The art of asking questions

Subject: Musicology. Course: Basic course in Music Studies. Study level: Bachelor. Class size: 25-50.

Motivation for the activity

The practical and educational challenge lies in explaining and teaching different types of question asking. Many students are not aware of the different ways to ask questions. It can be difficult to get the students to ask questions even if there is much they could/should ask about, for instance for clarification.

Central learning outcomes of the activity

That the students enhance their awareness of how important it is to ask questions of texts, lectures and other information. That the students are trained to ask questions with a specific starting point (e.g. a text) and a specific 'direction' (e.g. a target group).

The exercise is suitable for directing the students' attention towards one or more texts which have been part of their course preparation and may have been discussed in class. In other words: the students can and must always practice asking one or more questions of everything they read.

Description of the activity

The point of this exercise is that the students' attention is always directed towards their own 'level', not 'up' towards the teacher as an authority and person of knowledge. It must be possible for the students themselves to ask, understand and answer all the questions, and thus to maintain the focus within the students' own ranks as they are forced to exercise 'self-regulation' as both sender and receiver. No specific planning is required on the teacher’s part, except for the following.

The activity can be used to round off a review of one or more texts in a session, or to round off a short course with several sessions centered around one theme.

The lecturer plans his lecture with the exercise at the end. At the beginning of the lecture he can tell the students that there will be an exercise.

Before the exercise the lecturer briefly but carefully explains what the first part of the exercise is about. The students do not need to be told about the second round. The surprise effect can boost the energy in the lesson!

First round (2-4 min. + 2-4 min.)

Each student must formulate and write down one or two closed questions on the relevant text or theme – i.e., questions that a fellow student can answer with "yes" or "no." The timeframe is dependent upon whether the students are completely new to or a little further in their studies, possibly having tried the exercise before. The lecturer can - if necessary - provide a couple of examples:

"Is the name of a Danish Prime Minister mentioned in the texts?"

"Do you receive an explanation of why the financial crisis arose?"

The aim is not to ask the best and most relevant questions, but to get all of the students involved. Humorous suggestions are OK in this case.

Groups of four or five students are formed, and each individual student asks her or his questions, which are then immediately answered by the others in the group. The questions will invariably vary greatly in character: They will typically be easy to answer and often give rise to a little laughter in the group.

The lecturer does not draw conclusions from this round, apart from drawing attention to the fact that the questions should be understandable to - and also preferably answered by - the other members of the group.

Second round (4-6 min. + 10-15 min.)

Each of the groups is now tasked with formulating one or two open questions on the relevant text/theme, i.e. "What, why, where" questions. The lecturer can also provide a couple of examples here. The aim is to ask relevant questions, and it is very important that the questions can be unambiguously understood by the other students, who should be able to answer them. The groups MUST be able to answer the questions themselves!

The lecturer announces what will take place: a competition between the groups to find out who can correctly answer the most questions – the fastest! The lecturer acts as quiz master and moderates the process. All exchanges take place between the groups, not between the groups and the lecturer. The first group asks a question and the other groups compete to answer first. The group that gives the first correct/satisfactory answer wins the round. Then next group takes their turn and asks one of their questions.

Different “buzzer” sounds may be introduced to control the answers, and some kind of point system for the groups can also be used. A question that cannot be understood by the class counts negatively for the group that asked it, as does a question that they themselves cannot answer. If a group claims to have an answer but cannot answer, this will also count negatively. The element of competition in the exercise helps animate the class, while at the same time the groups will be careful not to claim to have an answer before they have discussed what they think the correct answer is. Bringing everyone into play, both as questioners and potential answer-providers, has an engaging effect and often leads to laughter.

The number of questions from each group is adjusted according to how large the class is, but all groups should ideally ask at least one question. The groups may often turn to the lecturer to get the 'correct answer', but the lecturer should constantly direct attention towards the students, who are the actual judges, both in terms of the understandability of the questions and the quality of the answers. The lecturer will ideally be restricted to managing proceedings, maintaining a certain tempo for the exercise, and counting points.

Outcome of the activity

To get the students to see the importance of not only reading and learning the material, but also being able to ask different types of questions of any text. The exercise can easily be followed up by more focused and qualified questioning in subsequent lessons.

Follow-up on the activity

I am not sure whether the exercise ought to be followed up on in plenary, or whether it can stand alone.

Thomas Holme

Associate professor