Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Making Material Clear

faculty members discussing teaching practicesContextualizing material

Using existing knowledge to learn something new helps make material clear and accessible. As McKeachie (2002) states, relevant knowledge strengthens new learning by generating meaningful connections to new information. Learners typically use prior knowledge by creating either direct relations, in which they relate what’s known to what they’re trying to learn, such as comparing and contrasting the causes of two wars; or analogical relations, in which they use analogies to help relate familiar and new concepts that share some key characteristics but are different in other ways, such as using a post office to explain aspects of computer storage.

Davis (1993) shares additional strategies for helping students contextualize new information:

Allow for the fact that different students learn, think and process information in different ways. Students vary in how they learn and how long they take to learn, and they don’t make uniform progress.

Let students know what they are expected to learn. Emphasize key course concepts and important points in class sessions.

Give students a framework within which to fit new facts. Use outlines, study questions or study guides to provide a conceptual framework or structure for concepts.

Present material in ways meaningful to students. Students are more likely to understand and remember new material if it’s already relevant, meaningful or important to them.

Limit the amount of information you present. Students can absorb only three or four new points in a single presentation.

Stress concepts, not facts. Too many details overwhelm students; broad concepts are more meaningful and more easily understood and remembered.

For a professor's perspective on contextualizing material, see this response from Tracy Russo.

Question types

Different questions have different purposes. Understanding the different types and their uses can be a big help in structuring and leading discussions and lessons.

Discussion starters get students talking. Examples: “Why do you think the AB Company filed for bankruptcy?” “What’s the issue this case poses?”

Probing and challenging questions ask students to examine specific areas of a problem or situation: “What did the data and statistical report suggest?” “Did the president respond appropriately to the situation?”

Connecting questions ask students to make links between old and new information: “What similarities does this case share with a previous one?” “How does this outcome support the theory found in the textbook?”

Predictive and hypothetical questions help students apply what they learn to other situations: “What will happen if we boil the solution?” “Imagine that a primary value for this society was competition—how would that change things in the life of the village?”

Analytical and evaluative questions help students make informed judgments about the subject matter: “Can you rank the designs based on how aesthetically appealing they are?” “Which decision by the president was most effective?”

Summary questions help students articulate key points of a discussion or lesson: “What are the main points of this case so far?” “Can you summarize decisions the committee made their first year?” (adapted from Meyers and Jones 1993).

Questioning techniques

Bob Powers (1992) identifies ways instructors can ask and respond to questions effectively:

  • Use open questions to solicit responses (see right).
  • Use closed questions (see right) to end discussions.
  • Provide correct, clear answers to students’ questions.
  • If you are unable to answer a question, find the answer and report it back to students.
  • Answer questions nondefensively.
  • Occasionally refer questions back to students.
  • Sometimes guide students to reach answers themselves.
  • Remember: Don’t ask a question, then answer it yourself.

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