Explore Teaching Examples | Provide Feedback

Engaging Question

This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.
Karl Wirth, Macalester College
Course: Dynamic Earth and Global Change
20 students
This activity serves a number of functions, including an introduction to the course, a learning prompt that can be revisited throughout the course, an assessment of students' prior knowledge at the beginning of the course, and data that can be used for assessment (formative and summative) of student learning in the course.

The Activity

I use an "engaging question" on the first day of class in all of my courses. This activity is designed to be both engaging and central to all of the course content. That is, the activity is designed around questions that we can keep coming back to, over and over, after each learning unit. This approach not only provides a unifying focus for the course, but it also provides an opportunity to model critical thinking as we revisit the question each time with a different perspective. For the Dynamic Earth and Global Change (the Physical Geology course at Macalester) I chose a question about climate change. The activity starts with two graphs (plots of surface temperature and atmosphere CO2 composition for the past 1,000 years). Students are asked to describe the graphs, interpret the graphs, make some predictions, and explain the graphs using basic earth science processes. The goals of the engaging question activity are:
  1. to provide a clear focus for the course real-world application;
  2. to engage students with a current big question in earth science,
  3. to provide the instructor with baseline data about the student knowledge of science, graphs, and key earth science concepts (systems, cycles, equilibrium) at the beginning of the course, and
  4. to provide opportunities for longitudinal studies of learning throughout the course.

Additional Information

Ken Bain's book on What the Best College Teachers Do and materials from the Foundation for Critical Thinking both emphasize the importance of "engaging questions."
Download Karl's assignment sheet, including graphs and questions. (Microsoft Word 516kB Sep18 08)