Tag Archives: agency

Asking questions to create opportunities for conversation and learning

I was chatting with one of my colleagues the other day about challenges he’s been experiencing recently in some of his one-shot information literacy classes. He regularly makes time in class for students to work on their own research and to consult with them individually. Yet he described difficulty engaging students in one-on-one conversation about their progress. He described how he typically circulates the room, asking students “How’s it going?” hoping they might share their progress or pose a problem which would provide him a point of entry into conversation or an opportunity to advise the student. Instead, he said, students typically reply “I’m doing fine” or “I’m good.” Hopefully, such responses mean students really are progressing in their research, successfully applying the concepts from the session to their own work. Yet their polite reply to my colleague’s opening line shuts him out of even the possibility of conversation.

I knew exactly what my colleague meant. I’ve felt frustrated by the same scenario, too. I have often asked the same question and often gotten the same reply, essentially “no thanks.” My colleague wondered how he might create space for conversation without uncomfortably forcing the issue. While some students might indeed really be doing fine and not need assistance with research, plenty do. And even if their research is progressing well, that doesn’t mean a conversation about their work couldn’t be useful. I shared with my colleague some of the ways I’ve tried to open conversation with students during this kind of working time. Essentially, I’ve stopped asking “How are you doing?” and instead ask “What are you working on?,” “What topic or question are you researching?,” or “What have you been trying so far?” This slight variation has helped me open the door to conversation with even reticent students.

I’ve seen a variety of both cognitive and affective advantages via this small, but significant, shift. This type of question gives students fewer outs. It doesn’t require students to make a judgment of their progress (or lack thereof), either. Instead, it’s a low-stakes, low-judgment question that just asks them to account for what they’re doing so far. And once they’ve articulated what they’re doing, I can ask follow-up questions that help them probe their own steps and thinking and even identify problems or opportunities on their own. The conversation serves as a kind of formative assessment, too, helping me check in with students about their level of understanding and application of the concepts, practices, and tools we’ve been focusing on in class. I can then meet them where they are, clarifying or redirecting where needed or helping them advance further when appropriate.

This exchange with my colleague prompted me to reflect on my questioning practices in other ways and settings. I recognized this same shift across my pedagogy, in fact. Where I used to tell, I see that I now ask. Instead of first telling students how to construct a search or pick a source, for example, I instead start by asking how they would approach a search or select a source: “What steps would you take?,” “What choices would you make?,” and most importantly “Why?” When I meet with students in individual research consultations, I don’t just ask “What are you working on?,” but also “What are you hoping to accomplish in our meeting today?” These questions again help me meet students where they are and then scaffold instruction to help them develop progressively. Significantly, they also help give students a chance to construct their own learning, puzzle over their intentions and rationales, and make meaning for themselves. These questions help us (students and myself alike) recognize students’ agency in their research.

Much like I’m trying to help students develop an attitude of inquiry for their own research and learning, these questions help me cultivate my own attitude of inquiry for teaching. I don’t want to ask only the kind of questions that require students to parrot rote, meaningless responses at me. I want to foster meaningful and impactful learning moments where students construct their understanding and develop frameworks for their future use. These questions help me learn from and listen to my students.