Activities for the Inquiry Seminar

Conversation is not our goal.  If it were we could simply introduce a bunch of ‘fun’ topics (devoid of meaning or rigor) and congratulate ourselves on the room’s energy.

We use conversation as a knowledge sharing activity toward connecting students to content and process.

The same goes for each of the ideas collected below – FYS is not about entertaining students for 150 minutes each week.  They are part of a learning strategy that aims to have students:

  1. Identify and grasp the nature of complex problems;
  2. Habitual use of critical thinking strategies;
  3. Actively seek divergent points of view; value cognitive diversity;
  4. Possesses Intellectual courage and curiosity ;
  5. Cooperatively create and communicate knowledge;
  6. Design your path in the Quinnipiac Educational Experience, and;
  7. Initiate the journey toward having an inquiry and integration mindset; practice it in the arts, humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences.

Always keep these ends in mind as you consider the most appropriate way to have students engage with the content and processes, each other, and you.

Adding to your decision-making calculus should be the level of student-centered in your plans.  Student-centeredness is important because we’re trying to cultivate a community of intrinsically motivated students capable of autonomous learning. If you are always directing the way, you  eventually rob your class of this autonomy.

You once again become the center of gravity and the source of knowledge.

Nor is it a remake of the Lord of the Flies. You do not need to let them flounder helplessly.

graphThe chart above tracks the typical progression of FYS from week one to week 15.  I model most of the exercises discussed below during Phase I and in early Phase II.

But I expect that as Phase II progresses into Phase III, my students are deciding for themselves how best to meet the schedule.  (And yes, they set the schedule, always within the boundary and belief systems.)

Their task in Phase II is to use the Inquiry Cycle to explore a chosen wicked problem.  While they are doing this they’re learning the meaning and value of context by exploring the four disciplinary areas.

They, not me, choose the “way” they’ll work toward these “ends”.  They pull from a range of discussion-based work, problem-based work, and product-based work.

On occasion, when my experience tells me that a certain activity (as written or adopted to fit the circumstances) would help them achieve their ends, I share what’s on my mind.  Sometimes they accept my recommendation.  Other times reject the idea.

I am always transparent as to why I think an idea would work or not, and they are always free to chose.  (AARs often tease out thoughts on the success of their approach and how my – given my experience – might have been more useful…)

In Phase II I intend to combine small group work, issue mapping (we’ll swap these within the small groups) and self-explanation sessions at the white board to prepare them for the Phase III and IV and the poster session.

Their experience with TSPC, QFT, Thesis Forming, and WTL Swap all served them well in that they’ve practiced different mental models for thinking about, producing, and sharing knowledge.

Let me reinforce this point:  many of these techniques served as mental models that eventually become intuitive.  For example, their ability to ask effective questions as they create and revise issue maps was made stronger because of their QFT work.

They strengthen their ability to form connections because they did several thesis-forming activities.

What if?

Now – if you’ve gotten to late Phase II and you perceive that you’re stuck in a cycle of QFTs and group discussions all divorced from any larger purpose (and your students are wondering “what’s the point?”) it’s not too late to alter course.

A.  Explain what tasks need to be completed by the end of the phase.

The task from the guidebook is to have students work on a new question using the cycle of inquiry.  The products should include informal writing, the second formal paper, and an oral presentation.

B.  Explain the purpose – your intent.

The QUFYS workbook describes moving toward having students work independently so you can “teach” less and provide more individual attention.  (In other words, this intent allows you to think of “class” as work in your room, work in the library, perhaps each small group works at a different location, or you meet with students individually.  The intent is individual attention…not “classroom time.”)

C.  Ask them to work out the details – and be prepared to offer thoughts (from the range of activities) of what they might think about as they develop their plan.

1.  What’s wicked problem shall they pursue?  My suggestion is to use this phase to develop each student’s guiding question.

2.  How will they follow the inquiry cycle?  In other words, they need to plan for developing an issue map, following lines of investigation, and publishing their insights to their peers.

3.  How will they discuss what they’re reading?

4.  To whom will they publish their findings for feedback?  Perhaps they schedule one or two WTL swaps, or they arrange for a large group discussion to conduct “in progress reviews” of their work.  I might suggest that they can develop a mechanism for students to request peer help, and that they internally mobilize a team to support students who want help.  Teaching someone else can be more powerful than working on their own project…so I think it would be a great use of their time.  There must be rules for this, though.  This should not underwrite laziness…

5.  What sized groups are idea for all of this?  I’m going to recommend working in groups of three – somewhat of a triad format for knowledge sharing.

6.  Are there times for which larger group sharing or self-explanatory work would pay dividends?  (Me? – I’m going to add a self-explanatory exercise as a task.  I am going to schedule time toward the end of the phase (weeks 11 – 13) for students to build their issue maps in front of the class.

Discussion-Based Activities

Think, Pair, Share, Convince

Purpose:  Help your students go from trying to perform (memorize) facts to fully understanding concepts (mastery).

Context:  Students can often solve problems using what they’ve been taught providing the conditions remain the same.  The moment you change the conditions, they’re lost because they’re not sure how to apply what they know.

