24

In my field (as in many others), students are assigned articles or textbook chapters to be read as preparation for classes (i.e. the whole class has to read the same set of texts). I encourage my students to write down any questions they might have while working through the text assigned for the next session. I feel this is a great way of trying to understand the content of a text because (a) it helps students to specify what exactly it is they do not understand, (b) they might then be able to answer the question themselves and if they can't (c) they can ask them in class.

Unfortunately, many students do not follow this advice to the extent that I think is required for university-level courses. I often get feedback from them saying that the text is too difficult and they don't know what to ask. Instead, they ask me to tell them in lecture-style fashion what the text is about. I do this occasionally, and sometimes it is indeed a good method. But it's clearly not something I can do all the time, as I can see that they tend to find this boring and don't retain as much information as if they had worked through the text themselves.

I also find that many students (except for high achievers and those who are very outgoing) do not want to ask questions in class because (a) they are afraid of asking a question that others might think is stupid or (b) they are afraid of seeming overly eager/like an overachiever.

Q: What can I do to encourage students to ask questions in class?


Here's what I've tried so far, with varying success:

  1. Make it clear that reading academic writing is different from reading a newspaper, and that they need to actively work on how to deal with its complexity (and that learning this is indeed one of the great benefits of studying at a university). Then I make suggestions (using highlighter pens of different colours to mark different kinds of important information, underlining words or concepts they don't understand, using secondary sources to understand those concepts, making notes on the margins, summarising key ideas, making mindmaps, and asking questions in class). A minority of the students do indeed follow this approach.
  2. Tell them that asking questions on the material helps them understand it better and helps me improve the class. (I can't always guess what's easy or difficult for you personally, so please help me make this class better by telling me what it is you don't understand).
  3. Give examples of questions that are difficult to answer (I don't understand chapter 2, can you explain it to me?) and questions that are specific and useful for them and me (I understand that this theory involves concepts A and B, but I don't understand how concept C contributes to it.).
  4. Ask each student to come with at least two questions on the text: Works well with a smaller group, with a larger group not everyone can ask their questions or it takes so long that everyone gets bored. Variation: Students write down their questions anonymously, I collect them and then go through them in class. This is a great method to avoid embarrassment, but takes very long.
  5. Assigning students to small groups where they can discuss their questions. Then I go around and ask whether there are any questions they could not answer themselves. I find this works relatively well, but takes a lot of time. I also get many complaints that this method is pointless because the students can't answer each other's questions because they lack the necessary knowledge (although I find that in reality there are often questions that another student can answer). An advantage of this method is that students can admit to not having understood something in a small group instead of in front of the whole class.

Overall these strategies help, but I feel I'm not getting anywhere close to the optimal level of interaction. When I was a student, I often worked through a text (yes, not always, and I appreciate that not all students will always do this, and that's fine), marked the most important stuff and what I didn't understand, and asked question in class on what I didn't understand. I benefitted immensely from this, and I'd like my students to get these benefits, too.

Q: What can I do to encourage this learning style?

Note: The level of the texts is usually appropriate for the students, although I have in the past sometimes come to the conclusion that a given text was actually too difficult for them.

  • In which field are you? I think it can make a difference if it is math / arts / other. – Zenon Oct 13 '15 at 23:32
  • Linguistics. Methodologically that's pretty close to sociology. – Robert Oct 14 '15 at 0:08
  • 1
    I don't understand why you have to either 1. get students to ask about what they don't understand (what you want), or 2. tell them in lecture-style fashion what the text is about (a method that I agree is usually not very effective). Instead, if the students don't raise any questions of their own, why don't you ask them questions? – ff524 Oct 14 '15 at 1:25
  • Am I the only one who sees the irony in not being able to get students of linguistics to effectively communicate? The instructors that I saw get the most class participation were, 1) somewhat self-deprecating, 2) Were really encouraging of the questions, even the obvious ones, 3) Had excruciatingly difficult exams. 4) Put questions that students asked in class that they answered directly on the exam. 3 can be incredibly effective, 4 can be iffy, because it could backfire and cause them to clam up even more, but if those are the easier questions.... – AMR Oct 14 '15 at 3:27
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    @Robert Yes, in which case asking them questions will help you tease out what they don't understand. – ff524 Oct 15 '15 at 0:08

