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I've seen on this site several posts about how to handle silly or "trolling" questions, but I recently faced the opposite situation. Several students in a class I'm teaching continuously bring up questions that are relevant to the lecture and/or interesting; however, they ask so many questions that it tends to disrupt the lecture by throwing off the pace and flow of the presentation (e.g., I lose my train of thought or I have to speed up to finish the lecture on time). I don't want to discourage questions, but at the same time, I don't think it is fair to entertain so many questions if it results in a lowering of the lecture's quality.

A solution that I tried is telling the students that they can come to office hours or make an appointment with me to talk. However, most of them don't take me up on those offers, and those who do take advantage of my offer sometimes come with so many questions that I cannot answer them all within the time I've set aside for office hours/teaching appointments.

Since this is limited to a small (but vocal) subset of my students, I don't think the issue is with the quality of my teaching. Otherwise I would expect (and hope) that more people would be asking questions or giving some other indication that I'm not being clear.

Is there any way to handle this sort of situation without coming across as uninterested in student questions or discouraging questions from being posed? I truly am interested in making sure everyone is understanding the material, but at the same time, I cannot be devoting large amounts of time above and beyond what I'm already devoting to teaching.

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    It sounds like you do plan for some time for questions. Try allocating all of that time at the end of class in a question and answer session. This would let you cover your material fully, and then answer questions until class is over. That way you cover everything you wanted, and answer as many questions as possible. – FreakyDan Jan 7 '15 at 22:41
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    I would recommend something like piazza.com for these types of questions, where students can post these questions and you, your TAs, or other students can help answer them. This way, you can limit class discussion to urgent questions relating to understanding the material at hand. – dramzy Jan 8 '15 at 16:17
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    It sounds like you are trying to cover too much material in lecture. Slow down. Teach less (but better). – JeffE Jan 9 '15 at 5:08
  • What @JeffE said. What is the point of "finishing the lecture on time" if people are already not understanding what you are already covering? – Jonathan Gleason Feb 27 '16 at 4:26
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As a student, I find that waiting to ask all questions in office hours or the end of class is not a great solution. I don't mind delaying non-urgent questions, but sometimes if I don't understand something presented in the first ten minutes of the class, I might then miss out on the rest of the lecture if I don't have a chance to ask a question. So I appreciate when instructors give students some chance to ask questions during the lecture.

A good way to allow this and also control when and how many questions are asked is to invite questions in each class at times of your choosing (and let students know you'll be doing this).

At the beginning of the lecture, say, "I'll pause and ask for questions at regular intervals, so you'll have a chance to ask your questions then."

Decide ahead of time where you will pause and ask for questions (at convenient places to break the lecture, or places where you know students often have questions).

During the lecture, pause at the predetermined places and say something like:

"I'll pause for questions now. We have time for three or four questions."

(and you can decide how many questions to take depending on how the lecture is going, time-wise.)

Students with too many questions in office hours are an entirely different issue. You should ask these students to schedule a separate appointment, and determine whether the questions are a sign of a problem (i.e. they may need tutoring or similar services) or a good thing (i.e. they are looking for enrichment and need some pointers on how to find it).

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    This is good. In particular, it avoids questions which can be answered by "you'll see in a minute". One quick augmenting idea I have zero experience with: allow them to post questions (during class) to some service and access them in the "question zone"? In particular, questions can be anonymous then. (I know that some students are reluctant to expose themselves.) – Raphael Jan 8 '15 at 14:16
  • @Raphael And further to those, I'd love a 'ban' on "what are some applications", and "can you give an example?" questions when the course has a problem class, or a later lecture is titled 'Applications of foobar'.. Sometimes feels like so much time wasted going around in circles - I imagine it can only feel worse for the lecturer. – OJFord Jan 8 '15 at 16:33
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I too have struggled with this as a teacher, particularly because I don't want to stifle engagement from students. My main approach, which I think works well with relatively small classes but would not scale well to more than a couple dozen students, is to change my lecture structure so that rather than just presenting material, I am asking students to actively reason about what should come next. That way, the exploration of ideas is built into the lecture and becomes part of the education rather than distracting from it.

To illustrate this, let me give an example from a lecture that I gave last semester:

  1. I started by presenting a basic algorithm on the topic of the lecture.
  2. Next, I worked an example, having the students say what would happen at each step.
  3. We then worked an example of a situation that was problematic for the algorithm the same way, and we talked about what more general circumstances would cause the problem.
  4. I then led a discussion where the students tried to figure out how they might change the algorithm to improve its behavior. After a little while, we'd come close enough to the ideas of the more sophisticated algorithm that was the next thing I wanted to present, and I moved to presenting that algorithm, explaining how they had nearly reinvented it.
  5. We then did the same thing for one more cycle, covering a total of three important algorithms in the lecture and ending with a discussion of the general trade-off space they were representative of, as well as assumptions and pragmatics to be concerned about in real-world usage.