Task:  Pose  a  conceptual  problem.   Ask  students  to  take  a  position  given what  they  already  know.  Have them find a partner or group that holds a different position.  Have them offer the argument as to why they  formed  their  position.  (The  key  is  argument, with  sufficient,  credible,  and  accurate  evidence supported by analysis.  This is an opportunity for them to practice critical thinking.)

When they’re done, have them reassess their positions.  Have them identify the theories, facts, data, evidence, etc., that helped them reassess.  Discuss any discrepancies in knowledge or understanding.  Students should investigate the differences, or if there are hard facts at work – vs. interpretations – you can share.


Two students discuss the issue at hand.  One takes notes.  (Each time they do this they should rotate positions.)   This is similar to the TPSC, above, except that you are putting them into groups prior to forming opinions.

Small Groups and Consensus Forming:  

Purpose:  Have students engage each other

Context:  Sometimes students will share with a small group things they will not with the larger group.  But it’s also a good opportunity to explore how each small group can look at the same information and draw wildly different conclusions.

Task:  Small groups work out problems, but after a time present their findings to the larger group.  I always encourage using the white/black board when doing this as it helps focus their effort.

This also has innovative applications.  Here’s something Betsy Rosenblum did with her students:

This occurred “naturally” in one of my FYS sections. Two teams meet separately in the library working on their presentation projects. They ask each other questions and end up reviewing each other’s work, making suggestions for revision and etc. AND they send me their selfie to show where they are and what they are doing as evidence.Engagement in the classroom can be challenging for this group, yet they managed to engage nonetheless.”

Large Group Discussion Partnership

Purpose: Have students engage each other

Context:  We’ve all been there.  The class sits sullenly in a circle.  Their heads are down and the silence is more than uncomfortable.  You ask a question.  Perhaps someone answers you.  You ask another, but it’s quickly becoming a stilted game of Q&A with you.

I contend it’s because we’re trying too hard for discussion leadership; we see ourselves as facilitators.  And when we facilitate, our students respond to us.

We want them responding to each other. What’s to be done?  Three things:

  1. Set the culture and ground rules
  2. Preface your questions
  3. Sit outside of the circle
  4. Don’t blink.

Task:  Let me say from the start, this task presumes a classroom culture of trust, mutual respect, and student empowerment.  But student-to-student engagement doesn’t simply happen naturally; it does not flow from empowerment.  It requires that you set clear expectations.

Tell them that you are going to toss in a question but that you expect them to offer assertions, and evidence and analysis n support of their assertions.  And that you expect them to respond to each other.

I’m sure you’re asking good questions in your seminar, but as you’re asking the question and they’ve been conditioned to answer your questions (from a decade of schooling) they’ll look to you.

I preface my questions with phrases such as, “decide among yourselves” or “debate this supposition.”  This immediately lets them know I am not expecting them to look my way and answer me.  

You need not even toss in a question. They may know – as my class often does – that working on their issue is on them, that they should start when they’re ready with their own questions.

It also helps to physically locate yourself outside of their circle (if they setup this way). If they prefer rows, sit in the back.  Perhaps leave the room for a time.  Regardless of how you do it, position yourself in a way that says you are not the center of gravity.

Lastly, don’t blink.  If the discussion does not start immediately and you fill the dead air with another question or a comment, they’ll learn quickly that you’ll bail them out when the going gets tough.  Don’t.

I promise you – someone will talk.

Once you’ve established this culture and they’ve become accustomed to this group dynamic, it’s okay to join in.  In fact, I’d encourage it.  Just be self-aware enough to join as a collaborator, an equal. Don’t resume your role as the discussion leader.

Problem-Based Activities

Form a Thesis

Purpose:  Gets students to reexamine texts and introduce argumentation.

Context:  More than once my students read and discussed the assigned readings in a cursory way.  In the main they summarized.  Sometimes (after modeling) they offered a main thesis.  Rarely did they venture a counter-argument.

Task:  The task depends on what we’ve read and what I’m trying to accomplish.  Typically I ask the students to write the title and main assertion of each essay on the the white board, and I give them five minutes as a class to form a central unifying thesis.

The ensuring discussion forces them to think more deeply about what they’ve read.  They also compare perspectives on how each student infers a different meaning from each text (this insight usually emerges but often is lost upon them unless pointed out).

I’ve used this task to have them connect the four disciplines to each other, and the four disciplines to the guiding question and to the Battersby and Bailin essay.

You can do this as a large group, or have small groups work and then compare.

Regardless, I ask questions designed to help students connect and tangibly associate their actions and ideas with the specific strategies of critical thinking.  Often they see in their work how one might form a cogent argument.

Owning the ELOs

Purpose:  Having students put their posters and guiding questions into the larger four year frame

Context:  Our ELOs include language about the nature of the QU education.  We can tell our students what this means, we can even have them create PSPs.  This does not mean they buy in and are ready to embrace the message.

Task:  There are several ways to help students own the ELOs.  The most obvious is to have them continue building their ePortfolio with artifacts, and to regular revisit the PSP.