13 Answers 13

6
+50

Here are several ideas to consider. I'm not sure I necessarily recommend all of them but I've seen them being tried for better or worse results:

  • Make it a dialog by asking your students questions yourself. More specifically, pose questions which students are not very likely to just figure out; this will lead to almost no people raising their hands. Now pick someone you've decided in your infinite wisdom you should be hearing more from. Ask them to answer you. They may protest, or evade, but try to get them to explain what's preventing them from answering. Then "rhetorically reward" them for posing their problem in the form of the question. Repeat the question to the class, then answer it. Or rather - don't quite answer it completely, answer it partially so that you end up posing another question.

  • Teach slower. One of the reasons people don't ask questions is that they "lose" the teacher, who's going through things much faster for them to even formulate questions.

  • Don't hastily assume there are no questions. When you've finished a segment of your presentation, don't immediately rush to ask "any questions?" - make a pause first; then ask; then wait a while; like @Anonymous suggests, it should be a good number of seconds. It will seem like an eternity to you - but not to them, they're just catching their breath / trying to wrap their brains about what you just said.

  • Be more creative about how to ask for questions. Asking "any questions?" often comes off as you wanting to not hear any questions. A Professor at my alma mater is famous for using "so, are you 'buying' this? Yes or no?" and then saying "Well, ok, but if you're buying it, you're going to have to accept it as an assumption, and that's on you, not on me. So are you sure?"

  • Offer rewards for participating in class. The final grade in the course can be improved over the 'dry' results of HW assignment and exam grades based on participating in class; and when students ask a meaningful question (but this is also for comments; you can't usually only reward questions), you write down their name.

  • Get someone to conradict you. This is obviously much easier when you're teaching history, social studies, political science etc., but with some work it's sort-of possible also in hard sciences and math. Either by having an opponent present cases in which your claim is difficult to apply; or by you intentionally glossing over a proof of some lemma; and so on. This of course requires the participation of a TA, another lecturer, or in some cases a student who's able enough to handle it (this can be a bit problematic in terms of his/her experience in your class, but in graduate school not terribly hard).

  • Plant student questions yourself (v1). Before class, find one or two willing students; give them a question on a piece of paper; ask them not to reveal it to their friends (but maybe make sure their friends will try to peek and read it); and ask them to raise their hands and ask the question at some point (perhaps say when it should be asked on the paper). Now, these can sometimes be questions you actually want to answer yourself; sometimes they can be "faux questions", the relevance of which you want to get other students to challenge; or they could be questions which you want to direct back either at the person who asked them, or at other in class - asking them for help in answering.

  • Plant student questions yourself (v2). Add to the lecture notes several questions which are non-immediate conclusions, or lessons, which one can derive with some thought from what you're going to teach. Remind students at the beginning and the end of classes of these questions, and perhaps even state they may well appear on the exam, as stated or in variations. Perhaps have your TAs go over a part of them (not many) in their sessions, maybe once or twice at the beginning of the semester so that the students experience the nature of these questions. You are then likely to get either these questions themselves asked in class, or questions which students believe will help them resolve these questions.

Again, these different methods have pros and cons, and are rooted in different conceptions of the students-teachers relationship; take your pick according to your philosophy of teaching.

6

I frequently stop for questions. I find that it's helpful to stop for about seven seconds.

Seven seconds is longer than it sounds. It's nearly enough time for Usain Bolt to run 100 meters. Towards the end of it, you might start to feel a bit foolish standing in front of the class silently, smiling and looking around. I sometimes do.

But I often get a question around second five or six.

  • 1
    The power of a prolonged, intentionally awkward silence cannot be overstated. It doesn't work for everyone, but there are people who will talk simply to break the silence. For these scenarios, where you're trying to get people to talk, this is a fantastic approach. – eykanal Feb 8 '17 at 1:30
5

I'm teaching a very large lecture class in linguistics at the moment; I use an anonymous live-polling system that accepts answers by text, Wi-Fi, etc.

Normally I open a lecture by quickly reviewing key concepts of the previous one and asking for votes on which concepts to go over. I wait a couple of minutes for results, then revisit the top five in more detail.

