Inquiring Minds Want to Learn

Engaging Students in the Process of Discovery,

in Lectures, Laboratories, and the Library

The Spring 2001 NSF-AIRE Teaching and Learning Workshop*

8:30 am - 1:30 pm, Thursday, May 24th, Colby College

This workshop offered a welcome and wonderful opportunity to address several of the challenges inherent in teaching the research process. It was organized around a set of closely related issues that often arise with regard to inquiry-based learning and teaching. The NSF-AIRE (Award for the Integration of Research and Education) grant recognizes and supports the promotion of inquiry-based learning and integration of research and education that has characterized Colby College for many years. The primary goal of this workshop was to provide a formal context for continuing to promote and increase the effectiveness of inquiry-based approaches in our teaching and mentoring across all the disciplines.

Faculty from all disciplines were warmly invited to attend this workshop to share and discuss approaches for improving pedagogy, their own and that of their colleagues! Workshop participants represented 11 different departments or programs within the college; Psychology, Philosophy, History, Women's Studies, American Studies, English, ITS, Chemistry, Biology, Environmental Studies, and Physics.

The workshop commenced with a welcome and introduction by Dr. Larkspur Morton, NSF-AIRE Fellow in Biology and Workshop Organizer. This was followed by a panel discussion on "Effective Teaching and Learning via Discussion." led by Drs. Margaret McFadden and Elizabeth Leonard. The balance of the morning comprised a series of concurrent focused discussions on various aspects of teaching the inquiry process. The program concluded in a common wrap-up session over lunch.

A program schedule with lists of potential questions for discussions was provided to participants, and can be found at the end of this document.

Following is a record of the workshop sessions as compiled from notes taken during the sessions by volunteer recorders, D.Mills, A.Kortyna, & L.Morton.

Disclaimer: These records may not capture exact meanings or expressions of the workshop participants, and, of course, are not intended to misrepresent anyone's views or ideas; specific ideas or observations are not attributed to particular persons unless they explicitly chose to allow this. This record is intended as a tool to share the ideas discussed with persons not able to attend, and for participants who wished to attend simultaneous sessions. Finally, in the interests of unity, some points have been rearranged to appear where the subject is more fully discussed, and yet, we did not attempt to provide a holistic overview or major conclusions from the sessions.


Welcome & Introduction (Robins Room)

Larkspur Morton, Organizer and Chair for the Workshop:

"What is inquiry-based learning/teaching?" In defining "inquiry," the OED gives us "the action of searching for information; investigation." In teaching , we employ learning approaches that are inquiry-based, but we also investigate the inquiry process itself, namely we teach others how to do it. Learning how best to do this is a major impetus for this workshop.

A few of the big questions that we will address in the sessions today are the following:

            How do we teach questioning?          

How do we teach students to assess information, both primary and secondary?

How can we use and our own research to engage students in inquiry?

Where does the teaching of statistics fit into teaching of the inquiry process?

How do we motivate and assess students involved in independent study and in group study?

We see great benefits when we get people together to talk about teaching. We should share what hasn't worked as well as what has.

Effective Teaching and Learning via Discussion

Panel Discussion about Leading Discussions: Margaret McFadden from American Studies, and Elizabeth Leonard from History and Women's Studies.

McFadden: An advocate of not being over-prepared, Margaret felt she had come over-prepared.

            The goals of discussion are to develop critical thinking and the ability to formulate and defend one's own opinions.

            We try to get as many students to participate in the discussion as possible. We encourage disagreement but in an amiable way, so students don't take it personally.

1. Preparation

Make the students responsible for the material to be discussed.

Do not lecture. Let the students sit in silence if necessary.

Use response papers as a basis for discussion.

Act the Devil's advocate. Get into arguments. Do not let the students know what side you're on.

Give out participation grades for each class.

Ask the students to evaluate conflicting ideas or critics of the material.

Break them up into debate groups.

2. How to get them talking

Start discussion on the first day of the class.

