Dealing w/ Student Questions

Darrell Root rootd at OHSU.EDU
Wed Feb 2 20:49:38 EST 1994


One person mentioned: THERE ARE NO STUPID QUESTIONS

As a former economics TA, I know that this is false.  Here is my judgement of
questions:

1) questions which request knowledge
2) questions which demonstrate knowledge

Of course, many questions demonstrate knowledge by making a thoughtful request.
Thus, they fit into both categories.

Some students like to demonstrate their knowledge..period   They ask a question
which is really meant to "show off"

When teaching, its good to have students demonstrate knowledge, answer each
others questions, etc...  My first term as a TA, I did great answering
(some) questions because I could still remember my problems when I was learning
that subject.  Of course, for some questions I didn't know the answer.

By the time I reached my fifth term as a TA, however, I'd forgotten how I'd
learned some topics--it was just knowledge.  Of course that's the answer!
Explain why? Why? Isn't it obvious? 

My first term, when I didn't know the answer, sometimes a student did, and that
helped.

My fifth term, when I couldn't explain it to the student, I could usually 
rephrase the question, and get another student to explain it so that it would
be understandable to the questioner.

Back to the point: there ARE stupid questions.  When a question demonstrates
knowledge, but doesn't request any (or requests an affirmation of what the
student already knows to be true), then the question is stupid.

Its not really a question, its a comment (note that, when teaching economics,
comments are good too--opinions are good in economics--its better to have
students make their own comments than to be an instructor who teaches one of
several economic orthodoxies).

When a student asks a question which only demonstrates knowledge, I usually
tried to find the student (alone) after class and mention that it was more of
a comment than a question.  I reaffirm that comments are beneficial in this 
(economics) subject area.  That usually worked pretty well (meaning that
intra-student communication tended to be high in my classes).

To get back to the subject at hand, the problem is with the nature of the
internet.  Originally, only a small number of hosts were connected to the
internet.  Now the number is growing exponentially.  Mailing lists are
receiving incredible amounts of activity.  Some mailing lists receive hundreds
of messages a day.  In short, this is not a bionet problem, its an
internet/usenet problem.

There are three ways (that I know of) to attack this problem:
1) create more mailing lists to divide up the posts
2) restrict posting to certain groups
3) get better mailing list (reader) software to sort through it for you

I'll comment:
1) creating more mailing lists.
This has a couple problems.  First, if the number of users is increasing
exponentially, then the number of lists will need to increase exponetially.  I
monitor several bionet lists to look for "stuff" that is useful for my
research(you never know where that pearl will pop up until it happens) 
I'll need to monitor all of the newsgroups in a category to continue that
process.

Creating a tutorial group might be a good temporary measure--just remember that
the exponential increase in internet users will get you eventually (just
wait 10-20 years until a significant percentage of the planet is on the
internet)

2) restrict posting to certain groups
This is what moderated groups are for.  They already exist, but are slow
and subject to failure if anything happens to the moderator.  In addition,
what the moderator thinks is useful may not be useful to me.
ONE GOOD IDEA: FOR QUESTIONS, DO NOT USE DISTRIBUTION:world

3) get better mailing list (reader) software
Right now I use the (dinosaur) rn news reader.  The andrew message system 
messages reader is far superior, but a pain in the neck to install.  If, after
looking at a message you typed l or h (for liked or hated) an AI newsreader
could study that and predict which articles to show you.  Two or three more
h's than l's would kill a Re: thread.  (the implementation is left to the CS
student working torwards a master's degree as a thesis).  Of course, I still
might miss that pearl.

The bottom line is this: if you like, you can install majordomo on your unix
computer and create your own moderated newsgroup.  If you're a CS major, you can
try to implement my AI program.  I currently subscribe to alt.sys.sun instead of
comp.sys.sun simply because it has less traffic, but essentially the same stuff,
so (1) is already being done to some extent.



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