One Big Question: A Rewarding Reflective Exercise
Learn about Lia's experience with the "One Big Question" and how an ongoing reflection on this big question contributed to a shift in her approach to teaching history.Lia Schraeder, PhD | Division for Teaching Innovation & Program Strategy Jul 3, 2023
It has been a challenging year for higher education, with students and instructors alike reporting higher levels of stress and burnout (Pope-Raurk, 2022 & Cavanaugh, 2023). Though you will likely be tending to some responsibilities this summer, hopefully the break will afford you some time to rest and replenish your energy and sense of well-being. If you are wondering what precisely you can do to rejuvenate your energy around teaching, here I share one idea for your consideration: a reflective exercise driven by one big question.
This one big question exercise was first introduced to me at the Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching. As the setup for the question, we were asked to imagine running into a student a few years after taking our course (maybe 5, 10, or even 20 years from now), and they approach us to tell us how our course impacted them. We were then asked to reflect on one simple but profound question: what would I want a student to remember about my course a few years from now?
For me, ongoing reflection on this big question contributed to a shift in my approach to teaching history. As I more clearly envisioned the lasting impact I wanted to make on students, I began to move away from a content emphasis (i.e. history as “what happened”), and towards a disciplinary and skills emphasis (history as a way of thinking and communicating). The shift in my vision in turn inspired me to try new teaching methods such as multimodal assignments and history role-play games, and brought gains in student learning as well as my job satisfaction.
In my work with teaching faculty over the years, I’ve been surprised and delighted by their many varied and passionate responses to the big question. For some, answers revolve around fostering relationships with students. For others, answers focus on empowering students or igniting student passion. Some instructors identify a core insight or methodology of their discipline, and perhaps how it might apply to other contexts. Others might envision some form of transformation of student habits of mind. Though, as James Lang notes, their answers are often “vague, broad, and aspirational,” still there is no doubt this is a powerful exercise for all faculty (Lang, 2018).
From my perspective, asking this big question can contribute to faculty well-being in a few different ways. At one level, the big question helps us to articulate our personal passion as scholars and teachers of our disciplines, including our vision and values. This connection with our own sense of purpose and meaning in turn energizes all we do.
At another level, the big question helps us shift into a student-centered approach to teaching. The question encourages us to think carefully about who our students are, what they need, and how to build relationships with them in order to make the content meaningful and relevant to their future lives and careers. Focusing on students before content helps us to bring compassion and human connection to our work and brings gains in well-being to our students and ourselves.
Lastly, at the level of instructional design, the big question is highly practical. Our answer to the big question helps us to use our vision to energize and inform our course design: to articulate clear goals for our courses, to prioritize what is most important, and to align everything we do with our goals. Intentional and aligned course design, in turn, is more impactful on students and increases faculty sense of efficacy and satisfaction with our work.
I hope you find this reflective exercise on one big question to be interesting and helpful. Feel free to connect with if you try this reflection this summer and/or if you’d like to chat about teaching with an instructional designer. We’re here to support you!
Cavanaugh, S.R. (2023, May 2). “They need us to be well.” Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/they-need-us-to-be-well
Lang, J. (2018, Sept. 30) “What will students remember from your class in 20 years?” Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/what-will-students-remember-from-your-class-in-20-years/
Pope-Raurk, R. (2022, Sept. 19) “You’re burned out, now what?” Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/youve-burned-out-now-what