The Metaquestion: A Different Approach to Course Design

Every semester for the last two years I have co-taught a six-week course at Rice University called “Pedagogy for Student Instructors.” Students who take this course are preparing to teach their peers topics they themselves love, enjoy, and find important in what are called Student Taught Courses[1].   Over six weekly meetings my co-instructor and I guide them through evidence-based practices for good course design at the end of which they produce a polished syllabus. The majority of prospective student instructors propose to teach courses on topics in which they have limited formal training, but about which they are very passionate. For example, in the last year we had a neuroscience major teaching a course on “B-boying: An Introduction to Breakdancing,” an English major teaching a class on “The Art of Professional Wrestling,” and a pre-med student teaching a course on “Adulthood: Theory and Practice”.  

The diversity of topics and the limited formal training on the part of the student instructors presents unique challenges for teaching pedagogy and course design that I am often not faced with when working with faculty and graduate students who have extensive training in their areas of instruction. Working with the student instructors has challenged me to revisit the fundamentals of course design as these student instructors often ask me during the first class meeting, "Where do I begin?" In this post, I want to share one the fundamentals of course design that I return to time and again when working with student instructors, seasoned faculty, as well as graduate students enrolled in our certificate program:  the metaquestion[2].

Suggesting that instructors begin their course design process with a metaquestion, or an overarching question, emerges from my background as a social scientist. The social sciences, like all sciences, are reflexive in their nature. They not only observe the world, but they also observe how they and other disciplines observe the world. For example, this disciplinary reflexivity in my field of sociology produces meta-analyses (a study of studies) and meta-theories (theory of a set of theories), which are also common features of other sciences. The prefix “meta” identifies a reflexive stance and therefore, a metaquestion is one that develops, interrogates, and addresses the core questions of a field, discipline, subject, or topic.

The use of questions to guide decisions about course design has been well established in the teaching and learning literature. Wiggins and McTighe have perhaps been the most influential with their chapter in Understanding by Design on the use “essential questions.” They suggest that when designing courses we think in terms of questions: “[i]nstead of thinking of content as something to be covered, consider knowledge and skill as the means of addressing questions central to understanding key issues in your subject” (107).  Essential questions are an important part of course design helping to guide the articulation and measurement of learning goals, design of assignments, as well as the selection of content for the course. Essential questions are especially useful for organizing course modules and lessons. However, I have found that incorporating a metaquestion into course design brings all these essential questions (and the aspects of the course they refer to) into conversation with each other through one overarching reflexive question that guides all the course work that students are engaged in. In other words, the metaquestion is the question that asks why the essential questions of a course matter.

The nature of the metaquestion depends on the course, the instructor, and even the iteration of the course. For example, a history course on the American Revolution may ask students to consider if the American Revolution was in fact a revolution[3]. An introductory biology course could ask students to consider: what is life[4]? In my own upper division course “The Sociology of Food” this past semester I asked students to consider how we can create change in the modern food system. Yet, in a previous semester I asked them to consider if agriculture was the worst mistake in human history[5].

No matter the course, the instructor, the field, or the topic metaquestions share several key characteristics that make them central to course design. A good metaquestion:

  • Encourages course work that interrogates course content building skills and knowledge to facilitate independent learning;
  • Reoccurs over the course, connecting to the essential questions that organize the course modules, lessons, and/or individual class sessions;
  • Cuts across the discipline, field, or topic and may also be interdisciplinary in nature;
  • Provides coherence, justification and support for the course;
  • Has value beyond the classroom;
  • Incites passion in students and enables them to make the questions relevant to their own lives;
  • Targets students’ intrinsic motivations, encouraging affective as well as intellectual responses to the material;
  • Exists before and after the course, extending student learning to other courses, fields, topics, and aspects of students lives’, and;
  • Develops transferable skills like critical thinking.

Unlike the “essential questions” that Wiggins and McTighe propose, a course’s metaquestion is not a question looking for an answer. Instead metaquestions are penetrating questions that themselves produce knowledge and the means by which students acquire greater understanding.  Good metaquestions are questions that persist not only in a course’s discipline, field, or topical area, but persist in the mind of the student. Therefore metaquestions provide instructors with a way to articulate course outcomes that are not always measurable in the way learning goals are, yet are central in guiding student learning. In the end a metaquestion helps instructors and students answer the central question: why is this class important?

 [Edit May 30,2016: After publishing this post I found a 2013 blog post by Jane S. Webster on the same topic. She is the first, as far as I know, to use the term in reference to teaching and learning.]


[1] You can find a current list of STCs here

[2] Several months after writing my post, I stumbled upon this blog post by Jane S. Webster. Although the term "metaquestion" is used in many disciplines her post appears to be the earliest application of the concept to teaching.

[3] Thanks to my co-instructor Brandy McDaniel for this example from her days as an undergraduate.

[4] Thanks to Emily Thomas, one of the biosciences graduate students enrolled in our Teaching Certificate Program, for this example presented during her teaching demonstration.

[5] As proposed by Jared Diamond in his article "The Worst Mistake In Human History"

Posted on March 9, 2016 .