Question Roll 2: Integrating Pedagogy

Question Roll (posing a different question to students each day) has great pedagogical potential. It provides 1) a real world connection, 2) space for active learning and 3) space for engaging diverse classrooms.

I began the 2014 summer with a challenge: understand particular course elements that seem non-pedagogical (think administrative or assessment elements) in ways that contribute to students meeting course outcomes. In the previous post I talked about the general social benefits of Question Roll. Here I’d like to move beyond the general and talk about three specific ways Question Roll supports student learning. I present them briefly followed by an example from my Introduction to Philosophy course. The Pedagogical

Benefit I: Real World Connection

In the collegiate classroom, coursework comes alive when students can find connections to their everyday lives and can feel how their study influences how they think about their own worlds (so often understood as fundamentally distinct from their classroom studies). When developed as part of the lesson, seemingly benign real world Question Roll questions can serve as a bridge between students’ academic and non-academic worlds. The key is a question that students won’t immediately perceive as academic: whether they’re answering about their favorite breakfast food or some freedom they didn’t have living with their parents, they think of the answer as distinct from LEARNING (and in much the same way hollering, “present” is for traditional roll call). It’s up to us as teachers to find a question that will, in addition, connect to the lesson of the day. But to make the real world connection requires that students first think of the question as outside of their learning and then connect them up later. Poised at the beginning of the class, Question Roll is ideally positioned to play this seemingly extra-academic role that forms the basis of the real world connection.

The Pedagogical Benefit II: Space for Active Learning

The more you can sell the question as non-academic the more space you give the student to be an active learner: space to make the connection between the question and the content of the day on their own. This helps students in a couple ways. On one hand, it helps them engage (as they’re looking for the connection in the day’s activities). Further, making those connections is the very process of connecting a piece of their academic life to a piece of their non-academic life. Space for active learning, then, both motivates students own understanding of course content and normalizes academics by helping students bridge the apparent gap from real-to-academic (that feels all too real for students that have struggled in traditional learning environments).

The Pedagogical Benefit III: Space for Diverse Student Realizations

Providing space for active learning is also a great benefit to diverse classrooms. I don’t explicitly tell students about the question-course content connection (at least not at first). The more time you give them to think about the question, the more individual students will come to realize and understand the connection on their own. Whether diversity in the classroom stems from:

-some extra-prepared students and others who haven’t done the reading

-some students with a knack for your discipline and others without it

-discrepancies in comfort with the English language

or any other set of differing expectations, every minute you don’t make the connection between question and course content explicit is more space for each student to find that connection on their own. Some will quickly see the connection (if they’ve done the reading, feel comfortable with English, or have a knack for philosophy, for example). Others will take time, perhaps only seeing it once you explain the connection near the end of class. But that’s a very different scenario than, say, asking students explicitly to make the connection. Bright and/or brave students will always answer more quickly, and that can make methodical and less social students simply quit trying to answer questions even in their heads (as they know student X will always answer first).

And it is important to note that since Question Roll is layered on top of traditional teaching, it won’t affect students’ ability to understand your material. It will simply give them another way of connecting to that material through a real world avenue.

With Question Roll, then, no one explicitly makes the connection at all. This gives students the time to knit together an understanding of their own, whether they do it in the first minute of class or the last. If our goal as educators is students who can think and make connections for themselves, Question Roll is a low-risk opportunity to encourage diverse groups of students to begin making those connections.


Take an example Question Roll question from an Introduction to Philosophy discussion of the Problem of Evil: “What’s one thing you didn’t realize was great about your parents’ house until you left?” Students respond (with answers often aggregating around food, bills, and laundry). We then proceed to the classic Problem of Evil, where students discuss why an All-Good, All-Powerful deity might allow evil (pain, suffering, disease, murder, genocide, etc.) to exist. We consider several responses (i.e., ways it might make sense to understand an All-Good, All-Powerful deity countenancing the existence of evil), and it is in one of the responses that students can find their connection to the Question Roll question.

The response: without evil, we couldn’t recognize Goodness. In other words, if we were surrounded by goodness at all times, we wouldn’t understand that our world was good. This generally takes a couple forms, from the more intellectual (that we need evil in order to understand goodness, a sort of point about dichotomies and the nature of human understanding) to discussions of character (that humans couldn’t develop moral character unless there was some evil to overcome or choose against). Explicit connections are saved for the end of class, where we return to the initial question and how not realizing things were good at home might have been because of a lack of contrast.

First, then, the example here provides a real world context: an example that each student provided of the sort of reasoning exhibited in the class response to the Problem of Evil. Whether the response makes sense is, in part, the question of the way in which their own example makes sense. Second, because the connection wasn’t made explicit, students were afforded the opportunity to make their own connection between the Question Roll question and the response to the Problem of Evil. That’s just the sort of active learning we relish in our classrooms. Finally, because the connection wasn’t made explicit until the end, it provided all students (prepared or not) an opportunity to come to their own understanding, meaning that the connection could be made from a multitude of diverse viewpoints in the class.

Put it this way: Question Roll offers up a space for students to work their way towards understanding connections between seemingly disparate contexts, and does so with minimal impact on the lesson itself.

Question Roll, to sum up these last two posts, helps with specific pedagogical goals (as laid out here) in addition to developing the class dynamic (as laid out in the previous post). In the first case, it can provide students with real world connections along with the space to make those connections on their own. It is an active roll that encourages critical thinking across contexts, all while accommodating diverse levels of student preparation and engagement. In the second case, it develops community between students and teacher and with each other along with breaking down barriers to initial student commenting that helps remind students that they are not simply individuals, but part of a dynamic social learning space where their contributions are valued and important for our goals as a group.

In short: Question Roll helps students learn by helping them connect with teachers, classmates, and actively engage course content in ways the work for them.


About benjaminjh

Benjamin Hassman is Director of the Conversation Center ( and a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. The Conversation Center builds on his experience with Service-learning, peer-leadership programs (like the Berwick Boys Foundation) and teaching for the Rhetoric Minor, including Speaking Skills, Advanced Speaking Skills, and the Conversation Center’s own RHET 2090 Conversation Practicum (based on an experiential learning model). His PhD in Philosophy of Language studied paradoxes, and their implication for how we understand the relationship between our sentences and the world.
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