Shauna Van Praagh: Asking good questions

Shauna Van Praagh

"I gauge a lot by the quality of questions students ask."

Shauna Van Praagh currently teaches the first-year course in extra-contractual obligations and the second-year course in advanced common law obligations. She also teaches seminars on Social Diversity and on Law and Children and in 2011 was a participant in the joint McGill-Hebrew University Summer Program in Human Rights.

Professor Van Praagh was the the Faculty's Associate Dean of Graduate Studies from 2007 to 2010. 

How do you know that your students are learning and how do your students know they are learning?

First, I want to make sure that my students know they are supported, so I use a mix of both formal and informal markers to indicate that they are learning.

In my large classes, where I may have 130 students, the markers tend to be more informal, because it’s logistically impossible to give and mark over one-hundred assignments every class. So I’ll often divide the students into small groups and give them unmarked classroom exercises, where they have to work through a problem or answer questions with reference to what they learned last class, last week or last month. This allows them to self-assess – to test themselves for what they have learned.

As well, at regular intervals I will give them marked or pass/fail tests and assignments in order to see how they are engaging with the class. These more formal markers are part of the participation component of the course and they help me see how well the students have grasped the material we’ve covered and how well they can articulate answers to my questions. Thus, either verbally or through graded methods, I will periodically point out what they are learning so that they can see where they are making progress and where they are off track.

Since questions are a good indicator of learning, I gauge a lot by the quality of questions students ask. Ideally, students come to class with questions that indicate not only that they understood a recent discussion but that they actually want to explore it further, moving beyond the initial topic. Conversely, if they arrive with questions that indicate that they are somewhat lost, that tells me that we need to review certain areas or that some students should follow up with me individually.

In a twist on that, I do an exercise with my first-year students – which often surprises them – where I put them in small groups and ask “What would you do in the class? What questions would you ask your fellow students to get them to examine the following kinds of concerns or issues?” This helps them see how they and their peers are learning and to see if their notes on cases have prepared them well for our discussions or not.