Then I stop halfway through the lecture, open the poll, stand there, and say, "Okay. Ask me questions."

Making a poll anonymous always brings the risk of abuse, but removes the fear-of-judgment factor whatever its cause (shyness/introversion/low self-esteem, doubt about worthiness of question, anti-'keener' sentiment, etc.). And I keep standing there expectantly even if there are no questions for the first couple of minutes, which usually acts as a further antidote to reluctance. They might as well if no one else is asking questions!

I usually get a mix of A) useful questions ("Why doesn't English have as much inflection as Old English did?" or "Can you explain the Great Vowel Shift again?"), B) silly questions ("How many roads must a man walk down?" or "I like your shirt; where did you get it?", and C) a few profane/nonsensical questions. I answer the A)s, playfully integrate a B) or two if there's time, and ignore the C)s entirely (or be facetiously dismissive of them if I feel like trying to make the rest of the class laugh).

I thought about doing this at the end of lecture, but when one student out of 317 in attendance decides to pack up and leave, they all do that. Halfway through seems to work better for waiting around for questions.

  • +1 for anonymous polling. I've seen that used to great effect, and in classrooms where almost everyone has a computer that can be a very good approach. – eykanal Feb 8 '17 at 1:32
3

Extreme version:

One of my professors would always start his seminar asking for our questions. Once we stayed silent for some minutes, and the teacher broke off the session, asking us to return next week with better preparation.

In hindsight, one of the best teachers I have got to know.

3

Have you tried using something like Piazza? In my NLP class, we use Piazza as a forum for questions in class, the assignments, and the textbook, but also to share current events and interesting tidbits about the field. Participation makes up 40% of our grade, and you're expected to have some sort of valuable input at least once a month, whether that means asking questions in class or facilitating useful discussions in the online forum.

What I was trying to get at is that an online forum is a useful place for people to ask questions that they may not thought would have been worth using class time to bring up.

  • I've used Piazza, and not to turn this into an advertisement, but that worked very well in a class I was in. It's a combination discussion forum/wiki/file repository created for classrooms. – eykanal Feb 8 '17 at 1:33
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    While not against this altogether, I would actually want to avoid students investing times in writing and formatting long-form questions and focusing on their screen rather than on stage. – einpoklum Feb 9 '17 at 14:38
3

Some tried-and-true strategies:

