Starting the Intellectual Engine Online

Writen by Tracy Fairless, M.A., Director of Learning Design, Center for eLearning and Connected Environments –
“Students should be made to grapple with the material and receive authentic practice in thinking like an expert,” said Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In The Chronicle of Higher Education (2012) article entitled “Harvard Conference Seeks to Jolt University Teaching”, Wieman addressed the need for applying new approaches to teaching and learning. There is no mistaking the importance of covering concepts and theories in core undergraduate courses. However, emerging research calls to question the traditional teaching practice of lectures and standard forms of assessment and seeks to challenge professors to place emphasis on questions rather than answers.

How do we move our classrooms from a torrent of content and obscured answers to one driven by critical thinking?  Perhaps even more challenging, how do we develop eLearning classrooms that challenge thinking and give rise to transformative learning experiences?

The learner experience in the college classroom [intellectual engine] is not far removed from that of the driving experience of a well-designed automobile. There are individuals that prefer to drive only when necessity calls and they have limited knowledge of the automobile and how it functions.  It is simply a mode of transportation. There are those that may enjoy the driving experience but never question the mechanics of the automobile and take for granted the engine will start with the turn of the key.  Then, there are the auto enthusiasts that want to know every detail of the engine and how it can be tweaked to improve performance. The enthusiasts ask questions, seek more information, and compare and contrast to shape their driving experience. Interestingly, the enthusiasts will experience driving in a much richer and memorable way. They are likely to share their knowledge with others and may find their path is altered by the driving experience.

Coming back to learning, how do we start the intellectual engines in students? How do we encourage learner enthusiasts? Perhaps one essential part requires the use of logical questions that incite reflection, reasoning, analysis, and lead the learner to identify connections and draw conclusions.  Online threaded discussions, blogs, vlogs, and other tools can be used as a tool [medium] for interactions, however, the tool is not the driver of the experience. In fact, the tool has little impact and can easily be substituted for one of many alternatives. Regardless of discipline, teaching students to be the author of questions that prompt critical thinking places the student in the driver’s seat. When used in conjunction with the professor’s expertise [transfer of knowledge], teaching through creative questioning can lead students to move beyond the exposure to new concepts while exploring complex ideas, issues, and problems. Students that are led to create their own questions, to reflect, and to judge underlying assumptions are provided the opportunity to develop problem-solving skills and a more personal connection with the subject. The learning experience can include exposure to information previously unknown or blind to the learner.  Such personal recognition lends itself to deeper integration with the potential for a transformative experience.


The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching, and Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2018, from

Berrett, D. (2015, February 5). Harvard Conference Seeks to Jolt University Teaching. Retrieved February 1, 2018, from

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