Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Questions/exercises at the end of a chapter

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The questions and exercises* at the end of a chapter of school literature always annoyed me as a child. Even then they seemed like pointless busy work to me and they rarely made sense. To some part, this was my own laziness: if I liked the book, I wanted to read on; if I disliked it, I did not want the spend more time with it to answer some “stupid” questions. However, to a large part, my opinion was actually correct:

*I will typically stick to “question” below, for simplicity.

Recently, I have both revisited some of my old Swedish school-books during visits to Sweden and read a handful of college level texts from the softer sciences. I find that I still have a similar aversion, if one more nuanced and held for a better reason: Outside of the hard sciences, even in more advanced literature, these questions tend to focus too much on just repeating the stuff of the chapter, where true value would be found in making the students think about the material and to help them towards the areas and ways of thought that best help with a deeper understanding. In this, they are largely a waste of time, energy, and motivation. This especially because many questions can be unduly time consuming relative their value, should an honest attempt be made, as e.g with “find five other examples of X”, or even time-consuming and open-ended, e.g. “find as many examples of X as you can”. (That type of open ended question should be grounds for an immediate firing.) In contrast, a “Y is a similar example. Can the same arguments be made in that case?” would be a much better question/exercise—especially, when the answer is “no”. (The exact formulations used might need adjustment to the appropriate age bracket, both here and below.)

In contrast, the exercises* found in e.g. a math or a physics book actually force the student to use his head (or fail at answering)—here what has (ideally) been learned is actually tested, various ideas and approaches are often given new spins, the student is motivated to go back to the text to check what he might have missed that will help him solve a problem, etc. Importantly, mere learning, e.g. having memorized a formula, will rarely be enough if an understanding is not present. It is much harder, even if not impossible, to get through a math class without understanding than through a class from the softer sciences.

*Those with little exposure to math should note that these questions tend to have a very different character from the arithmetic tasks of the early years. They soon include solving problems and applying techniques, and even a first-year college text might ask for an own proof of a theorem. (At least for me in Sweden—with the continual dumbing down and whatnot, no guarantees can be made for the future or other countries.)

Many other fields are too different in character for this to always be possible and it is only rarely possible in the same manner—but why is the attempt so rarely made? Worse, when the attempt is made, it is often in a misguided or irrelevant direction, e.g. “How do you think that X felt, when […]”. In contrast, assuming that this question arose from a conflict,* a better question might focus on (a) exploring different perspectives of an issue, (b) learning that there are almost always different perspectives and that it is valuable to try to understand them, (c) approaching a question with reason and impartiality, e.g. in that a conflict is examined based on who has what ethical case (as opposed to e.g. who feels what). Another common error is a too great focus on personal opinion, e.g. “Who do you think was in the right?”, which is likely to result in an unreflected top-of-the-head answer from most younger students, usually based on emotions or identification—and will be seen as patronizing and unproductive by most older students (assuming that they do not still given an unreflected top-of-the-head answer). Here a better question would be e.g. “Who do you think was right and why?”. Better yet, leading to better thinking and removing the need to artificially side** with one party: “What arguments could X and Y make for their respective case?” This not followed by a “Who do think would be more convincing?” or similar.

*It need not have. I have seen similar questions asked e.g. relating to a happy event or an accidental misfortune.

**Which is unfortunate on at least two counts: Firstly, it can lead the student to lock himself into one position. Secondly, most realistic cases will cause good students to not side entirely with either party, and forcing such a choice is unproductive and/or forces a fake answer. A personal example of the latter: In one of my first school-years, we were supposed to name our respective personal idol. I did not have an idol. (It can be disputed whether I have ever truly had one, even now.) I just picked Björn Borg (or possibly Ingemar Stenmark), because he happened to be a very plausible answer for a Swedish boy at the time (1982?)—and I had to answer something.

Even my suggestions above are potentially too simplistic, unproductive, patronizing, whatnot. Much better questions are e.g. those involving a hypothetical, as “what if” Hitler had not invaded Poland*; those that cause the student to investigate commonly believed facts and assumptions; those that force a critical investigation of a line of reasoning; those that focus on abstracting and generalizing; those that point to the “why” of matter (e.g. why someone did something or why something did or did not work); etc.

*A scenario that I consider much more interesting that the more common the-Axis-won-WW2 scenarios. And, yes, this is a very open-ended question, but it is open ended in a different manner than “find as many […]”.

A downside of such questions is that they rarely have a short and definite answer, which make them fit poorly in e.g. the context of a typical answer/check-the answer workflow. But why should they—the point is not to have the right or wrong answer, but to think, to develop a better understanding, and, even, learning to ask the right questions for one-self. Moreover, such questions are not best asked at the end of a chapter—they should ideally be in the mind of the student while reading the chapter.

Excursion on repetition and filtering:
There are two aspects of typical questions that some might feel come up short with more productive questions.

Firstly, repetition. Here I counter that just reading a chapter once and then relying on questions for repetition is unproductive. It is better to read the chapter several times, preferably spaced out over a greater time interval. If need be, a short summary or a check-list is a better means of providing repetition. (As could more reader-centric work be, e.g. the reader writing an own summary.)

Secondly, knowing what is or is not important. Here I counter that such limits tend to be unproductive, because they cause the student to focus just on the “important” parts; that the opinion of what is important held by the book author need not be shared by the student (or his teacher); and that, again, a short summary or a check-list is a better means.

Excursion on other problems:
Generally, I often found various tasks, questions, whatnot, in school unnatural, unproductive, poorly thought-through, whatnot. This often because they were; often because no-one bothered with telling the students why the task was there. A telling example of both: In early English, we were given a set of questions to answer, with no further instruction. I promptly answered them in a reasonable manner, e.g. by “yes”, “no”, a name, …—and was promptly scolded by the teacher with the pseudo-argument “That is not how you would have answered those questions in Swedish!”. Yes, it bloody well was! In Swedish, I would have answered with “ja”, “nej”, a name, … While I am more verbose today, there is a wide range of questions that I would still answer in that manner, even as an adult and in any language. Very often, such a short answer is not only the most economical, but also the most natural and what benefits the asking party the most.

What the teacher did not do, was to explain the purpose of the exercise—to train active language skills. We were supposed to use formulations like “my name is […]”* in order to master such phrasings as a speaker/writer. Had she done that, I might** have been more receptive and/or improved my own study approach at an earlier date. Her approach is also a good illustration of how too many teachers behaved—instead of giving a good argument, all they had was usually pseudo-arguments or some variation of the “because I said so”/“because the book said so” theme.

*Honestly, how often does this phrase actually occur among native speakers? Most often, I suspect, the speaker will just state his name; and the majority of the remaining cases will be some variation of “I am”. Similarly, “mitt namn är […]” (resp. “jag heter […]”) is not that common a phrase in Swedish, nor “mein name ist […]” in German.

**I make no guarantees, seeing that I could be extremely stubborn and disliked this type of exercise. However, the approach she actually used was a complete failure, almost by necessity, in terms of being convincing, and even if the improved version had also failed with me, it would likely have been more successful over a wide range of other students.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 19, 2019 at 7:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

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