(Get them acquainted with each other via a five-minute social hour. -Mills)

Let them know that political correctness is not welcome.

Realize that many smart students will not talk--the fear of being perceived as an intellectual is strong at Colby.

Use response papers.

Be aware of the difficulty of moving from lecture to discussion, and from factual questions to questions of opinion.

Wait for the answer. Let the students think it through.

Hide your own opinion; direct your remarks and your answers to the students.

Let the discussion breathe.

Do not give the impression that there is one correct answer.

The climate of the class should be one where students can take risks without fear of reprisal. An openness of mind should be both demonstrated and encouraged. Be ready for "teachable moments," which might not be relevant to the discussion.

Leonard: First commented that she would make many of the same points, then added the following.

Start discussions immediately, with no prefatory lecture.

Try lecturing for two classes and then holding a discussion class.

Use small discussion groups.

In grading, participation in discussion counts as 1/4 of the final grade. Elizabeth requires four response papers.

Grade every class for participation.

How to get their mouths moving? Ask simple, obvious questions, like How did you like the book? or What did you like or hate about it?

While you have to cover a certain amount of material in each class, you must let the discussion take its own shape. Try not to intervene too much.

How do students remember the main point of the class?

Actually, the process of discussion and the thought that goes into it is more important than any particular point that might have been made.

Encourage your students to take notes during the discussion.

You can give a resume of the ideas presented in the previous class or sum up at the end of the class. Mini-lectures like these are permissible.

Write main points on the board.

Assign a specific area of information to each student, who then will have to talk about it.

Find ways to get students discussing the class and its issues outside the classroom.

The problem with a debate format is that it reduces complex issues into two-sided issues. You should try to avoid black and white attitudes.

Concurrent Roundtable Discussions

9:45 - 10:30            Where and How to Start: Beginning & Guiding the Process of Inquiry

SESSION 1-A: Questioning as a skill to be taught.

Point Persons: Tim Christensen and Andrew Brown

How to generate questions:

A need for background knowledge as a basis for further inquiry.

Leaving space for choices but not limitless space.

It's discouraging to notice how few questions are asked. We need to get our students back in touch with their adolescent curiosity. They suffer from a fear of asking stupid questions.

Define a topic area. Questions about it will lead to inquiry and research. Formulating a hypothesis will often lead to ideas.

Find out all that has been said on a topic. Take a side on a controversial issue. Test secondary opinions against primary sources.       

Provide a question box where students can anonymously ask even about small points they haven't understood. Sometimes these questions can provide a basis for class discussion. When a guest speaker is coming, read and discuss the speech or paper to be read beforehand to prepare for discussion afterwards.

Assign small projects on manageable topics. Involve students with individual presentations. Though they don’t always work, sometimes simple-minded experiments can be valuable.

Try to make the material relevant to the lives of the students. Using "should" can provide a basis for research papers, starting with a look at the current situation. (Making material relevant is a huge issue, more so in the humanities than in the sciences; we should investigate it in another workshop.) 

Provide an introduction to the library and its assets before working on large projects.

Use lectures to raise questions rather than provide answers. Have your own questions and be willing to change your mind.

SESSION 1B. Using one's own research as a basis for student inquiry

Point Persons: Tarja Raag and Andrea Tilden

Outlined topics for discussion on bulleted points in program and asked for additional questions. Discussion revolved around the following questions:

How do you get a student to really "own" a project?

Encouraging ownership means backing off.

Then the difficulty becomes balancing that with helping the student that needs it.

How much should we consider the cost of complex student projects?

Cost of projects is a determinant in which research is feasible for students to do.

Similarly, safety reasons as a determinant on feasibility.

Cost of a potential student project definitely comes under consideration. To support our own professional survival, we cannot spend grant money on research that is not closely related to our own.

How to come up with a quality question for a student and how much choice do you allow students to have in deciding what to research?

This is a very difficult issue for most faculty - to provide or generate good questions that students can investigate.

