Friday, January 04, 2008

"A question-friendly environment"

In my syllabi, I tend to write something about the course being a question-friendly environment. In the upper-level seminars, I explain that, indeed, the purpose of the class is to raise and work through questions.

My classes start next week, and I am teaching fourth-year Theory. Some of you will remember how absolutely fantastic my theory class was last year; all of my (exclusively upper-level) courses were fantastic. They took seriously that question-oriented approach, and I had incredibly high participation rates - all these students musing productively. That had to do with the institution and the cohort of students, though. The raw materials aren't as stellar at Scary City U, if you know what I mean.

So I'm worried about how to create/foster an environment where students aren't afraid to put themselves on the line by raising questions about the texts we're reading. I want them to be able to recognize that some of the material we're reading is difficult, and that means our stance will be a questioning one. Part of this is as simple as having the students feel comfortable identifying passages they just don't understand, or that they find contradictory, etc. This is the way they're going to learn - I can't explain the things they don't understand if I don't know what those things are. There is the added pressure of the fact that there will be a few grad students - including at least one PhD student - in the class. As people noted in their comments to my query about this, grad students can intimidate undergrad students into silence. This would be a very, very bad thing with this material.

So I'm wondering if people have thoughts or experiences they can share, about how they have made their classrooms "question-friendly," so that the students feel comfortable taking the lead in processing the material through close readings and queries of it.

8 comments:

squadratomagico said...

One thing I've found helpful in my smaller classes is to set up a listserve for the class and require a certain amount of posting to it. The students feel better about bringing up questions and problems when they have leisure time to write out their thoughts and edit them before posting. All the other students read one another's thoughts, and can realize that their peers also have questions, that they are not the only ones who haven't mastered every detail of the material. Beginning the conversation online helps them feel less intimidated in the classroom, because they have a sense of what their peers are thinking already. And finally, you can refer to the listserve in class: I often begin a class by bringing up a specific point raised on-list.

Of course, it only works in smaller groups.

Dr. Crazy said...

Similar to the listserv idea, but more low tech and potentially more effective depending on student population is to require students to come to each class meeting with 3 questions or discussion items about that day's reading. I generally tell them that they should put these on an index card so I can collect them at the end of each class period, and as we finish off with a text or unit, I'll type up a selection of the questions that we didn't get to and we'll wrap up by discussing them. Also, this means that if discussion lags I feel comfortable calling on people for one of their questions or discussion topics. This also works fairly well even if the class isn't tiny.

Maggie said...

I do essentially what Dr Crazy does. I call them "thoughtful questions" and require students to write at least 1 per class based on the reading.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

I like the wording -- "question-friendly environment."

I also ask students to come to class with discussion questions for the class as a whole, or with particular questions that they want answered (I see these as being slightly different). Then I ask students to share their questions with a small group (3-4) and choose one that they are particularly interested in. Each group puts its questions on the white board and then the members of the class participate in what I call a "gallery walk." They walk around, read the questions, and write around them. Sometimes I have them just put their initials next to the two questions they want to discuss; other times I have them write extensions of the questions. We definitely use their questions as the backbone of our discussion. I always find that if there is something I really want to make clear about the reading, I can do that in the context of our class discussion.

Hilaire said...

Yeah, I'd thought of the requirement of bringing in questions - I remember having to do that in my favourite undergard course, and I know of others who do it now. Can some of you who have done that share with me how you evaluate/weight these? I could conceivably replace "critical responses" with questions...I think I can't assign both...

S, I've been intrigued by the idea of listserves or similar things. I don't think I have time to get my head around what for me is an entirely new concept (given that the course starts in 4 days), but I might love to look at your language around this, for possible future classes!

Dr. Bad Ass said...

I've done this several different ways over the years. I usually require that students prepare some kind of writing based on their reading. I've done double-entry journals, summaries, etc. My most recent foray is what I call a reading response -- I have four categories of information they have to provide based on the reading, one of which is couple of discussion questions. This work, over the semester is worth anywhere from 5-10% of the course grade, depending on the course. I don't always collect them (cause really, who wants to grade all that), but I collect about 3/4 them at random and then grade them on a scale of 1-4 (easy!).
That's probably more information than you wanted . . .

Andrea said...

I havn't done the written question approach but I have a friend who does and she uses it as her participation grade. The questions total 10% of the final grade and if you are not in class, your questions cannot be handed in. (This is also how she encourages attendance without being an attendance Nazi) I wanted to add, that I find it's important to repeat multiple times what you want from the class atmosphere. We often think because we know we mean it that saying it once will be enough but if it is a new approach to the students (meaning their other teachers don't do this) once is not enough. For me, I encourage them to give wrong answers. They are learning a new skill in my film analyis class but if they don't try and fail in class, then they are going to try and fail at home when there is a grade on the line not just personal humiliation. I say this probably 7-10 times during the course (especially at the beginning)and in our one on one sessions the students reference it now where as they didn't when I only said it once or twice.

Hilaire said...

Andrea, *such* a helpful reminder. Thank you - you're so right.

And Dr. Bad Ass, I like your idea of "4 categories of information" - cool! I have been a faithful user of the critical reading response, which I always tend to weight at 5%, and require about 8 over the term. That's what I had for this course initially, but after this comments discussion, I'm taking it out and replacing it with "one question per reading", which will total 15% over the entire course. And adding an extra short essay assignment to compensate for the other big chunk of the 40% that was represented by the critical responses.

Thanks, all!