The art of asking good questions

Prof. Pettigrew explains his “no… yes… ummm?” method

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Photo by vancouverfilmschool on Flickr

Photo by vancouverfilmschool on Flickr

This week my Detective Fiction class was looking at Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, a novel about a Miami forensics analyst who is secretly a serial killer, but who only targets other killers (and yes, the inspiration for the Dexter TV show).

Trying to get my class to think through the complex moral questions that the novel raises, I asked them, “To appreciate this novel, you have to support capital punishment, don’t you?”

One of my best students jumped right in. “No” she said firmly, then instantly changed her mind: “Yes.” Then reconsidered again: “Ummm…”

And I knew I had asked the perfect question.

Since the time of Socrates, educators have known that asking good questions is among the most effective teaching techniques. Explanations can be misunderstood, and are all too often forgotten. But get someone to really think about a critical question and she becomes engaged, more likely to gain a profound understanding of the issue, and more likely to remember it for a long time.

And yet, ask any professor and he’ll tell you that asking great questions is a lot harder than it sounds. A good question has to detonate on the border between what the student knows (or thinks she knows) and what the student had never thought to ask. If the question is too difficult, or complicated, or specific, or abstract, the student responds only with a blank stare because she has no idea what you’re looking for. “What, for Milton,” I asked my first-year lit class, “is the ultimate source of authority in the universe?” Answer I was looking for: God. Answer I got: what the hell are you talking about?

Some professors pose a question and then wait for an answer no matter how long it takes. Eventually someone in the room can’t stand the silence any more and says something. I don’t know if this counts as inhuman treatment under the Geneva Convention, but I don’t like it as a teaching strategy. In my classes, if the question doesn’t provoke a reasonably quick response, I ask a follow-up, or I ask it in a different way until something sparks.

ME:  What does it mean for Dexter to liken his sister to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple?

THEM: [No response.]

ME: Well, on the face of it, they are entirely different. Miss Marple is an elderly, retired schoolteacher. Deborah is a young police officer…

THEM: [No response]

ME: But what do they have in common?

THEM: They both solve crimes?

ME: And what else?

THEM: They’re women?

ME: Right, and…

THEM: Well they are both female detectives in a genre and a world mainly dominated by men.

Take that, Socrates!

The danger in asking questions is that not hearing an answer is depressing and getting one is encouraging. So there is always a temptation to ask really easy questions just to be sure you get an answer. And that’s okay, especially if it greases the wheels and prepares the class for more challenging questions.

But if the questions are to be worth the time spent on them, you have to get to the challenging ones eventually. When you do and you get the question just right, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing and hearing a student think about something they haven’t thought about before.

And then rethink it. And rethink it again.

“No—yes—ummm…” That’s my new motto.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.