students to learn basic skills and content outside of class? … Class, rather than being a time when all kids sat and received instruction, could be the time when they reinforce skills by doing problem sets, worked on real-world application projects, collaborated with teachers to reinforce concepts, etc…

The post is called Inversions; go read it, it’s only short.

This is such a wonderful, simple idea. And of course, many good instructors and educators are already doing just that — as Chris Lehmann points out, this is essentially what happens in English class when kids read a book as homework, then discuss it during class time. Students use out-of-class time to acquire content, freeing up class time for process. Because processing, doing, is how we learn, and students can get instant feedback from the instructor. Dialogue happens; moreover, students have the opportunity to learn vicariously from other students’ participation.

But this isn’t happening enough in universities, for reasons I have written about before. Big classes and a student body working to pay university fees — or to be able to afford food — mean that often, lectures become an info-dump, because you can’t guarantee that the majority of students have done the reading — and in my view, good teaching takes up from where the student is, not where they should be.

And I do get tired of the sound of my own voice in a two-hour lecture. Oh, I can teach for two hours; this post isn’t coming from a place of laziness. On some level I am probably even a bit of a show-off, or I probably wouldn’t enjoy teaching as much as I do. But, you know, no matter how enthusiastic I am, just talking for two hours is going to lose even the keenest student for periods of time, as their attention ebbs and flows. Estimates of attention span vary wildly, and a big chunk of that is about whether you are in flow.

Passive listening probably does not encourage flow in our students.

Attention span also varies as a function of ability, which is one reason why it’s so important to teach in a way that reaches everyone. And it’s unreasonable, I think, to expect anyone’s attention to last for a two-hour lecture, which is why so many of my colleagues are currently trying to think of ways to break up the time a bit. (The university schedules two-hour lectures in the way that many people schedule one-hour meetings: it seems to be a convenient and universally-understood unit of time, but may not be exactly what is needed.)

So how about we approach this problem from the other direction: make the classroom about practice, and perhaps we can nurture people’s curiosity in the topic and encourage them to pursue the more detailed background content afterwards?

Obviously this strategy is not without risk. Techniques like problem-based learning (PBL) have been found to improve students’ engagement and critical thinking skills, and students who have used PBL seem to hold their own against students educated more traditionally. But I have heard many concerns expressed that PBL can lead to patchy subject knowledge, though I am having trouble digging up much in the way of evidence for that (if you can help me out here, please leave a comment!). Wikipedia has a nice section on the cognitive load issues around problem-based learning; the key thing seems to be to start gently and gradually withdraw support, with the instructor increasingly becoming more of a facilitator.

I wouldn’t necessarily have tried this with first-year students, who perhaps haven’t acquired enough basic subject knowledge. But final-year students have been up to their elbows in the subject for long enough that I figured I could probably meet them halfway.

So, I rewrote my lecture.

In fact, my slides didn’t actually need a great deal of reworking, though I took some more of the text off them. I made lots of duplicate slides: the first with an image, and a question or two; the second, with simple labels. It was a pretty basic format: here’s some stuff — now figure out what you’re looking at.

PBL hippocampus question.png

And then, when they’d had a few minutes, in small groups, to try and work out what was going on, I’d ask for suggestions, and we’d talk a bit about those, and then I’d show them the second slide:

PBL hippocampus answer.png

… and we’d talk about that for a short while. I started off with some basics, and then we got into more and more complex stuff. Occasionally I would remind them, “start with what you already know.” Students had a worksheet that duplicated the images and questions, so they didn’t waste time and attention copying things down, and could concentrate on the what and why.

We did this for two hours (with a break), in a warm lecture theatre, in the afternoon, and nobody fell asleep. Students asked questions, made guesses. It was genuinely interactive.

In many ways, I was lucky. This lecture was all about the visuals: pictures of brains with stuff wrong with them. Had I been discussing highly abstract and theoretical concepts, it may not have worked well. Further, the lecture theatre was pretty much exactly right for the size of class: small, with about 60 seats and an aisle up the middle. I could, and did, reach all the groups; had we been in the 450-seat lecture theatre with people sprinkled everywhere, much of that class dynamic and atmosphere would have been lost.

Of course, not everything went brilliantly. There was a little too much content, and what I should have done was set the remainder as homework, rather than trying to cram it all in. I lost one group at the break, though this isn’t uncommon and you never really know why they’ve left; often it may be nothing to do with you and everything to do with their personal circumstances, and I never like to ask, in case it really is the latter and they are mortified that you’ve brought it up, or noticed their absence.

I won’t really be able to gauge the success of the session until the exam results, and student module evaluations, are in. But overall, it felt right. It felt like a good way to teach, and I really, really hope it inspired students to tackle the background reading. The explicit feedback I have had from students so far has been pretty positive, and a colleague who sat in on the session to observe seemed to really enjoy it, and said some very nice things. All of which gives me a little more faith in my own experience and enjoyment of the session.

Next stop: trying this again, with a bigger class. Anyone want to play along?

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