Teaching Spotlight – It Starts With A Pencil: Getting Students To Ask Questions

Photo by Kim Gorga on Unsplash

What question do you have about this pencil?

This simple question serves as a powerful prompt that Celeste Leander uses to get students to start asking and exploring different types of questions in her course.

“I originally developed this activity for use in a large lecture experience during Jump Start and I’ve since modified it for use in the classroom. At the most fundamental level, UBC is a large research university. What does that mean for undergraduate students? We are a special place because of the questions being asked all around us. We can take a sample of these potential questions by looking at a pencil.”

Keep reading to learn more about how Celeste includes this activity in her course and what she’s learned along the way.

How do you use this activity in your course?

I have the opportunity to work with academics from all across campus. I can show any one of them a pencil and ask them the same question I ask my students. “What question do you have about this pencil?” The philosopher would have an eloquent question about the invention of the pencil in Napoleon’s army. The physicist, a question about graphene and semi-conductors. The historian asks a question about the shape of the modern pencil and the changes we’ve seen over time. By inviting students to ask a question about a pencil, they are invited into the academy in a way that truly includes them. I run this activity by simply asking my students to grab a writing utensil close to them and to ask a question about it.

What has been the result?

I teach a third year lab course where students design and implement their own research projects. At the core of this is learning to ask an appropriate scientific question. By starting with a broad general question about a pencil, students can deconstruct different types of questioning. From there, students can focus on asking a scientific question. The other important thing they learn is to listen closely to the conversations happening around them, in the hallways and offices. I challenge them to listen for the questions being asked at this institution.

What did you learn or find surprising?

I found it surprising that students almost always ask an initial question that matches their field of study. In science, students might ask “What species of tree is this wood from?”. I rarely see questions that cross boundaries outside of a student’s discipline. This is disappointing to me and has rekindled my interest in true multidisciplinary courses at the undergraduate level. (I taught a first year biology course with a first year history course years ago and I’d like to resurrect this type of project).

What is your advice for someone who might want to do something similar in their course?

This is a really easy activity that does not take a lot of preparation or time commitment. It’s appropriate for any course level at UBC and can be adapted with different items (“What question do you have about this plant?”). It is also adaptable to Zoom by using the chat feature.

Anything else you’d like to share?

This term I might return to this activity every few weeks, with a goal of digging deep into types of questioning. With more practice, students may become more proficient at asking a good testable question.

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