How To Ask Questions That Help Your Teacher Teach Better

Study Tip #10

Outline on asking useful questions
1. Good questions help teachers.
2. Ask about the learning goals.
    a. To recognize or recall or apply the new knowledge
    b. To learn skills vs. knowledge
    c. To transfer the learning to new examples
3. Ask for a wide range of positive examples.
4. Ask for negative examples.
5. Ask for charts of concepts.
6. Ask for the big ideas.
7. About skills: ask for demonstrations.
    a. Ask what the goal is for each step.
    b. Ask what stimuli signal what to do for each step.
    c. Ask what the right actions are for each step.

1. Good questions help teachers.

You have probably noticed that you can learn more easily from some teachers than others. One of the things that influences your learning is several specific kinds of information that a teacher can give you or leave out. If you are alert, you can ask for useful information and help everybody. Here are some suggestions.

2. Ask about the learning goals.

When you read textbooks and listen to lectures and participate in class discussions and labs and do homework, you face a problem. There are too many possible things you can focus on: esthetic patterns, facts, definitions, theories, values, problem-solving skills, tasks of generalizing knowledge and skills to new examples, and lots lots more. If you know the teachers' goals for you, you can focus your studying better. You can study what's important.

A cheap way of knowing goals is by knowing what's on the test. You'll know how to study. A better way is to raise your hand and ask in a friendly way, "I see there are several different types of knowledge here. What is the most important for us to focus on?"

2-a. Ask whether the goals are recognition or recall or the application of knowledge.

Recognition means knowing something, then seeing some things that are examples of it and others that aren't and being able to recognize which are really examples. Many multiple choice and true-false tests contain recognition questions. (True or false: The capital city of California is Sacramento.)

Recall means getting a question and pulling the answer out of memory. (Can you recall the name of the capital city of Oregon?)

Application means taking information and using it to solve problems or deal with new examples. (Use the fact that 2 + 2 = 4 and tell me how many bags of pine cones I will have if I pick two bags and buy your two bags.)

You will find that teachers differ a lot in what kind of memory for knowledge they want you to have. You can often figure it out by seeing examples of past test questions.

2-b. Ask about what kinds of skills you will be expected to develop.

A skill is the ability to use knowledge and perceptions to do a task. Since the average teacher is more aware of teaching knowledge than skill, you can be very helpful by asking what skills are goals. Suppose a teacher uses comparison and contrast questions on essay exams ("Compare Wordsworth's theory of poetry to the theory of A. R. Ammons'). Students with good knowledge could have weak skills in writing comparison and contrast essays. If they know in advance that they should develop that skill, they can study some models, practice, get feedback and grow in skill. So it helps to ask what skills will be asked for.

2-c. Ask if a goal is to transfer knowledge to new examples.

When you learn knowledge and skill, you will have to use it on new examples you didn't study with. Sometimes it's easy. For example, you may learn to type on one keyboard and use your skill later on a different keyboard, but it is very similar. Sometimes transfer is hard. For example, you might learn to recognize a vine maple leaf in biology lab, but you might need your knowledge later outdoors looking at smaller leaves when you are confused by several similar possibilities. When you know that the teacher's goal is for you to be able to transfer your knowledge to new examples under confusing conditions, your study strategy will be to study a lot of examples. So ask about the goal of transfer. Also ask how the ability to transfer will be tested.

3. Ask for a wide range of positive examples.

Most teachers these days know they can help by giving examples. But many still just give one or two examples and move on. That causes students a problem because they need to know the full range of examples of a concept. They need to know the far out examples. For example, when you learn about mammals, you need to know that whales, who look like fish, are really mammals. When you learn about acceleration in physics you need to know what the acceleration is just as you throw a ball into the air, what it is at the peak of the ball's flight, and what it is when it falls.

You can help your teacher by asking what the wide range of examples is. Ask for unusual positive examples, examples that students might not realize were examples of the concept.

4. Ask for negative examples.

It is rarer for teachers to consciously teach students what things look like good examples but really are not. A teacher could help teach mammals by teaching the negative example of penguins. In teaching the color mauve, a teacher could show examples of mauve first and then show negative examples, things that are not mauve, like lavender and fuchsia. A teacher could teach positive examples of rhymes (the end of words sound alike, pill and quill) and negative examples where the front of words sound alike, "nattering nabobs of negativism" (that's really alliteration).

;A good way to ask about negative examples is to ask, "What things do beginners commonly get confused with the concept?" Ask for specific concrete examples, not for more concepts. If your teacher will answer honestly, you'll innocently steal a number of multiple choice questions.

5. Ask for charts of concepts.

Many teachers must teach sets of concepts. Some are general, some more specific. Think of the biological charts of species that you've seen. Some teachers just teach them in sequence. It is very very helpful to see how they are related, which are the general ones, what families they fall into. Ask your teacher to draw a rough chart or diagram relating the ideas and concepts together.

6. Ask for the big ideas in the current topic.

In many fields a few principles unite many small facts and principles. When students know these big ideas and when they relate the many specific facts to the big ideas, they can learn many times faster. For example, in Sociology many different topics are examples of the principle that "if certain people belong to a group, they learn that group's culture and tend to act consistently with it." It applies to small groups and big organizations, to race and class and gender, to institutions, social change and more.

Ask your teacher what big ideas to look for as you read. After a section of a lecture, ask if there is a unifying idea that summarizes a lot.

7. About skills: Ask for demonstrations.

Many teachers give incomplete teaching of skills. They merely tell you what to do as if the procedure were only a series of abstract steps. "Do this, then do that, finally do that." That leaves out telling you the goal of each step and what stimuli will signal that you should do that step. That also stops students from seeing the richness that comes from watching demonstrations.

As a student, you can help correct that by asking the teacher to demonstrate doing the skill on real examples. Math teachers do it all the time by working problems on the blackboard. Other teachers should do it, too. You can also ask for and study written examples of doing skills, i.e. sample problems in math. Or suppose the teacher has assigned a paper. Ask if a few good examples of that kind of essay can be put on reserve in the library. Ask the teacher to mark the traits that make these good papers.

Every step in doing a skill has three parts: Thinking of the current goal, knowing the current situation, and choosing the right action. So ask the teacher to make comments while he or she demonstrates working through the problem naming goals, situations and actions. Ask questions like: What do I want to do now (goal)? What is it about this stage that I should look for that tells me what to do (stimulus or situation)? When I want X and see Y, what is the right thing to do (action)?