Most agreed that they themselves do and should provide a number of possible questions that could be investigated. Students are then allowed to choose from within that subset for their own research expertise.

Timing of research and time to plan for and do research

It's difficult to allow free choice, e.g., within a research-based course, because research often has to be planned for in advance.

The issue was raised that it is very difficult to come up with a project that leads to significant results in a semester.

One solution is to link subsequent or simultaneous project together.

Many felt funny about having more than one student working on the same project as this could breed unhealthy competition.

Many found it difficult to "twist the requisite sweat" out of a student. How do you get them to put in the effort and time?

10:45 - 11:30          Critical Interpretation of Intellectual Works

SESSION 2-A: Critical analysis during the research process, from assessing source quality (primary literature à web pages) to interpreting content/message of the source (critical interpretation of articles/texts)

Point Person: Keith Johnson

Teaching students to question the reliability of texts, and promoting their ability to evaluate a text at face value.

What is critical thinking and how do students develop it? One can start by examining government statements about reality and undermining them.

Use the web--Google, not Yahoo--but with a realization that there is a huge difference in the reliability of different web sites.

Have students write an annotated bibliography that includes a specific evaluation of the source's reliability and quality, particularly when encouraging or allowing web sources.  -Morton)

Students tend to trust the written word. They are loathe to question the facts in another student's paper. Personal interviews are sometimes cited as a source of facts, but this is a doubtful practice, especially when only one or two interviews are cited. These interviews can be used in other ways, however--as examples of what people choose to believe, for example, or as human interest stories.

How do we establish what sources are valid? Evaluation of web sites. Comparing differing points of view. Stating clearly what the argument is. Careful citation for the opinions of others; what isn’t so cited in a paper is your own opinion. It's a good idea also to cite (that is, acknowledge through notes and bibliography) for those readers who might want to know more.

SESSION 2B. Teaching students to critically analyze their own research: Use & interpretation of statistics

Point Person: Neal Taylor

There are a number of perennial problems (list on program schedule).

We have a wide range of skills and facility with using statistics among both students and teachers; at what level should statistics be used?

There is a real need to first emphasize utility and importance of descriptive statistics

      It is important to have a truly good grounding in/understanding of descriptive statistics, measures of variation.

We need to get students to think about sources of variation; teach stats as a way to deal with variation in the world.

Interpretation of statistics and results in general are important issues.

How to interpret non-significant results - what to do with them for student's research?

      We can encourage thinking about the science, the biology or chemistry, etc. involved, and discourage students from focusing only on what was wrong with their experiment.

We need to explicitly teach students how to look at a table or a figure and synthesize a narrative, otherwise this level of interpretation is easily overlooked.

Also need to explicitly teach students how to interpret their own data, or at least be mindful that they may not know how to do so.

How do we get student's to configure useful and good figures? Issues to consider:

- have students look at what is important in configuring a good figure

- discuss the art of making figures and other useful graphics

- usually need to clarify that graphing program does not do the work for you, e.g., when using excel numerous changes must be made in order to make a good figure!

Statistical Packages

ITS would like to know which packages people are using and what they can do to support these packages. They run into students who don't seem to have a clue how to use them.

The possibility of ITS offering tutorials on statistical packages was raised by a faculty member. One problem is that very many different statistical packages are used across campus. Another is the varying depth and complexity of student projects.

The question of standardization was brought up along with the problem of students not really learning statistics, or how to apply statistics in their research, in a statistics course. Much more time is needed to fully discuss these issues!


11:45 - 12:30          The Costs and Benefits of Inquiring Together or Alone

SESSION 3-A: Approaches to motivating and assessing independent study.

Point Persons: Herb Wilson and Cathy Bevier

Independent study provides a common ground between sciences and the humanities. There are two types: one based on past knowledge that leads to a new hypothesis, or one that offers the student a chance to learn about something new.

In Biology, "Independent Research" means a student works closely with a professor in an area in which the professor has some expertise. It means establishing the amount of time the student must spend in the lab and when talks must be held with the professor. It requires a final paper or a talk that summarizes results.

