Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Power of the Question

Two recent articles reminded me of the power of good questions in the teaching-learning process. In a recent post at the Teaching Professor Blog, Dr. Maryellen Weimer, discusses the value of good questions to promote productive discussions. Below is an excerpt from her post:

"To realize the potential of a good question, we can’t forget that the power of a question to promote thinking happens in the interstice between the question and the answer—in that quiet space between the asking and answering. Most of us are in such a hurry that that space is short—typically less than 5 seconds, according to research."

In the July 14th, 2008, edition of Chemical and Engineering News, an editorial was published by Dr. Richard Zare of Stanford University about the power of the question. Below are a few paragraphs from this excellent editorial:

"The question is a little-understood element of human cognition. Nevertheless, some question is at the center of every scientific and technological advance, and fundamental questions underlie every humanistic quest to comprehend the world about us. The question is a central aspect of both learning and knowledge creation....Yet students often seem to value more the answer than the question. I think quite the opposite. The quest to answer a question is where the learning takes place, not the answer itself.Those are two of the 10 winning questions."

"The point is that questions propel the world of inquiry and you should never underestimate the power of a simple question in organizing human endeavors. When you ask a question, you develop ownership of the question, and this sense of ownership is nothing like what you get from an answer. Today, we are drowning in information. The real power comes from the question, which organizes knowledge and directs us to the unknown. Life is not about answers; it is about questions, and the quest to find solutions to stated problems."

The question plays a vital role in our legal system and in the ability of journalists and authors to get information about a variety of issues. In my opinion, the question is often taken for granted in education. In some of my courses, I ask students questions in which the answer can be yes, no or maybe. Although the answers seem quite simplistic, the process students have to use to analyze the questions is sometimes quite complex. Overall, not getting the correct answer to questions with seemingly simple answers can often be a signal to students that they do not truly understand a concept or understand it only at a superficial level.

On the other hand, the quotes above suggest that another important part of teaching is helping our students ask more and better questions. Please click COMMENTS below and let us know what you think!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Anything But Common: Learning Commons and Academic Libraries

The following is a guest blog post from Adam Murray, Interim Dean of University Libraries.

A study conducted recently at Simmons College found that 45-55% of student learning activities taking place outside of the classroom took place in the library’s collaborative work spaces. Collaborative work space – as well as work space designed specifically for individuals – is a core component of the planning for a “learning commons” and new library facility at Murray State University. But what does the term “learning commons” really mean? One of the great things about envisioning a learning commons for Murray State University is that we can define it for ourselves, modifying what has already been successful elsewhere for the specific needs of Murray State students, faculty and staff. What we do know is that a learning commons should be a gathering place where students feel comfortable accessing and using information, and doing so on their terms as individuals or as members of a group.

The video above highlights interviews of students and librarians at North Carolina State University, which recently developed a learning commons in their main library building. A quote from the video indicated that the planning for the NCSU learning commons was “responding to what students were asking for already in the library.” The space in the NCSU library before the renovation was very reminiscent of the current Waterfield Library – lots of computers in rows and not much space for group work. Students indicated that they really appreciate locations where they can interact loudly without disturbing others while having access to “lots of computer desks where students can gather around in groups.” This quote helps put another nail in the coffin of the notion that using the library and using a computer are not synonymous.

Student representatives on the task force currently planning a new library for Murray State have proven to be some of the most committed members, frequently bringing forward exciting and intriguing ideas about how a future library will operate. Some of the considerations for a learning commons include a Written & Oral Communications Center, housing the Honors Program, and a focus on internationalization throughout the facility. Far from being just another student center, this early vision of the new library and learning commons really puts the library where it should be – at the academic heart of the university.

What do you think about the prospect of a new library for Murray State that includes a learning commons? Why? What features, functions or services should a learning commons possess? What innovations would the existence of a learning commons spark in your own teaching methods? Please click COMMENTS and give us your thoughts.