A couple of weeks ago, our weekend email featured an article on how to craft strong discussion questions and focused on creating “Questions Without Answers.” Given that so many folks are transitioning their courses online in the wake of COVID-19 social distancing efforts and may be considering the asynchronous classroom option, I wanted to follow up with another helpful tip for crafting engaging, community-building, and concept-reinforcing (not to mention research-supported) discussion questions: The Four Questions Approach (by Alexander et al. 2010).
The goal of the four questions approach, per the authors, is to facilitate critical thinking in online classrooms. In my experience, it does this very well…and so much more! In the following paragraphs, I’ll summarize what these four questions are and how the inspire not only creative thinking, but personal connection, a cohesive classroom community, dynamic and diverse discussion, and how they give you, the instructor plenty of grist for the mill for exploring a wide range of course material – not just what the initial question covers.
1) Analyze. Have students identify one thing (of their own choosing…you can ask them to identify 2+ things if you want) that they found interesting from the assigned reading/video watching that week. This not only gives the learners in your classroom control over their own learning, but ensures that you will have a very diverse discussion and one that covers the entirety of the week’s topics (vs. isolating one idea that you have chosen).
2) Reflect. Ask students to continue down this path they have chosen by having them reflect on why they think this concept(s) is important. Why did it stand out to them? Did they disagree with it? Immediately resonate with it? Come up with an example of it right away? Struggle to grasp it? Why did it stand out enough to mention it in their discussion response this week? Reflection is a key component of critical thinking and, I think equally as importantly, it allows students to personalize their learning. Personalizing learning means that students are connecting what they have just learned with something they already knew. This goes deeper than memorization or simple knowledge acquisition. The human brain loves this.
3) Relate and apply. Let’s not stop there with our personalization. Staying on that train, have students then apply this idea to something in their own life, or something they see happening around them in their day-to-day. This example, because they created it (and not you, although you can certainly reinforce it and offer another one in your follow-up to them) will stick with them longer, making a deep memory and strong neural connection. This also allows students to share a bit about themselves with other students and this facilitates a community vibe and gives fellow students – in their “mandatory replies” – something to really bite into when substantively responding.
4) Questioning. End by asking students what questions they are still left with. What are they still wondering about? This opens the door for you to continue teaching, to offer examples from your professional experience and knowledge base, and gives the student the real and true sense that you are talking to them vs. simply explaining something to the whole class. And it promotes curiosity, it models the idea that none of us ever know it all, and that questioning leads to discovery.
In sum, the four questions approach has demonstrated, empirically, to facilitate critical thinking in the online classroom. Alexander at al. (2010) found that when instructors used this approach, students scored significantly higher on The Washington State University Critical and Integrative Thinking Scale. This is wonderful, but I think it is important to keep in mind that this approach does a lot more than that. It personalizes learning, gives students control over their learning (an important andragogical concept in an online classroom populated with adult learners), it creates connections among students, facilitates community, diversifies the discussion, gives the instructor so many in-roads to follow up, and promotes curiosity.
Here is an example from my own Personality Psychology class.
This week we learned about the influence of the non-shared environment in the development of personality. What did you find most interesting about this research? Why? Apply the notion of non-shared environment to your own family. Does the research hold? Or does your family contradict this idea? What non-shared environment factors were at play in your sibling relationships? What questions are you left with after reading this chapter?
What is your experience of using the Four Questions Approach (or something similar)? If you want to share some examples from your discipline area, please feel free to do so in the comments section below!