  • Get down to earth. Go to the students. Stand next to the first rows of chairs when listening to the questions, as close by as you feel comfortable.
    In a normal class, you'd talk to them standing at the podium or in front of the whiteboard. But when you look them in the eye and say "Any questions?," this elevated position makes you look like the Spanish Inquisition. If you go down to the audience instead, you turn into their ally. It's also easier for students to ask you something when you are within a hearing distance and they don't need to shout. Once you get a question - repeat it loudly for the whole audience, thank the student who asked it with a nod or a smile, return to the podium to show slides or write on the whiteboard. Repeat for the next question.
  • It's easier to raise a hand than a voice. If you know which parts of your lecture may be most difficult to comprehend, offer them a small topic to discuss. For example, "From the mid-terms, it seemed to me that we are not fully clear on the topic of rainbows. How many of you would like to hear more about the green color? Or discussing orange would be better?"
    Never ask "Who doesn't understand green?" - that's the inquisition role again; save it for the exam. Ask "How many...," let them raise hands and see for themselves that they are not alone who'd "simply like to hear more." Warning: don't do this for more than a couple of quick questions, otherwise they'll never learn to actually formulate their questions for themselves.
  • Plural is braver than singular. Meaning, students are more likely to speak up as a group than alone (not only students, actually - it's crowd psychology). Use it. Once you get one question, turn to the students sitting nearby for more. For example, you get a vague question about the blue-ish part of a rainbow. Show thumbs up to that student, now make eye contact with their friends and lead them to clarify or to narrow it down "Should we discuss how blue merges with indigo or how blue merges with green?"
    Don't fall for the "Everything!" trap. There's always one aspect of a question that they need more than the other. Students may not see a continuous spectrum of their studies, but you do. Help them to see these connections and make these choices. Also, say explicitly how your answer to one question may connect to other questions.
  • If possible, have a plant in the audience. Get a fellow TA, a graduate assistant, or a student in that very group to be a magician's help. When I was a PhD student, we played these roles with another TA for each other's classes. It usually went like this:
    TA: Any questions on the topic of rainbows?
    (Long dead silence)
    Me (shyly): What about white?
    TA (encouraging, patient): What about it?
    Me (mumbling, lacking words, turning to other students): Well, you know... how do you call that thing... that...
    Someone (saving me from this idiotic mumbling): Dispersion.
    TA (turning to that someone): Ah, so we wanna talk about the amount by which light is refracted?
    ...And it went from there. We got out a very specific detail that students want to discuss: my mumbling was intentionally vague, so that the helping student could ask something important to them by offering a word for me. How did we know it was important? It's always easier to say out load the word that's on the tip of your tongue. If they quickly said "dispersion" - that was because they were thinking about dispersion.
    By doing this, we were taping into several things: compassion for a "fellow student" (here it was important to actually turn to the people around, showing that I needed their intervention); a chance to feel smarter by helping out someone who "forgot" a word; breaking the dead silence; demonstrating that the TA is kind and patient even if the question is dumb. It required a good deal of humor, but we saved each other quite a few times over the years.
    In my classes nowadays, there's always a bright creature who studies hard, comes to the office hours, and by the time when we get to questions, knows almost everything. I usually say in advance something like this: "Listen, it's a great question you had for the office hours - I'm sure some of your classmates would like to hear the answer, too. If there will be a pause during the class, do you mind asking this question again, on behalf of everybody?" The bright student is usually happy to help and feels comfortable asking the question knowing already the answer.
  • Be kind, relaxed, and patient. It's important to show that you don't rush or dismiss a half-baked question, you understand that their adrenaline levels are already high, and you don't see their questions as a waste of your time. Be patient, kind, and comfortable even with the dead silence: "Any questions? (everyone is quiet) Wow, that's a lot. Please, don't speak all at once! (nervous laughter) Take your turns at the mic! (louder laughter) So, who goes first and who goes next?..."
3

You can start by asking them questions. The first step is often getting them just to start speaking. Once you set a conversational tone rather than a "lecturer" tone usually questions start to flow from everyone.

(1) Start with a simple true or false, or yes or no question and ask the class to give you a show of hands. Then you can say "Of those who said yes, can I have someone explain their reasoning?" Then afterward "Does anyone who said no want to pose a question to the people who said yes?" The key is the first question got everyone involved. Even if they don't understand the reading that well, they can still have an opinion. It's best to make both yes and no defensible positions. This can also work for tricky logic based questions where one answer appears quite reasonable (no one would think someone else is stupid for getting it wrong because half the class got it wrong).

(2) Piazza and other message boards are a fantastic way to generate discussion. Have students post a question to piazza and also actively encourage them to comment on each other's questions (you can even make this required). You can make question asking anonymous and you can also answer questions as a teacher. If you do this before class you can actually use the best questions posted by students in class. You can even say things like "Jenny had a fantastic question of Piazza about the reading yesterday, can someone other than Jenny share with us the main idea behind the question?" Note the "other than Jenny" signifies to the class, "I really should be reading these questions and thinking about them" Also if you are interested in gender equity, there are studies that suggest that women ask and answer more questions if they are able to do so anonymously.

(3) By asking them questions you are creating an environment of question asking. You are being a role model.

(4) Create an environment, where it is OK to be vulnerable. You can say something like "When I first read this passage, I was completely confused by concept X," Then say "How many people feel like they understand concept X really well." Then noting no hands go up "So most of us seem to have some difficulty with this concept, can anyone tell me what they found confusing?" You have just created an environment where people need not feel ashamed of not knowing because you have shown the whole class doesn't know and you have admitted that when you first studied this material you found it difficult.

(5) You can say there will be a quiz in class about the reading if people do not come with specific questions. As long as there are enough questions that showed an honest attempt at the reading, I will not give the quiz. This is similar to (4) but has some added teeth to it. I personally prefer method (4) as I don't like threats but I've seen this work for some teachers.

