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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.).
- 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.
- 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.