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Using Shared Questions and Expert-like Activities to Promote Student Engagement

As with most things pedagogical, my teaching takes many cues from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas. For me, at the heart of Bean’s book are two foundational concepts:

  1. Students are engaged by ideas—and those ideas are the same questions and concepts that you (the scholar-teacher teaching those students) are engaged by. Following from this insight, coursework is focused on open-ended questions and problems that teacher and student share.
  2. Students are engaged by activity—and those activities are the same cognitive and physical actions that scholar-teachers enact in their own disciplinary work. Following from this insight, coursework involves using disciplinary modes of thinking and making to explore these questions/problems.

Underlying both of these, of course, is the idea that engaged students are students who learn.

Every once in a while, I need to remind myself of these two concepts as I’m planning lessons and assignments. The reminder goes something like this:

  1. For this topic, what are the aspects of the topic I have questions about, that I am confused about, that I don’t know what to do with, or that I am really just enticed by?
  2. Given my PhD training, experience writing papers and articles (not to mention a dissertation), experience conducting research, etc., how would I go about approaching these questions? How do I break down those strategies or processes of thinking, researching, and argumentation into activities that students and I can do together to explore these questions, activities that will also give students opportunities to practice critical thinking, research, and argumentation?

On a practical level, answering the first question often leads me to check the questions I’m asking in class. If I know the answer to the question, I need to reframe the question into something I don’t have an answer for, or I need to develop a different question. This, I think, is a good rule of thumb; students can tell when a teacher has an answer they want the students to get to—and they see right through it.

Answering the second question requires a bit of reflection, since part of the fact of becoming an expert (via graduate school, etc.) is in automating many of the strategies and practices the expert uses in solving problems. Turning those strategies and practices into activities useful for teaching students also involves breaking down steps clearly and, especially, thinking about what you want students to do or make. Here, Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy is a helpful guide: do you want students to analyze, evaluate, create?

To get a brief look at what this looks like in practice, this past week, the students in my upper-level postmodern literature and culture class began reading Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy, a novel that challenges novelistic conventions at every turn. (As one example, the first half of the book is presented as one long, unbroken paragraph.) For our first class discussing the novel, I wanted to first get ourselves situated with what’s going on with the characters and plot. But, following Bean’s insights, I also wanted to get to activities a bit higher up on Bloom’s taxonomy, activities based in questions or challenges I have with the book.

So I developed a brief activity that asked student groups to collaborate to close-read a knotty passage from the book—a passage that I myself had questions about. The activity was based on a disciplinary process of critical analysis and was open-ended in the sense that I didn’t have a particular answer in mind that students would somehow need to guess. Rather, we’d be working through the activity together, and through our discussion and collaboration we’d be constructing our knowledge about the passage (and about the novel more broadly) together.

Let me tell you, dear reader, once I gave the instructions for the activity and put students in groups, the classroom erupted with conversation and activity. When we came back together, student groups brought forward insights that often astonished me; moreover, the groups would often piggyback off each others’ ideas to push forward what we—as a community of learners, including me—understood about the passage. Engaging ideas, indeed!

(I think that using Bean’s concepts in constructing activities built around shared questions and that ask students to engage in expert-like thinking, researching, and argumentation has another benefit. Introducing these questions and activities at an expert-like level of complexity serves, I think, to short-circuit the ability of some students to use online and other study aids like Sparknotes in place of actually doing the necessary reading. Students doing so might have a sense of the plot and characters of a particular literary text, but would have a much tougher time, for example, making appropriate sense of the close-reading activity described above, or with doing activities that require synthesizing ideas or making complex arguments.)


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