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I am teaching classes of a size of 20-25 persons.

During a class, what is the best way to get feedback from students? Concretely, I would want to get the following questions answered every ~15-20 minutes:

  • Did the students understand what I was explaining?
  • Are there any questions related to what was just discussed?

Ideally, I would also like to encourage weaker students to ask questions---without them being afraid of asking those questions.

Do you have any advise on how to best phrase such questions from my side?

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    What field is this? What level? – Buffy Sep 27 '18 at 11:11
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    This is like the 10 million dollar question for instructors, isn't it? – Mad Jack Sep 27 '18 at 11:45
  • "Did the students understand what I was explaining?" Look at their faces! :-p – Massimo Ortolano Sep 27 '18 at 12:00
  • @MassimoOrtolano, that only goes so far. Often they can think they understand, but don't. It gives a clue, of course, but nothing more. – Buffy Sep 27 '18 at 12:05
  • This is for MSc Computer Science students, for what it's worth. I would assume that the problem is get similar for other courses of studies – Florian Sep 27 '18 at 12:18
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I'm going to suggest that you are probably over-using lecture as a teaching technique. If that is the case, there is hardly any way to achieve the goals you set. Students don't learn something by hearing it once, or even twice. They learn by engaging with the material and that is impossible in the short term available in a lecture. At most, what you can elicit is a bit of ephemera from their short term memories. But that isn't learning. Let me suggest two techniques, but the first is, by far, the least effective.

  1. Force the students to take extensive notes with paper and pencil. They can use full size sheets of paper, but should also each have a deck of index cards. Encourage/require the students to record on the index cards the three most important ideas from any given lecture (one idea per card). Take time periodically, if you like, but the end of the class period is likely enough, to ask them what were the most important three ideas. Students volunteer from their already prepared cards. You can accept or veto any idea. Do this every day. Also, encourage/require students to write questions on the cards and pass them to you periodically (this is your every 15 minute solution). Quickly sift through the questions and either answer them immediately or just incorporate them into what you do going forward. At the start of the next class, ask the question, what were the three most important ideas from the previous lecture. Again, volunteers can offer suggestions. Also, see my answer to a different, but related question at CSEducators

  2. The above, still assumes that you use lecture primarily, but this is not an optimal teaching technique. Instead, you want to learn about and use a flipped classroom. A search for "flipped classroom" on this site will reveal a lot of discussion. I point you to an answer I gave for slightly younger students but which also applies here. I try, there, to outline the idea. But the key to it is that in a flipped classroom you use the face time to work with the students, rather than to perform for them. In a situation like this, you have no doubt about their understanding as you are involved directly in developing it.

Of these two techniques, the second is much more likely to be effective. In CS, it also gives you the opportunity to use pairing and group work so that the students can reinforce one another's learning, so that not every idea needs to come from you and so that you don't need to individually reinforce the learning of every student. Lots of wins can be achieved here.

Since it came up in a comment, let me add that one reason to dis-favor lecture as a primary teaching technique is that students have different "learning modalities" and lecturing disadvantages some students - those who are not primarily visual or aural learners. Active learning, combined with other things, is much more effective as it reinforces the learning immediately and drives it deeper into the brain's pathways. Every student is different and instructors should realize that most students are not like themselves unless they are doing doctoral level education.

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    I cannot both write and think at the same time. In a lecture, I would far rather be listening and thinking critically than writing notes. Your suggestion 1 would make the lecture useless to me. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 27 '18 at 16:45
  • @PatriciaShanahan, I think, then, that you are an unusual case. Everyone is different, which is one reason lecturing is not an optimal teaching strategy. I would, then, find a way to take notes immediately afterwards, while the ideas are fresh and you can reinforce them through writing and summarizing. – Buffy Sep 27 '18 at 17:59
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    I don't know how unusual I am relative to the whole population. The academic world tends to weed us out. I got much better grades in heavily mathematical courses in my 50's than in my late teens. Some difference may be due to grade inflation, but the intervening invention of the digital camera really helped. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 27 '18 at 19:22
  • @PatriciaShanahan, in a situation like yours, one possible accommodation is to distribute the lecture notes (usually slides these days) before the lecture. My preference for using them would be to print them out and annotate them during the lecture (by hand) or immediately after, if necessary. It is the writing by hand that is the active part that reinforces the ideas in the brain. If I want to force that to happen, I'd distribute them on paper, rather than electronically. I might do that if I learn that my students aren't studying effectively, otherwise leave them to their own devices. – Buffy Sep 27 '18 at 19:46
  • Writing by hand is exactly what interferes most, for me, with listening, thinking, and understanding. I know it helps a lot of people, but not me. By the time someone gets to college I would think they know whether writing during lectures helps or hurts their learning, and should be let decide for themselves whether to do it or not. After lectures, I would rather spend my time on attempting to integrate and apply what I've learned, which really does help me understand, than spend it on hand writing. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 27 '18 at 23:10
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One does not really understand the material until one has tried to use it. So to answer the question of whether students understood what you said, give a problem for them to solve. With a class size of 20-25, you could ask someone to come to the whiteboard and demonstrate a solution. Or perhaps if it's a simple conceptual problem, you could have a multiple-choice question and solicit answers with a show of hands.

As for whether there're any questions related to what was just discussed, the easiest (and obvious) way is to ask the students. Pause the lecture and ask if there're any questions. It's possible there'll be an awkward silence, but that's fine; just give the students ~30 seconds to think about what they don't understand and how to phrase the question. If you're in a culture that is shy by nature, you could do what I witnessed a famous scientist once do: "Since we're in Singapore, we'll skip the first question and go directly to the second question." That led to some giggles but then there was a flood of questions afterwards. If nobody asks anything, then assume they get it.

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    In my experience, these techniques don't really work. Students don't realize that they don't understand, and so they don't ask questions. If you ask them whether everything is clear, they will mutter "yes"; they're deadly afraid of looking like fools. Show of hand is just a game of chicken: people first check if their friends raise their hands before raising theirs. And sending a student to the blackboard can help, buy often students are incapable of redoing the exercise even after seeing someone do it. Just try it. Can you clarify at what level and for what class you used these techniques? – user9646 Sep 27 '18 at 11:14
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    @NajibIdrissi, I agree completely. The one thing the writer got correct is that students won't understand something until they use it. But I've found all of the suggestions here to be counterproductive. – Buffy Sep 27 '18 at 11:56
  • While these suggestions are pretty traditional and not the best ideas of current teaching pedagogy, they are time-honored and can work, so I disagree with the categorical criticism. Not every student is an anxiety-prone introvert. If you have a class where no one speaks up to discuss or ask questions, you have failed to build the proper safe environment. Work harder at that critical task, from day one. If a student gets stuck on a problem on the board, this is valuable lesson; they thought they understood and discover they didn't. An opportunity to step in and teach now. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 27 '18 at 13:26
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    +1 for the first paragraph, despite the second paragraph. – JeffE Sep 27 '18 at 18:17
  • In particular, +1 for the first sentence. I don't really understand something until I've applied it. For example, when I am learning a programming language independently, I switch frequently between writing a program and reading about the language. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 27 '18 at 23:13

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