This morning, my students are reading about negative feedback and assessing the information provided using our standard rubric, which asks them to summarize and write their questions.  They’re finding it difficult to understand, almost too confusing to summarize.  I remind them that that’s ok — to summarize what they can, if they can.  I also tell them to write questions as they read, not to wait until the end of the passage to write them down.

Especially, I remind them that common cause of “getting stuck” is waiting until they understand the paragraph before writing down a question.  The problem, of course, is that you might not be able to understand the passage until after the question is answered.  Waiting for understanding before asking questions is like waiting to be fit before going to the gym.

I have this conversation with one student:

Student: “What I’m afraid of is, if I get partway through the paragraph and write a question, then I get later in the paragraph and write down another question, I’ll get to the end and realize, Oh, that’s what it meant, and I won’t need to ask that question any more.”

Me, joking: “So what happens then?  What horrible consequence ensues?”

Student: “I have to kill an eraser!”

Me: “No need to erase it.  Just write a note that says, ‘oh, now I get that… [whatever you just understood].  Have you ever noticed how often I do that on your quizzes and papers?  I write questions as I’m reading, then I cross them out when I get to the end and write a note that says “never mind, I see that you’ve answered the questions down here.”

Student: [noncommittal shrug, smiling, seems willing to try this]

I think that’s an ok way to get the point across.  I sit back down.  Then I need to be a smart ass.  I go back to chat with the same student.  “You know, from our conversation earlier, it sounded like you were saying, ‘I’m afraid that if I ask questions, I’ll get it.’ ”

My point, of course, is that asking questions, thinking through our questions, and clarifying to ourselves what question we mean to ask can be an important part of sense-making, and can even help us answer our own questions.  But that’s not how it comes across to the student.  Now he’s been backed into a corner, shown the absurdity of something he just said.  He scrambles to defend his statement.  “No, what I meant was that if I ask questions while I’m reading, I might get to the end and not understand my… [pause] I can’t put it into words.”

Notes to self

  • Students sometimes think they should delay asking questions until after they have understood something.  This causes deadlock and frustration.  Strategize about this with students.
  • Pointing out someone’s misconception, especially in the middle of class, does not usually result in a graceful acknowledge of “oh, yeah, that doesn’t really make sense, does it?”  It usually results in backpedaling and attempts to salvage the idea by re-interpreting, suggesting that I didn’t understand them, or saying “I understand it, I just can’t put it into words.”
  • The phrase “I understand it but I just can’t put it into words” is highly correlated with “You just pointed out a misconception to me and now I must save face by avoiding your point at all costs.”  Use this clue to improve.
  • Dear Mylène, you think you’re too highly evolved to use “elicit-confront-resolve” to address student misconceptions, but you’re mistaken.  It’s causing students to avoid their misconceptions instead of facing them. Find a way to do something else.