The Weekly Teaching Note

From the Cal Poly Pomona Faculty Center for Professional Development

The Big Question

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 7, 2009

As we start both the new quarter and what promises to be a very interesting and in some ways tumultuous new year, here’s an idea for beginning classes in a way that can help students make sense of it all.

This Weekly Teaching Note is contributed by a member of the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain describes how many of the teachers that he studied prepared to teach by devising a “big question,” one that their course would help students address.

I use a “big question” to encourage students to reflect on what they have learned in a course. In the first class meeting of a [term], I present a big question that the course will address and I ask the students to write a page or less in which they reflect on the question. They write a response to the question as they would answer it now, and they indicate what knowledge they used to formulate their answer. This provides me with an understanding of the knowledge base and potential misconceptions that the students bring to the course.

As they write this initial paper, I indicate that there will be a second part to this assignment: they will respond to the same question at the end of the term. At the end of the term, I ask the students to address the original big question again. I encourage them to revisit their response paper from the first class. (I give points for completing the “big question” assignment only if both papers have been submitted.)

Students use varied approaches when they respond to the question a second time. Some students incorporate comments from the first paper into the second paper, often refuting points made in the first paper with new insights gained through the term. Other students write the second response and do not look at their earlier response until they have completed the second paper. Still other students start with their first response, and then expand on that first response to create a second response.

Regardless of the approach taken, students are much more expansive in the second response than they were on their earlier attempt to answer the question. I have found that having students answer the same big question for the course at the beginning and again at the end of the course serves multiple purposes including encouraging students to reflect on their learning and address misconceptions, while providing a very practical way for me to assess the impact of the course on student learning.


Contributed by:

Mary Stephen, Director

Reinert Center for Teaching Excellence

Associate Professor, Educational Studies

Saint Louis University


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