(6) Remember to positively reinforce the student's behavior that you want to encourage (not just the content they talk about). You can say "That is a good question John" but perhaps even more importantly, if you think it isn't a good question but you want to encourage the question-behavior "Thank you for asking for clarification on that, John, I'm really glad you stopped me". Thank people for asking questions.

(7) To maximize participation, use phrases like "can someone else tell me ...?" or "Can someone in the back tell me" or "show of hands" get everyone involved. Don't let one or two students dominate the class as this starts to discourage other students from asking questions.

(8) Actually wait for a long time for them to respond to your request You can start with "Any questions", but pause for 10 seconds (literally count to 10 in your head, most teachers wait way too little time between asking and starting to talk). You'd be surprised how long even just 2-3 seconds seems to you as the lecturer. Don't be afraid of awkward silence. Students need time to think about what they want to say.

(9) Indicate how you want them to ask. This may sound silly, but some students at least at first won't know what you want. Do you want them to raise a hand? Just shout it out? Different teachers want different things. Put your hand up when asking "Does anyone have a question, if you want them to raise their hand" or just say "Shout it out" if that's what you want them to do. Once you've established your dominant mode of response you no longer have to do this.

2

I think there are a couple of things going on in your question. It might be helpful to look at them together and separately:

(a) How to get students to do the reading

(b) How to get students to take more responsibility for getting their money's worth from the class

(c) How to make the class more interactive

(d) How to help students to look at the material critically and learn how to ask good questions.

For (a), it might help to take the cognitive approach (I'm drawing an analogy with cognitive therapy, where the therapist explains how something about the human body and psyche work): present some study results that show that the most efficient way of teaching something is for students to read the carefully selected background reading before coming to class, so the professor can help by underlining some points, providing helpful context, going further, etc. etc.

I heard a radio program that explained how it was that physics professors started to use the clicker. Apparently, it wasn't originally used or intended to be a way for students to prove that they were present and paying attention (as I have seen it used now). The way its use was described in the program was this: The professor would pose a question that required some thought, but no messy calculations. The students would respond with the clickers, and if a large number of students responded with an incorrect answer, he would ask them to take a couple of minutes to discuss the question with one or two neighbors. Then he would ask the question again. He noticed that the proportion of correct answers was dramatically higher the second time.

I once took a database design and programming class online, where students naturally found themselves asking questions in order to do the assignments. The questions had to be sent by email because of the online format. The remarkable thing was that the teacher responded to the questions quite quickly. If she hadn't, we would have learned not to send our questions to her, and learned instead to stoically stay up all night struggling, or to pose our questions elsewhere.

What I'm getting at here is that if you respond in a positive and prompt way both in class and out of class, that has to be helpful.

She gave us weekly online quizzes based on the reading. That ensured that people read the required chapters in the text book.

For (d), perhaps you could give them a take-home test where they have to invent some test questions for the unit you've just finished.

2

In my experience (on both sides of the desk), students not asking questions isn't as much out of reluctance as it is out of not knowing where to start.

It may help to walk them through how to identify questions. For example, you could read through an article together in class and break down the meaning of every statement, noting on the board every question or potential question that comes up in the process. (Is that a technical term? What does it mean in this context? How does it apply in this case? etc...). You could do this early with an easy article, and later with a harder one, and come back to it when anyone seems stuck. (Or do a similar demonstration of some other method.)

Your #3 is to give them examples of questions, but I think providing examples of the process for coming up with questions is more important.

It may also help to ask them to send you questions before class as they do the reading. Asking for questions in class puts all of them on the spot, which can make them forget the questions they thought of earlier. This may be especially helpful when students feel compelled not to re-read the article on the spot (weather due to the vibe in your class or out of general habit).

1

Do they trust you and your general judgement? If yes, you can try this: tell them there will be exam/test/other assessment based on texts 1-3 they will soon read. And the questions will be their questions if they will be reasonable enough. That's why it's important for them to trust you - so they know you will fairly judge the "reasonableness" of questions. And they will clearly see how they can benefit from reading texts and asking questions.

0

I often get feedback from them saying that the text is too difficult and they don't know what to ask.

Focus

For the questions: focus on one specific part of the text. May it be because it is very controversial, polarizing, prejudiced or interesting in any other dimension.