Students must be trusted to utilize their own time. The amount of time devoted to the project determines the number of credits the student will receive for it. The professor should maintain close contact and supervision at the outset, to get things started. The student works more independently later. Usually students put in more time than required.

If independent study is a requirement, the professor should try to make it pleasant. He or she must make the expectations clear as well as the methods of grading.

Sometimes difficulties arise in finding a qualified mentor whose knowledge matches the student's interests. A bail-out system should be in place to fall back on when the project isn't jelling. If the project proves to be unfeasible, credit hours can be lowered.

In grading, do we require a final paper or not? How are hours spent in the lab credited? Oral presentations can be either a summing up or a dialogue in which the student asks advice from teachers and fellow students.

Letting the students grade themselves can be enlightening, though the professor reserves the right to decide the final grade. Students love letter grades, however; avoid credit/no credit grades.

It's wise to establish deadlines along the way. There should be a fair amount of guidance throughout the semester. It is frustrating to see the work only at the end, when little can be done to improve it.

SESSION 3B. Organizing, motivating, and assessing group study.

Point Person: Larkspur Morton

What is the purpose of having students engage in group work?

Doing group projects prepares them for the "real" world; having them do group projects so they can learn how to work in groups.

Working in groups can help students see other's perspectives more clearly.

They can do more complicated projects; plus you can have them write 6 reports rather than 36 reports -- easier to grade!

            Students can do larger projects, with larger sample sizes and more information involved.

Dealing with the logistics of group work:

What can we do about free-riders or shirkers?

Use peer evaluations:  what were your contributions?  what were the contributions of the other members of the group?

Issues can also arise from one member of the group being a "control freak"; how can this be dealt with?

T.Christensen offered an exercise that he has used in field courses that demonstrates the importance of cooperation in working in a group, and that allows students to self-identify whether they are a control freak or a shirker. The details of this exercise are too complex to relate well here, please contact T.C. for more information.

Important to set aside a specific time for groups to meet and work together. Can't expect them to only meet outside of classtime.

What's a good size for group work?

Groups of 2 to 3 seem to work well for short projects while larger groups, up to 4, work better for larger projects.

How to overcome resistance to group work?

Explicitly address the challenges of working with a group.

Provide choices:  give a survey with choices/preferences for topics, and also allow them to choose their groupmates (this can be done anonymously through the professor who assembles the groups based on preferences for teammates and topics)

It can also work to allow students the choice of working alone or in pairs with the added choice of writing one or two papers. Obviously, this wouldn't work in all situations.

In Environmental Studies 118, they developed a method of forming groups based on the student's interest in particular questions/topics.  They called the groups 'affinity groups'.  First, students form questions, 2nd faculty winnow these down to the better questions and give the winnowed list to students in advance so they can make choices, 3rd individual questions are placed on the wall around the classroom, 4th students are directed to stand by the question they are interested in addressing, once 4 students are at a particular question, a group is formed, and so on. This method was highly successful. (This was one of many NSF-AIRE funded improvements made in the ES118 course.)

Facing the challenge of grading work done in groups.

Lots of opinions on this.  Some weight group grade most heavily with a small percentage of the grade from individual-based grade.

In one case, students write individual papers that are graded individually then later in their groups they use those papers to put together a larger group report.

LUNCH SESSION:  Assessment and Questions Remaining

Informal conversations continued, with many more great ideas for teaching exchanged!

Evaluation of the workshop was conducted via pre-printed assessment forms.


Inquiring Minds Want to Learn:

The Spring 2001 NSF-AIRE Teaching and Learning Workshop

Workshop Goals

·       encourage interaction and communication among teaching colleagues

·       discuss the goals and benefits of teaching the process of inquiry

·       discuss various challenges of implementing inquiry-based learning

·       share successful and unsuccessful approaches

·       identify topics for future discussion

·       enjoy a morning engaging one's mind with teaching issues now that classes are over!

