Before students begin taking college courses they have by necessity focused on the learning of facts and the ability to use mathematical and linguistic tools. In their experience, questions have had right and wrong answers, and instructors have been the dispensers of absolute knowledge. When students begin their college training, they are ready to begin their journey toward an intellectual milestone: they will begin to (1) doubt perceived truth, (2) question constructively, (3) come up with alternate ideas, and (4) critically evaluate those ideas [modern interpretation of The Perry Scheme (Perry 1970, Perry 1981)]. The journey is difficult and uncomfortable. My job as an educator is to guide them on that journey, because it is ultimately the most critical journey they will take in preparation for their careers, whatever their career goals may be.
To guide students toward developing an independent sense of what defines weak versus strong evidence for their own and others’ ideas, I assign critiques of primary literature including analysis of experimental design. In lab courses, students will design their own experiments and critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each design, execute the experiment, and collect, analyze and interpret the data. They will then also evaluate their peers’ interpretations of data.
A student can feel rudderless and lost in a student-driven course. Yet, he or she learns most effectively when taking ownership of his or her own intellectual path. Because my courses are largely student-driven, a concrete structure to the course is critical in order to ensure that each student feels intellectually safe, knows what is expected of him or her, and learns the material and the skills necessary to apply the information. Therefore, I provide a detailed syllabus for the course, and clear rubrics for all assignments. Students know exactly what will be expected of them in class, in lab, for homework assignments, and on exams. Learning How to Question The most successful scientists doubt everything, but having doubt is not enough – they also question each concept. Teaching students to question constructively begins with helping students to accept that not all questions have pre-established right or wrong answers, and to recognize which questions are the most fruitful to pursue.
Perry, W. G. J. 1970. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.
Perry, W. G. J. 1981. Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning. Pages 76-116 in Chickering, A. W., editors. The Modern American College. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.