Mapping the Journey of the Inquiry Experience

Helping First Year Students' Reflect on Their Learning

Suzanne Crosta, Department of French, McMaster University
June 13, 2000

The following is a succinct précis of my talk during the Symposium in honour of Dr. Don Woods. It concentrates more on the nuts and bolts of mapping out my/ an inquiry course within the humanistic disciplines. The précis considers the different journeys in learning that students undertook during the course, in particular, their responses to its pains and its promises.

Course Description Shock: What’s this? Am I in the right class?

These first questions represent the visceral reactions to Inquiry. When I embarked on this new initiative called Inquiry, I had no idea that I would be tampering with a form of “death” education. I had no idea that I would be grieving as much as my students in my first year experience of Inquiry albeit for different reasons than theirs. The impact of a form of “stuck mourning” on student learning needs to be addressed from the start. For many, change always signals the death of something old and the birth of something new. Frankly speaking, I would rather think of the Inquiry experience as a form of release, release of one’s own curiosity be it for truth or for knowledge or for justice... with a measure of discipline and commitment into the painstaking, and at times, rewarding venture into lifelong learning.

In my section of Inquiry, I wanted to acquaint students with a learning environment and with activities that would mirror the Inquiry process as well as the healing process of a story. In the literature on the therapeutic dimensions of a story, researchers underline the dynamic interplay between distance and involvement, catharsis and insight according to the needs and circumstances of the situation. I weaved into the course structure sequential tasks and exercises that aim at having students begin with basic questions and move towards more interesting and complex ones. From the onset, I use storytelling not only to cultivate introspection but also to quell certain anxieties. The first exercise that I give them, and this, on the same day I hand out the course description, is to write a one page paper on the highlight and low light of their day. Apart from its apparent cathartic effects, it allows them to articulate in a very concrete way their reactions to change (from home to residence, from high school to university, from traditional didactic lecture courses to self-directed learning...).

Weaning Off Dependency: Where’s the Book?

The next phase, is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Inquiry and the one that creates the most amount of insecurity. During the very first week of classes, I am constantly confronted with this primordial question: Where’s the book? The underlying trepidation is quite obvious, it’s a clear reflection of the apprehension they experience for violating one of their key to high school success: study the book, identify the main concepts and ideas and memorize them. In fact, the first few exercises were designed to address this question. We started with some very basic questions about storytelling that would show the need to consult a number of sources. Class discussion centred on the challenges and difficulties of finding “expert” tools to define terms and explain concepts, and on the need to extend their search beyond dictionaries, encyclopedias, anthologies, and other quick and easy reference sources. I also assign “guided” critical responses to tales of their choosing so that they can engage in dialogue with philosophers, writers, historians, religious leaders on the notion and functions of storytelling.

Counteracting Looming Depressions: Why am I doing this? What are you expecting again? What am I learning?

These questions are usually raised by the fourth or fifth week of the course and there are various ways to deal with these issues.

Why am I doing this?

This expression of heightened anxiety can best be counteracted by self-awareness and self-assessment exercises so that they can build or rebuild their self-esteem. I pay particular attention to their suggestions about how best to improve their learning. Sometimes I summarize, sometimes I quote verbatim but I always communicate to the class their advice: sometimes it’s about which location is ideal for study, which databank is fruitful, how to interrelate with students from other Faculties. I also find the time to read in class one their best pieces and highlight its strengths and its potential. Furthermore, I recommend stories which treat change, metamorphosis, transformation, in a positive way. For others, I’ll ask them to revisit the exercise on their particular learning style and encourage them to experiment with other modes of learning.

What am I learning?

This is usually my cue to reassure them that we are indeed covering content. I find that sharing or generating a list and distributing it to the class to best remedy this problem. Sometimes, I generate the list, sometimes, a student, sometimes a group. What do the lists comprise? A list of key definitions, storytellers, selected tales, number of recorded versions of each tale, common components, stylistic characteristics, cultural functions. A five minute recapitulation of the previous lesson or a five minute summary at the end of the class is always appreciated.

Among the advantages of Inquiry are the diversity of views and problems can be treated within the purview of Inquiry. That is why self-assessment exercises and activities matter are so important here. It affords them an opportunity and at times an outlet to express their frustration, resistance, sentiments of paralysis... which impede their progress. My concern is to find risk-safe ways of helping students confront their negative learning behaviour.

Fostering Communication: Why can’t I work alone?

It is an all too common phenomenon that students, and not always first-year students, undervalue or minimize each other’s contributions to the question, issue or problem under study. There are a number of ways to deal with this problem. When it comes to respecting their peers’contributions, I increase self-assessment exercises. One that I have developed requires each student to evaluate:

  1. his/her personal performance as teller/presenter,
  2. his/her role as an active listener and,
  3. the performance of three peers whose strengths and personal enrichment might improve theirs.

I prepared them for this exercise by suggesting several elements that they might wish to consider. The last part of the assignment, perhaps the most important part, involved outlining some personal strategies that they would implement next time. Affording them a second opportunity to improve their performance is tantamount to the process and success of this exercise.

This tripartite assignment along with a summary* highlighting the qualities they most appreciated in their peer’s presentations improved significantly their level of responses and interactions, their personal attitudes (no yawning, no laying their heads on the desk, no clicking pens or jittering fingers...) as well as the quality of their oral presentations. I found this exercise most effective in fostering a learning environment where active listening, intellectual generosity and collaborative learning are valued. For inquiry project based on the exploration of a central question, I found that presentations about the process to be quite useful - exploiting different sensory modes gives them a fresh perspective on their project and affords them the opportunity to articulate their problems, and solicits comments and support from their classmates. Not only does the quality of their work improve but they learn to nurture each other.

From Mourning Their Textbook to Authoring Their Own: What have I learned?

This last question allows me to go full circle and reflect on the process, both the interpretive frameworks and methods of investigation selected by students. There are different ways to view and to integrate inquiry projects within the purview of the course. In my first year, the group was quite small and close-knit and half way through the course, they raised the possibility of collecting their final essays. They edited and converted them into a monograph. The second year, I had double the students and decided to present the issue as part of our learning objectives. The last assignment of the term would include the submission of their Notebook which I described as their individual courseware package. During the course, I coached them by reminding them that certain pieces of their written work or elements of their presentation are worthy of inclusion in their Notebook.

Since Inquiry courses in the Faculty of Humanities do not require final exams, the Notebook also served as an opportunity to review the entire course in terms of their learning outcomes. It encouraged them to identify their weaknesses and evaluate their strengths. Some realized they did not take nor kept track of their notes, others realized they did not edit their work, others became aware of the consequences of their procrastination while others had trouble deciphering their writing. More importantly however, some enjoyed the opportunity to be creative, others felt empowered by the “authorial” experience. Whatever formula one adopts, participating in a collection of essays or authoring their own Notebooks, they not only experienced and reflected on the research and writing processes but perhaps they also gained an awareness of the challenges that lay ahead of them.