CSE590IT Notes from Oct. 9th, 2001

My notes focus on the question-asking exercise that Tammy had us perform this week. Tammy created a set of cue cards, each of which had a single question from an arbitrary (non-CS, usually) subject area. In the exercise, a student acted as the "instructor", asking the class if there were any questions. The instructor then called on one of the students in the class, and that student responded with the question from her cue card. The instructor's job was to (attempt to) use best practice answering the question.

I found the exercise to be an excellent opportunity for exploring the purely pedagogical (as opposed to "subject-area pedagogical" or purely subject-area specific) aspects of question-answering. The following is a list of the particular suggestions and admonitions that stemmed from my observation and participation in the exercise:

Teaching how to answer a question is valuable.
In other words, teach your students to fish!

"How do I get to Vancouver?": the instructor spent some time explaining how the student might find this information on the Web.

"When is the next eclipse?": the instructor might have mentioned that Almanacs generally list this sort of date-related information.

Help the student phrase the question in a literate fashion
It's important in a specialized discipline to understand how to ask questions effectively. What is the proper jargon? How do X scientists organize their thoughts? Etc.

"How do I get to Vancouver?": the instructor pointed out that there is more than one (reasonable) choice of meaning for "Vancouver" in this context and forced the student to clarify (and also explained why the confusion existed -- geographical proximity).

"When is the next exclipse?": the instructor forced the student to clarify what kind of eclipse the student was interested in. This is an example of a question that might differ quite a bit in an astronomy class (where the community would have a much better and finer-grained understanding of what an eclipse is).

Bring the rest of the class into the conversation
Watching an instructor and another student have a little "private" conversation is terribly unengaging. A good teacher will include the rest of the class in the response to a question, not only by repeating the question but by getting other students to help clarify the answer (and perhaps even the question!).

"When is the next eclipse?": the instructor asked the class what kind of eclipses we had learned about.

Embellish answers to increase their interest and pedagogical value
A student's question is an opportunity to clear up a single individual's immediate confusion, but it can also be an opportunity to reinforce many students' understanding of the knowledge surrounding the original question and to engage students in the subject of the question.

"Who was the first person to reach the South Pole?": the instructor not only gave the answer (Roald Amundsen?) but also mentioned excitedly that this same person was the first to reach the North Pole. This might pique students' interest in such an intrepid explorer.

Make the question as broad as possible
This is related to the point above. An instructor isn't held to answering the specific question that a student asks; instead, use your knowledge of the subject and of pedagogy to rephrase the question so that it subsumes the original question and maximizes the impact of the answer. Unfortunately, I found no examples of this, but a contrived one would be the question "Is n + 5 in O(n)?" The instructor could answer "Yes", but it might be more valuable to rephrase the question: "What do we do with lower order terms like the 5 in n + 5 when we perform an asymptotic analysis?"

Personalize the question
Anecdotes are powerful tools to engage a class. Moreover, personal stories humanize the instructor and help to establish a rapport between teacher and student.

"Why do you like the color green?": OK, it would be hard not to personalize this question. But let's say that the question had been about people's reaction to the color green in general. The instructor's response -- which was to mention that he was color-blind and describe how this affects his perception of the color green -- would still be appropriate as a lead-in and would engage the class.

Admonition: don't take a question "off-line" after engaging the class
Taking a question "off-line" (i.e., answering the student individually outside of class time) is a perfectly acceptable practice, but once you engage the class in the process of answering the question, you no longer have that option. You owe them the full Monty.

"Which is better, cable modems or DSL?": the instructor asked the class what their opinions were (by show of hands) and discussed the question but then cut off with "I'll discuss that with you off-line." This was unsatisfying to the rest of the class because it was our question too by that point. If you must put of the question at this point, do it in a way that involves everyone (e.g., leave it to the next class period or have us all write a one minute paper on our answer to the question).

Admonition: be sensitive to varying opinions
Even if most people would agree with a single answer, if it's possible to give more than one answer, leave those alternatives open as possibilities (or directly explore their merits).

"Was mathematics invented or discovered?": the instructor hilariously answered this with a curt "discovered." In a real classroom, however, leaving it at this would clearly be counterproductive; students who disagreed would feel disenfranchised, and students who agreed (or just had an overdeveloped sense of respect for the teacher) would no longer be open to alternative viewpoints.

"Who is the best basketball player of all time?": the answer was "Michael Jordan." Most people would probably agree with this right now, but it's certainly more pedagogically valuable to admit the alternatives.. and even to discuss why we might make one choice over another ("OK, we all agree it's Michael Jordan, but can anyone tell me why they think it's Jordan over players like Wilt Chamberlain or Magic Johnson?").

Steve Wolfman