How can you ask and structure questions?

For the last four years or so I’ve tried to integrate exercises for asking questions in my courses. (Here is a blog post on my first attempt.) To my great surprise, students in my faculty now kindly selected my musings and instructions about questions as a “best practice in teaching and learning”, and my faculty nominated me for the pertinent award given by our university.

In what follows, I post a promotional video featuring one of my students* and myself as well as the text that I wrote for the award jury.

Structured Questions

If you ask students whether they have questions about any given text, you’re often met with embarrassed silence. It’s hard to admit that you’re confused. Although asking questions is a crucial activity, how to do this is hardly ever explained. By teaching to structure and analyse questions, I attempt to achieve five things:

  1. Countering embarrassment by suggesting that genuine questions require confusion;
  2. Showing how confusion generates the motivation of a question by having students spell out what (passage) precisely causes confusion;
  3. Showing that confusion is often the result of (frustrated) expectations as a reader;
  4. Detailing how to analyse such expectations as hidden theoretical assumptions;
  5. Having students estimate what possible answers might look like, e.g. by estimating how assumptions in the text differ from one’s own assumptions. 

While stimulating active learning, most steps can be achieved without requiring new information, but rather by developing an understanding of how one’s confusion arises. Accordingly, students are encouraged to enter into a dialogue with their own hidden assumptions and with others, for instance, by articulating how their background assumptions might differ. It is designed to stimulate self-directed learning and exchange as well as benefitting from seeing diversity in assumptions.

The technique of structured questions is an active learning device and was positively evaluated by students at my Faculty. I designed it to foster self-directed learning and interaction with texts and interlocutors. Being geared towards texts and discussions generally, it should be easily transferable to other disciplines. Here is some more information about it:

Questions are an ubiquitous genre in academic exchange. In the analysis of old philosophical texts, questions are a crucial guide in approaching material and in entering a dialogue about it.  As an instructor, I’ve often been surprised by how hard students find it to formulate questions themselves, even if they are good at giving answers. Discussions with students made me realise that the reason is only partly psychological (i.e. owing to embarrassment). Even in philosophy, it is hardly taught how to articulate genuine questions and what (partly tacit) components questions consist of.

I often teach and write (on my blog) about reading and writing texts. So I designed a format for asking structured questions about texts to foster an understanding about one’s own confusions and actually benefit from confusions.

Ideally, the question focuses on a brief passage from the text. It must be no longer than 500 words and contain the following components:

– Topic: say what the question is about (the passage or concepts that cause confusion);
– Question: state the actual question;
– Motivation: give a brief explanation why the question arises (use your assumptions or frustrated expectations);
– Answer: provide a brief anticipation of at least one possible answer (e.g. by guessing at the implicit assumptions in the text and how they might differ from yours).

What did I want to teach in designing this? My initial goal was to offer a way of engaging with all kinds of difficult texts. When doing so I assumed that understanding (a text) can be a general aim of asking questions. I often think of questions as a means of making contact with the text or interlocutor. For a genuine question brings two aspects together: on the one hand, there is your question, on the other hand, there is that particular bit of the text that you don’t understand or would like to hear more about.

In order to enter into dialogue, readers or interlocutors need to learn to consider questions such as: Why exactly am I confused? Could it be that my own expectations about the text send me astray? What am I expecting? What is it that the text doesn’t give me? Arguably, readers need to understand their confusion to make genuine contact with the text. One’s own confusion needs to be understood. The good news is: this often can be achieved without acquiring new information. Instead, bringing together one’s own expectations or assumptions with those of the text (or those of other readers) initiates a meeting of minds.

I began to implement this technique in autumn 2019 with first-year students and have since then introduced it in all my courses. While it was designed with medieval philosophical texts in mind, I realised that it can be used in various contexts and indeed both for approaching texts and discussions. What I didn’t anticipate was that it also seems to help in contexts of blended learning. Last year, I received a number of mails from students thanking me for how this technique had helped them to engage in self-study and prepare for exchanges in online contexts. Since it is geared towards articulating one’s confusion about texts in general, it should be easily adaptable to other disciplines.


* I’m very grateful the students of our faculty and in particular to Maddalena Fazzo Cusan who kindly agreed to speak on behalf of the faculty’s programme committee at the very last minute.

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