Skill: Asking Questions

We all know that the job prospects for the 22-year-old Bachelor of Music student are grim.  For most, it’ll take persistance and debt in addition to continued discipline in their practice and commitment to excellence.  My job is to help them understand better/deeper/differently the music that they have committed to. As I think about how best to help my students succeed, I put a lot of thought into other skills they need.  For instance, I try to foreground excellence in my grading systems (see this post).  Recently, I have also been experimenting with the skill of asking questions.

My students are really exceptional at answering questions.  I am blessed to have smart students who trust me enough to try to answer my questions, and who rise to the occasion for just about any question I pose.  But they stink at asking good questions. Part of it is that they’re 18-22 years old and have never really be asked to be critically inquisitive about music.  Part of it is that the structure of their training almost always involves toeing-the-line with a private teacher rather than questioning the authority figure or the music.  But what good will all their smarts and classroom training do them if they can’t ask their own questions?

Last semester, I experimented with making asking questions a component of their grade in music theory. About once a week, as part of their preparation for class, they had to email me 1-3 questions that arose as they listened and started to dig into the music.  I then copied and pasted questions into a document, gave each question a single tag (such as form, context, meter, pitch), and alphabetized the list.  The next class started with 1-2 minutes of perusing the list, which I projected onto the screen. I then guided the discussion through the questions that were deep enough to sustain discussion.

This worked, and had a few interesting side benefits.

  1. I had to do a lot of research on context before class started.  I learned a tremendous amount of information about composers, pieces, movements, and times.  I’d forgotten what fun this could be and how much more meaningful this makes the study of music.  I usually condensed what I learned into 1-2 minutes of lecture.
  2. The questions got a lot better as the semester progressed.  By the third and final project, their work (which could take the form of an essay) did a wonderful job engaging with real issues in the music.

So, this semester, I’m doing this activity again with my Form and Analysis class.  I’m trying to make my job a little easier–I’ve used google docs to set up a really basic form this time.  I’m not sure if it’ll work better, but it’ll save me from receiving an email from every student, and copying and pasting into a document.  The form automatically populates a spreadsheet for me, which makes it easy for me to tag, sort and print!  I hope.  🙂

I’m curious where this class will start in the “deepness” of their questions…  I’ve linked the prompt for this first assignment here, you can see the google doc form here, and the spreadsheet that is automatically populated by the answers on the form here (I manually added the column called “tag” for sorting purposes).

Update (September 26th, 2012): My class is done with this form for the year.  Feel free to enter your own “fake” responses on the form to see what it does to the spreadsheet.

8 thoughts on “Skill: Asking Questions

  1. Cool blend of technology and one-on-one follow-up. I agree that students have a tough time formulating questions. Somewhere they lost the “why?” in wanting to explain things.

    • Exactly. Did we have the “why” when we were in school… Or, given that we entered the academy and are probably inclined in that direction no matter what, perhaps the better question is did our colleagues from our student days have the “why”?

  2. A few months ago, I watched a compelling and highly instructive TED talk about rethinking science and college education, and the professor (of Harvard, I believe) did just the same thing you did-requiring students to ask questions for each and every class. He had the same results, writing became clearer, better organized, and the questions became deeper. I tried to find it, however I can’t remember the title, so I’m no help there.

    In response to whether kids these days are less able to formulate questions-obviously there’s no real answer possible without hard data, but I do think that the inability to ask questions is a direct result of the Industrial Age educational system. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Ken Robinson’s talks, and I think that his contention that we need to teach creativity has a lot to do with the inability to ask questions. It is precisely because we are taught to have the right answers (A B C or D!), that true question seeking is lacking. As a new teacher, I’ve been looking for ways to ask better questions, but this reminds me to encourage my students to ask me better questions, too! Thank you! (For my favorite talk of Ken, you can go here: )

    • Thanks for the thoughts! My gut tells me this is a good exercise, but hearing there is a Ted talk on it definitely makes me feel good that really Big Presences are at the same place. Good luck with the teaching–I’m now in my 11th year here (15th year of classroom teaching) and I’m still always learning new things. Often from my students…

  3. Even before I read Heather’s comment, I was thinking “this could work really well in the sciences….” I would probably add a step for my classes (and this might work for your topic as well, but maybe not for the format of your course/assignments), in which the students first tried to answer each other’s questions (outside of class time, on the Google Doc or discussion board), bringing only the ones that merited more discussion (because of their depth or thorniness or awesomeness) to me/class. It’s critical for students to ask questions, but also for them to realize that we are not remotely the only source of answers.

  4. This assignment was a good start to the questions. Class was lively and meaningful today (11 students enrolled). Excerpt from a favorite (and useful) question:

    [….] The return to the home key of “secondary material” is not until measure 253, which has no really clear melody. Am i being trolled by Beethoven?

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