Shallow waters: a mile wide and an inch deep

How do we get our students to dive deep into learning as opposed to just skimming the surface?

In several discussions lately I have heard instructors share concerns that their students are barely skimming the surface of learning. Given practically any topic, they are able to quickly retrieve the information online but then are unable to discuss the significant, subtle, or underlying ideas.

While information has never been more accessible than it is today, we don’t always dig deeper to get the full story, or consider the sources, or necessarily draw conclusions or relationships. As educators, we craft opportunities for learning – building assignments and  developing/ activities that we hope will foster critical thinking. Carefully designed learning activities can challenge students to develop and apply higher-order thinking skills, helping to draw them out of the shallows.

One approach is to help learners become more personally connected to the subject. By requiring students to come up with their own questions, chances are they will be more invested in finding answers.

How can we help students develop good questions?

I recommend devoting some time with students discussing what makes for a “good question”. Develop a grading rubric using criteria that help to describe the process of developing meaningful enquiry.

1) is the question thoughtful?
The learner has taken time to think about the question and its importance before asking.

2) is the question relevant?
Is the question related to the topic or does it draw focus away from the issue?

3) is the question open-ended?
The answer is not yes or no, right or wrong, but evokes discussion and debate.

4) is the question clear?
Avoid jargon, run-on, and repetition which can lead to ambiguity.

5) is the question unbiased?
The question does not lead to a predetermined answer (e.g How did you like the state-of-the-art facility? vs. What are your thoughts regarding the technology at the center?)

Some ideas for activities using technology…

It seems like Twitter might be a good tool to use for such an activity. Students could be given a problem to research and when they find relevant material, rather than just sharing the link, they must pose a question along with the resource. This would require them to limit the question to 140 characters. An example…

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 11.42.50 AM

Another option might be to use Google+ Communities. The links as well as related graphics can be more visually engaging. Other students can get involved in helping to answer the questions and share in the discussion by posting their own resources. An added benefit is Google Communities can be made private if you prefer to engage only your class in the activity.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 12.28.03 PM

Other resources:

The IDEA Center:IDEA Item #2: Found ways to help students answer their own questions

For Dummies: Ten Tips for Asking Good Questions


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