Using Student Questions as Learning Tools

Student questions are often the most important drivers of learning. A question indicates the desire to “know”, as well as an interest in the subject of the question. Teachers can harness the power of questions in a variety of ways. Here are three:

Variation #1: Ask students ahead of time to bring to class one or two questions they have based on their homework reading. Have them frame it as follows: “I have always wanted to ask …..(fill in the topic)….?” Have them submit the questions on a card at the start of class and use them to lead discussion. They can also post them on Blackboard in order to get responses from the rest of the class.

Variation #2: Have students write down a question at the start of class. Address them throughout the course of class period.

Variation #3: With 10 minutes of class time remaining, have students write down one question that they still have about the day’s topic. You can also have students formulate questions in pairs to do this. Answer those questions at the start of the next class period.


Evaluating a Syllabus

Once you have written your syllabus, check it against the following questions, which were derived from Gamson and Chickering’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (pdf). How effectively is your syllabus likely to:

1. Encourage contact between students and faculty that is focused on the academic agenda?

2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students?

3. Encourage active learning?

4. Give prompt feedback?

5. Emphasize time on task?

6. Communicate high, but achievable expectations?

7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning?

Make changes as necessary so that your syllabus maximizes the above as much as possible.

Creating a Syllabus: Step #2- Determining Learning Outcomes for a Course

Many new professors start building a syllabus by asking, “What should this class cover?”, rather than asking “What do I want my students to learn or achieve in this class?” Learning outcomes, sometimes known as “goals” or “objectives”, aid in building an effective, concise syllabus, the content of which leads to deep learning.

To determine a course-specific learning outcome, ask yourself: “What kind of measurable and observable knowledge, skills, abilities or attitudes should students have achieved by the end of my class? By what means will they achieve those outcomes?”

Remember that Skills lead to Competency, which leads to achievement of the Learning Outcome. Learning outcomes should emphasize what the students can do with what they have learned, resulting in a product that can be evaluated.

Click here for a document that provides you with a method for identifying desired skills and competencies, and shows you how to write an effective learning outcome.

Creating a Syllabus: Step #1- Learn About the Curriculum Holistically

All courses need to “fit in” to the curriculum of the department in which they are taught.

Prior to building your syllabus, talk to the appropriate members of the department in order to find out how your course(s) fit into their curriculum. What will students have already learned or experienced prior to coming into your class? How should the course prepare students for the courses they will take after yours?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you will be much better prepared to create a syllabus that provides experiences for students in your class that will be in keeping with the rest of their education within the department.

The Teacher’s Role

“The teacher’s role is to stimulate questions.” – Professor Glenn Rand, 2005

According to Professor Rand, in order to effectively use questions students should be encouraged to:

  1. Ask questions early (when the learner becomes aware that there is a misunderstanding or gap in the learning flow)
  2. Use understandable words (avoid jargon)
  3. Keep asking until you get an answer you truly understand
  4. Ask questions in the proper sequence (sometimes questions may be premature)
  5. Respect the teacher if they say they will get to back to the question later.

For more excellent information on the role that questions play in both teaching and learning in art and design classes, please refer to Chapter 3 of Professor Rand’s book, “Teaching Photography: Tools for the Imaging Educator”.

“Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.”

– Josef Albers, artist and teacher, (1888-1976)

Questions to Ask While Planning a Course

• What should students be able to do by the end of this course?

• What classroom experiences are students having that facilitate that learning?

• In what ways are we promoting active learning, giving prompt feedback, and emphasizing time on tasks and high expectations?

• Are our expectations for student learning clearly outlined in our syllabi?

• Are the methods by which we evaluate the learning of our students clearly defined and based on criteria that have been shared with students?

Questions to Ask Yourself When Preparing to Teach

Here are some valuable questions to ask yourself as you are building your syllabus and assignments:


1)    Before you teach, how do you learn about what students already know about the content/skills to be taught?

2)    How will you establish that content to be taught is accurate and that how you are going to teach it will promote understanding?

3)    How will you include learning experiences that will help make the information relevant to today’s students?

4)    How will your class(es) help prepare students for their lives beyond school?

5)    How will what students are learning in your class help motivate them to learn more?

6)    Where in your class(es) will you require active participation of students in their own learning?

7)    Where in your class(es) will students develop meaningful conversation, reflection and thinking? How will you become a part of these processes?

8)    In what way will you take into consideration the differences of the students (i.e. higher level vs. lower level or learning style differences)?