Educators share how they inspire students to ask (and answer) more questions—and more types of questions—on their own.
According to Kim Rybacki, PhD, there is an increasing perception problem around the purpose of education in many colleges—particularly at community colleges like those in the SUNY system, where she teaches psychology.
“There is a sense that knowledge only has worth if it leads to a paycheck,” she says. “[But] I believe that learning changes who we are, not just what we know. I like to think that we are not simply preparing students for the real world, but also are challenging them to conceptualize and work towards a better world.”
Following this line of thinking, Rybacki began seeking new ways to motivate her students to ask more real-world questions and then search for answers with as much autonomy as possible—a process commonly referred to as inquiry-based learning.
“My basic challenge is to find a way in which psychology can provide tools for students to understand and contribute to the production of both the world and themselves,” she says.
Here, Rybacki and three other educators offer their insights into how to inspire students to ask—and answer—more questions on their own.
Organize the syllabus around big questions
While many syllabi are built around a set of foundational concepts, Rybacki recently decided to break that paradigm. “I have been redesigning my Intro to Psychology course around a set of ‘big questions,’” she says. These include: What is psychology? What is a person? How do we become who we are (becoming)? What can psychology tell us about our health? Can we trust psychology?
She then uses these questions to introduce basic terminology, theoretical frameworks, and empirical findings—all of which students use to formulate their own worldviews. “For example, when we discuss ‘What is a person?’ they learn some of the latest research in neuroscience, but they are also introduced to debates about consciousness and the mind/brain relationship.”
This approach has a side benefit: It gives Rybacki greater flexibility regarding when she introduces particular content, based on what organically happens in class. “This way, students learn to see knowledge as a work in progress,” she says, “and to see themselves as potential contributors to the process.”
Replace lecture with group work on more involved questions
Mathematics professor Mette Olufsen, PhD, has found an interesting way to get every student to participate in problem-solving in her hybrid Calculus for Life and Management Sciences course for nonmajors at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In face-to-face meetings, she spends 30 minutes or less on lecture, then requires every student to head to the board to work through a more involved problem than those covered in the homework. Rather than doing this solo, they work in groups of three or four, but everyone must participate. Olufsen notes that, in this approach, the educator’s job is to canvass the room, making sure everyone is engaged and helping get them unstuck, as needed.
“If students are more actively involved in learning, they develop ownership of the material, making it easier for them to learn additional new material or get a better understanding of how techniques and tools used can be translated to real-world problems,” says Olufsen.
Explore practical questions by researching popular media
Sometimes professors struggle to help students see the relevance of a particular course. This has been the case for Middle Tennessee State University professor Andrea Kelton, PhD, who teaches Accounting Systems, which is less focused on numbers and more on business process modeling, accounting cycle controls, and database design. “Often, students mistakenly believe that courses that are not entirely numbers-based are not relevant to the accounting profession,” she explains.
To change their minds, Kelton begins the semester by providing example articles from unexpected outlets, such as Good Housekeeping, Sports Illustrated, and Women’s Health. She then tasks each student with finding their own article outside of a journal, one that involves an accounting systems principle in a non-accounting setting, such as agriculture, entertainment, health care, politics, or sports. Students give a brief in-class presentation in which they summarize the main points of the article and discuss its relation to accounting principles.
For example, one student selected a Sports Illustrated article on the NFL draft. The story discussed the data that is collected on players (speed, height, weight, etc.) and by teams for the selection process. “The student highlighted the privacy implications of gathering personal data—and concluded with comments on the importance of data privacy in the accounting profession,” she says. “Researching their own article and also learning from their classmates generates enthusiasm,” she continues, “and it gets students excited about learning more.”
Ask pointed questions in evaluations—and take feedback to heart
By the end of the semester, Mike Trombley, PhD, wants students to have the confidence—and the honesty—to answer some really tough questions. These are not about the material in his Principles of Immunology course but about how well he helps students learn that material. To get them to really open up, Trombley has had to break with the traditional format used by Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he teaches. “[The school uses] a numerical system, and I didn’t find that to be helpful. Getting a rating of 4 out of 5—quantitative data—doesn’t tell you much,” he says. Instead, Trombley asks four pointed questions regarding the course material, his lecture style, the activities and assignments, and “any other thoughts or comments.” (For more details, see “How to Get (and Use) Candid Feedback in Course Evaluations.”)
Of course, he admits, some students will just use this as a chance to complain. When he suspects this, Trombley asks himself, “Is the student’s suggestion going to help me accomplish my learning objectives, or does their comment seem more motivated by self-interest?” If the former is true, he finds and implements a solution ASAP. For example, when students told him they were losing sight of the “big picture” due to a focus on “minute details,” he created a final project in which students get to apply what they have learned to a real-world issue.
“I [also] make a point to tell them the things that I have changed, so that they realize I’m not just having them do this for fun,” he adds. “I really do listen and value what they say. I think that makes them take ownership in the course. Students take pride in that.”