This approach requires a lot of thinking on your feet, but I think it can be rewarding because it illustrates the students not just how the material works but also where it comes from. I think it also helps build confidence in their own intellectual abilities when (with a little coaching) they can develop the same insights that created the advances they are learning about.

The downside of this approach is that you probably can't pack as many things into a single lecture. I think this is often OK, because you end up teaching more about principles and how to think about a subject, which means the students will be more able to pick up related material if they need it. You also need to be really confident in your material. I also have no idea how it could scale to large classes.

Other things that I think are important for making this type of approach work:

  • Call on different "areas" of the class (e.g., "let's hear from somebody in the back", "let's hear from somebody who hasn't spoken yet"), to keep things from being dominated by the same students.
  • Be willing to let a silence stretch long enough for students to think and gain confidence to speak.
  • If any chunk of discussion is going on too long, you can say something like, "These are really good ideas, and they lead right into the next thing I wanted to show you..." or "That's an excellent question, and we'll come back to it later in the lecture..." and just move forward. It won't feel as much like discouraging questions in this mode, since after all you've just been leading a discussion!
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    Sounds like you're talking about replacing lectures with seminars, not altering lectures. – Lightness Races with Monica Jan 8 '15 at 2:26
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit Call it what you like, the students still learned the material for the course (at least judging by their marks). – jakebeal Jan 8 '15 at 4:13
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    Well, having names for things is quite important. For example, it's how I know that the OP is asking about lectures, and not about seminars, or egg friend rice, or maple syrup, or jazz music. – Lightness Races with Monica Jan 8 '15 at 10:10
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit Sure, but that does not mean that those names mean the same to everyone. To me a seminar is not at all what is described in this answer (but rather a talk given by someone about their latest research). – Tobias Kildetoft Jan 8 '15 at 12:19
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit The description there disagrees with the use I have encountered of the term in 4 different universities. – Tobias Kildetoft Jan 8 '15 at 12:27
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You're very lucky to have this problem, which is not really a problem but rather an opportunity. You don't say what field this is, but for STEM fields, there's a great deal of research (see [Freeman] for a review) showing that straight lecturing is the worst possible mode of instruction, and that the methods that work better involve some kind of active engagement by the students.

Some of the comments on jakebeal's answer seem to show that a lot of people are really hung up on a strict 19th-century interpretation of what "lecture" means. Just because it's referred to as "lecture" in the college catalog, that doesn't mean that it has to be taught using techniques that have been demonstrated to be ineffective.

I don't want to discourage questions, but at the same time, I don't think it is fair to entertain so many questions if it results in a lowering of the lecture's quality.

The research shows that the opposite is the case. The lowest quality of instruction will result if you give a straight, smooth, highly organized, noninteractive lecture.

they ask so many questions that it tends to disrupt the lecture by throwing off the pace and flow of the presentation (e.g., I lose my train of thought or I have to speed up to finish the lecture on time)

Your concern about covering all the material is a natural one, given traditional expectations that students will be spoon-fed the material in class. Active learning techniques can only succeed if the instructor makes it clear that the students are responsible for reading before the material is covered in class, and enforces this expectation using grades, typically by giving easy, multiple-choice questions on the reading. The purpose of the class meeting is then to wrestle with the material, not to introduce it. For an example of successful practices, see [Mazur].

Freeman et al., "Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics" -- http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111

Mazur, Peer Instruction: A User's Manual, 1996

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It sounds to me like there are 2 types of question relevant here

  • What did you mean by ...?

The answer is brief and not answering would affect a student's ability to follow the rest of the lecture.

  • What are the implications of ...?

This is a question that might lead to a longer answer or some discussion.

I suggest that the first kind should be answered when asked, the effect on the flow of the lecture should be small. The second kind is more amenable to deferring to one or more of

  • the end of the lecture or section
  • office hours
  • the next lecture
  • a seminar/problems class

In many of these cases you and more importantly the students can take some time to read about the question (you might need a 5 minute refresher, it might take them an hour).

Of course at first it will be up to you to say "let's save that question", but you can be clear about what's a good question to handle inline and what is best kept to the end. This distinction may serve them well in, for example, postgrad seminars if they go on to such things later.

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    As an option, consider answering interesting questions with long answers in writing, i.e. in a document you provide to all students. (Over time, this document is likely to evolve to cover most questions that arise during that same class.) – Raphael Jan 8 '15 at 14:20
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Frankly it sounds like you are the issue here. As the questions are on topic you are a lucky teacher to have students as interested in the topic. As a student (of the questioning persuasion) I can't stand to be told that my questions are "out of the scope if this class" etc. Learn your material backwards and forwards an in-depth. You aren't there to read the text book to them.

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    If he knows the answer but it would take an entire hour-long class session to completely cover it, then the question is out of scope of necessity. – Ben Voigt Jan 8 '15 at 23:16

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