But you can also give a copy of the ELOs to your students and ask them to develop a rubric and method for holding themselves accountable.

They can read the course catalogue and choose a UC course in the 4 disciplines.  Ask them to share how it relates to their major!

Borrow from activity number three – have them form a thesis between their guiding question, the available UC courses, and their perspective career.

Product-Based Activities

WTL Swap

Purpose: Take the fear out of sharing our writings

Context:  One of my seminars was struggling to make sense of all the social science readings – not only how they fit together but how they related to the arts, natural sciences, and humanities.

I asked to to define “Social Sciences”.  Asking them to define the term was a good way, I reasoned, to have them revisit and connect each essay’s main argument.  Their discussion was good but limited to 1/3 of the team, and far from conclusive.

Task:  I asked everyone to write out their thoughts as a self-development activity. I didn’t set any parameters (i.e.: word count) expecting that each should work out the problem as they saw fit.

Don’t add your name, I said. We are going to swap papers and they should be anonymous.

When the students come back with their writings, I collect and than redistribute them as randomly as I can.  Then I ask students to share.  This gets the students to see the work of another and takes their own ego/fear out of sharing.


Purpose:  Gets students to consciously examine their own work

Context:  When I was a young Army officer learning basic small unit tactics, our instructors wouldn’t allow us to make our first mistakes while burning diesel.  (An M1 tank burns 44 gallons an hour).  We’d have to practice on a very large terrain board to prove we knew something of what we were taught.  We had to explain to our instructors, step by step, how we’d execute an attack, a defense, a movement to contact, etc.

We were required to be fully transparent. We’d tell them what decisions we were making as we “maneuvered” our game pieces, and why.

This works for any complex task where you are as interested in a student’s thinking as you are their product.

Task:  Students go to the white board with their completed issue map (for their personal guiding question) but rather than present the product, they must draw it out for the class presenting their decisions – how they formed observations, what questions they asked (and why?), and what they considered as options but in the end rejected.

Teaching in the Moment

As you witness your students doing something worthy of note, you ask them to stop and call attention their  actions  (good or bad).   You  are  looking  to  tangibly  associate  their  ideas  and  actions with  the learning  objectives  by  using  questions.    It’s  a meta-cognitive  exercise where  they  become  the  case study and see how the learning objectives (critical thinking, cognitive diversity, collaborating to learn – not win) manifest.

I talked about “teaching in the moment” in my blog.

Innovative Fusion Activities

I am including this PSP activity as crafted by Siggy Nystrom.  I want to use it to make the point that my categories “discussion, problem, and product” are rather artificial.  Many of my techniques could fit into another category, especially as adapt them to fit your own purposes.  In her description you can see the elements of several different techniques at work.

Furthermore, my list is incomplete.  I didn’t talk, for example, about presentations or debates.

So experiment.  Have students experiment.  But always remember this:  it’s not about fun or energy.  You should always match what you’re doing to an end (a learning objective) that has academic meaning.

Equating the Personal Success Plan to the College Major

Purpose: To give students the opportunity to reflect and share some information about their academic future (This will be submitted into their E-Portfolio later)

Task: Find an article in your major that you are interested in. (students named this “Awesome Article”). You will present the article and make it interesting to your audience! Don’t just read it in a monotone voice. Be the teacher that you wish many teachers would be in your current classes. 

Presentation: When you present, include your major, what courses are required in your major, why you chose the major, and if you’ve ever been in the field of your major. Then tell us about the article you chose. Where did you find it and what was it about? Can we develop a “Guiding Question” from the article?

Siggy’s Rules: 

No laptops allowed. You can speak off of notes. Informal. No standing up. Sit in circle.

Listeners MUST write down two questions of any kind to ask the speaker.  These questions will hopefully elicit discussion and thought. The speaker can randomly choose a peer or two to ask the question. All written questions will be turned in at the end. (This way, students must engage in the presentation)

Outcomes Description from Siggy:

“During this session, the students were professional and serious. They listened carefully and took notes. The presenters were relaxed and passionate about their field of study and spoke well.  In the beginning, the presenters spoke to me, but as students asked questions after the presentation, this drew the presenters to speak to the circle of listeners and slowly the presenters presented to each other as I faded into silence. There was no time limit given to the presentation. There was no need. They naturally took about 5 minutes each. The discussion following each presentation actually led each student to process his/her choice of major and to show his/her knowledge in the field. This was extremely helpful for the student because they don’t have the opportunity to simply talk about their major. Most of the students have reported frustration with the limited availability of their advisor.

My goal was to have students go beyond their obedience of courses in their major and actually seek something that they can connect to regarding what they will be studying in the next four years.

I also wanted them to “teach” their own subject matter as well as experiment with a sense of “re-search” based on their own choices! In addition, I wanted them to be the “receivers” of questions from the audience whether they could answer those questions or not.

They were in a position of power during their presentation. Originally, I was going to make this a group presentation, but the classes are already very comfortable talking, and I wanted each student to have his/her own choice of selected articles. In addition, surprisingly, the students stumbled upon some great “wicked problems” and possible guiding questions.”


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