Program Schedule & Discussion Notes

8:30 - 9:30             Continental Breakfast Fare

Welcome & Introduction (Robins Room)

Effective Teaching and Learning via Discussion

(Panel Discussion)

Concurrent Roundtable Discussions (9:45 - 12:30 with breaks)

·       Following each Session Title is a list of observations and questions for promoting each topical discussion.

·       Session 1a, 2a, and 3a will occur in the Hurd Room; Session 1b, 2b, and 3b will be in the Smith Room.

9:45 - 10:30                      Where and How to Start: Beginning & Guiding the Process of Inquiry

Session 1a. Questioning as a skill to be taught (Hurd Room)

·       need for background knowledge -- motivation to engage in the questioning process

·       guiding students to develop their own questions

·       promoting creativity in generating questions

·       distinguishing among different types of questions

·       defining their question within a set of reasonable questions; narrowing the focus to a reasonable question

·       levels of student choice and mentor/teacher guidance

·       encouraging awareness of how project questions fit into more general topic or discipline

Session 1b. Using one's own research as a basis for student inquiry (Smith)

·       guiding students to develop their own project

·       level of guidance: drawing the line between supporting and defining their research

·       role of student choice, how much should or can be allowed?

·       extent of background necessary for developing their own projects

·       role of errors as a learning tool; amount of floundering to be allowed

·       challenges associated with varying motivations for involvement

·       benefits over involving students in research that is not directly within your field of expertise

·       issues of authorship

Coffee & Brownie Break

10:45 - 11:30          Critical Interpretation of Intellectual Works

Session 2a. Critical analysis during the research process, from assessing source quality (primary literature à web pages) to interpreting content/message of the source (critical interpretation of articles/texts) (Hurd)

·       teaching students how to evaluate source quality or reliability

·       defining and identifying primary literature vs. secondary or other information sources

·       differentiating between search engines (e.g., yahoo) and electronic indexes (e.g. psycINFO)

·       assessing webpage sources, authors, & reliability

·       importance of understanding the historical context of sources

·       critically interpreting, analyzing, and using the literature

·  how best to teach this

·  striking a balance between acceptance and criticism

·  differentiating between points that need to be cited vs. points of common knowledge

Session 2b. Teaching students to critically analyze their own research; Use & interpretation of statistics (Smith)

·       dealing with the wide range of knowledge and abilities

·  variation among students in sophistication of interpretation of results, from reductive/mechanistic interpretations to extravagant claims

·  student knowledge and comfort with using statistics and making interpretations

·  instructor knowledge and comfort level in teaching statistics

·       how much statistics is enough, and how much is too much?

·       universal skills that are often taught haphazardly; how to standardize?

·       effectiveness and utility of discipline-specific research methods courses

·       interpreting non-significant results in small experiments

11:45 - 12:30          The Costs and Benefits of Inquiring Together or Alone

Session 3a. Approaches to motivating and assessing independent study (Hurd)

·       purpose and value of independent studies

·       helping students select realistic, but interesting projects

·       finding the balance between oversight and independence

·       keeping students on schedule

·       evaluating independent studies

·       assessing effort vs. results, or final products

·       use of mid-term and end-of-term self evaluations

·       importance of standardizing within departments

·       amount of effort to expend on a single student

11:45 - 12:30 (3b) The Costs and Benefits of Inquiring Together or Alone

Session 3b. Organizing, motivating, and assessing group study (Smith)

·       value or benefit of group work

·       overcoming student resistance to group work

·       deciding on group membership

·       short-lived vs. long-lived groups

·       mixed ability vs. similar ability groups

·       evaluating group work -- issues of grading

·       use of common grades and the problem of shirkers -- weighting of individual vs. group work

·       using statements from group members on their input or role in the group

·       using peer evaluations

12:30 - 1:30                        Lunch, Synopsis & Questions Remaining (Robins)

Sponsored by the NSF-AIRE (Award for Integration of Research and Education) Grant and The Center for Teaching