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Five Questions to Ask New College Students Over Break

Like all teachers, I spend a significant portion of my work day thinking of questions to ask students. A well-timed, precise question is a beautiful thing: it could lead to deeper thinking, push someone to work harder, or create space for someone to consolidate knowledge.  

Yes, great questions bring me great joy. Of course, the flip side of this is also true: a bad question feels like a missed opportunity and makes me upset.

I was struck by how lame the questions I was asking were a few weeks ago. A number of students from my school who graduated in June came back on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and I asked them:

"How's college?"
"What classes are you taking?"
"Have you had any trouble in math?"

I told you they were lame.

As so often happens with bad questions, the responses I elicited were bland and impersonal. They provided little information about the lives of the young people with whom I was speaking:

"Fine."
"Um, English, Sociology, Statistics."
"I did bad on the first test, but I think I will do better on the final."

As the college semester ends, I look forward to another chance to speak with these young people at this pivotal point in their lives. I want to do a better job of getting them to share meaningful information, not just because I am curious about the actual details of their lives but also because I recognize that many of the young people who went to our school are demographically at risk to drop out of college with significant consequences for their future. If we can fine-tune the questions we ask when we do interact with students, we may be able to get the information that we need to intervene and support at-risk students so that they can avoid this fate.
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Here's an annotated the list that I've developed. I hope that you'll add to it and let folks know if any questions here deliver particularly good or bad results.

1. What is something beautiful you've experienced since you left our school?

My hope is that asking them to consider "beauty" (as opposed to something "good" or "fun") will jar them out of pat responses and into sharing an experience that might be have been more meaningful and thus provide more insight. I also want to be intentional about leaving this question open to sharing something which might have happened outside of class. Finally, I think it's important to start this conversation on a positive note.

2. Who is one person who has helped you figure out life after high school? What did this person do to help you?

College, career, and really most of life as a human hinges on relationships. It is not only about "what" but "who." I want to hear about the various "who's" that are impacting our graduates lives and perhaps more importantly what kinds of things those folks are doing for them. I'm hoping response could provide insights into how we're supporting our students and alumni network. Did we effectively build students' capacities? Are they seeking support in executive skills with which he could have helped them? We know that first-generation and low-income college students experience a particularly high risk of not finding a person or network to support them through the college process. I'll keep this in mind when listening to students' answers to these questions trying to tune in for students who don't have this yet and think with them about how to establish it.     

3. What is one thing you are doing to stay healthy?

So this may be a bit of a recommendation posed as a question. I know that healthy eating and exercise are crucial for me particularly when I'm under stress and pressure. I also know that during my first years of college I generally made less-than-healthy choices when it came to handling stress. I wonder if I can nudge our graduates away from the path I took.  

4. Tell me about a struggle or challenge you have overcome since you left high school? How did you do it? What resources did you use?

5. Tell me about a struggle or challenge that you have not yet overcome or moved passed? What have you tried that hasn't worked? What do you think would be a good next step?

The goal of my class is to teach problem solving so these questions are really a report card for me. In some ways, a quicker way to ask this question would be: did my class translate to you life? I want know if my students can engage a problem, reflect on possible solutions, seek out resources they need, and evaluate the effectiveness of their strategy. This is what I intend to teach them how to do as we solve math and science problems, is it working? If yes, what moves are they making to do this? Did they learn them from me? At our school? At home? If no, where are they stumbling? How can I help? How can our school community help? How can our society help? How can the change what they are doing to help themselves?

That's my list for now. What do you think? Please do add/subtract/critique and share successes that you have with the young people who come back to visit you this holiday season.


Photo by geralt https://pixabay.com/en/circle-finger-touch-question-mark-1276243/

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