Still encourage the students to read and try to understand the entire text but just limit the in-class discussion to a subset of the text. Most likely this approach results in overlapping questions and a more vibrant discussion since students just focus on that particular part of the text.

Size

Start with a small paragraph, vary the size, find out which size leads to the best results.

0

Prerequisite: The university policy should allow the instructor to ask some bonus questions in the exam.

One of my professors had a really good way to deal with groups that do not ask questions. He put a bonus question in the exam from one of our in-class questions. I also have adopted this method and it worked really well for me.

If a students asks a good question, then I wait for the class to answer. If there is no answer from the students, or it is answered but is still a really good question, then it is listed as a possible bonus question.

The motivating idea is,

If the bonus question is yours, then you get the bonus points. You don't need to answer the question.

In addition, I sometimes make a conceptual mistake while solving a question on the board. In your case, maybe it might be a wrong reasoning while explaining something. Students who point out the mistake and correct it would also get some participation points.

One last thing I realized is, people usually tend to remain silent because they cannot guess how the class will react. But usually, the questions they are afraid to ask are not only theirs. To break this ice, I try to ask the stupidest questions myself.

OK, this part of the text assumes that people need social interaction. But how can this be even a scientific fact? How can we even measure this?

This might be a totally absurd example, but I hope the idea behind it is clear.

-1

This site provides a number of techniques that can be applied to your field:

  1. instructor provides an answer, and students brainstorm questions. This can be a great way to review, or as an introduction to a unit to find out how much students know. Once students learn some of the strategies for developing “great” questions that are described below, displays like these are good for practice and formative assessments.
  2. It’s a big start to get students in the habit of asking questions, but it’s even more important to help them to identify the types of questions they are asking. A simple distinction to use with younger students is, “Thin and Thick” questions. In this day and age, a “thin” question might also be labelled as “Google-able.” If you can easily find an answer in a book or the internet, or it’s just a matter of saying, “yes” or “no,” then it’s a “thin” question. “Thick” questions require more thought and often don’t have one right answer. They are great for discussion and research projects.
  3. Teachers are often encouraged to raise the level of their own questioning by using question stems related to the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. But this doesn’t mean that students can’t use it as well. this reference gives some examples ways that students can use the above question stems to write their own tests or quizzes or as focus points for research.
  4. Dr. Sandra Kaplan developed the Depth and Complexity icons in order to help students go beyond basic understanding of topics, and the icons have become well-known to teachers who are expected to include “rigor” in their curriculum. In classrooms where the Depth and Complexity icons are woven throughout the day, students become familiar with the meaning of the symbols and how they can be applied in different subjects. It is not unusual for them to discuss the multiple perspectives of the Civil War or the ethics of Little Red Riding Hood. One of the icons is, “Unanswered Questions.”
  5. Promote “What if?” Questions A teacher named Carla Federman actually assigns her students to do research projects based on what if’s. What if “The Army-McCarthy hearings had never been televised?” asks one student in her research. Another student poses, “What if Albert Einstein’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt was intercepted by the Soviet Union in 1939?” Students must consider the short and long-term consequences of their what if’s, while demonstrating their understanding of the historical contexts they cite. This is an outstanding example of how student questions can be used create engaging and empowering learning activities. For more information about “What if?” projects, see reference
  6. Conduct Socratic Seminars The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly.”
  7. Give Plenty of Opportunities for Reflection, It isn’t only important to ask questions of others, but also to get into the practice of questioning our own actions and work. Most teachers are familiar with the students who are quick to finish, yet have many errors. Telling them to check over their work may buy the teacher some time, but is rarely productive if students haven’t been taught actual processes for evaluating their own products. By giving students time and the tools for reflection, educators are teaching the valuable skill of self-assessment. It is also important that teachers are careful to show that, although they do want assignments completed in a timely manner, it is more important to do quality work than to speed through it without any thought.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

  • 1
    This answer is entirely plagarized without reference from this website. You are welcome to use outside sources but please do cite your work properly. – eykanal Feb 8 '17 at 13:20
  • Please don't revert edits, particularly to go back to the plagiarized version. – eykanal Feb 9 '17 at 14:34

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