Many pedagogical texts point out the importance of listening to our students. They tell us that we should not make assumptions about their interests or their views, but rather let them tell us what excites them or confuses them. We should answer their questions rather than try to stuff knowledge into them. One problem, however, particularly with students who are new to college, is that they don’t know what questions to ask.
It is a tautological truism that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” The corollary is that we, and our students, often don’t know the questions to ask to find out what we don’t know.
There are many aspects of college discourse which are new for students in freshmen or introductory classes. Many of the things that we do are mysterious. Other things should be mysterious but sometimes pass without notice if we don’t draw attention to them. For example, in one of my classes I was reviewing ways that you could identify the point in a paper when you started to summarize the plot rather than analyze the work. To emphasize my point, I said, “I know what happened in the play. You don’t need to tell me.” A student finally raised her hand and said, “So you don’t want a one paragraph synopsis of the plot?” Her experience had led her to believe that all English papers required a synopsis so that the teacher would know that you had understood (and read) the underlying text. Instead, I started with the assumption that the students had comprehended the text and that what they were supposed to demonstrate was the next step in the analytical process. I had not explicitly told them not to include a synopsis, however, so they made assumptions based on their prior experience. Discussing the requirements for the assignment led to one student recognizing that there was a disjunction between her expectations and mine. She could then ask a useful question to clarify.
What does this mean for us as instructors working with students at this stage in their career? We need to do more than ask questions of our students. We need to do more than employ pedagogical silence to allow the students to answer instead of answering our own questions in our impatience. We need to help them ask questions and either provide answers or help them find ways to answer their own questions. Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do, suggests that “the natural critical learning environment leaves students with a question” (103). The question that they’re left with is not a single specific question, but rather the open-ended sort of question that leads to further development. Questions like “What’s next,” “What else don’t we know,” “How else can we think about this,” represent the next stage for the students in their critical thinking. Getting them to the point where they not only can ask these questions is important. Helping them expect that there will be something more to explore after the answer has been given is crucial to their development. While there may be “correct” answers or “better” answers, college courses, particularly in the humanities but in other disciplines as well, cannot stop when one answer has been found. The first answer will usually be the foundation for further questions.
We as instructors can help our students to learn to do this if we listen for the places where there should be a question and draw our students’ attention to those spots if they don’t notice them.
Claudia Ross is a PhD candidate and GTA who researches Early Modern Literature and is currently teaching ENG 2200 (Shakespeare).