104

In a comment on another question Josef shared an anecdote.

And just another anecdote: A few weeks ago, there was a question hour at the last lecture timeslot before the exam. About ~25 of more than 120 people taking the course where there. Nobody actually had a question. All just wanted to hear the other questions...

I have seen this many times. Sometimes the lecturer can push students and someone will ask "what will be in the exam?" which is obviously useless and just makes the lecturer restate what (usually) is already told multiple times about content and procedure of the exam.

What should the lecturer do in such a case?

Technically it seems correct to just say "if you have no more questions, the session is over" and go home.

Yet there are times when the lecturer had to commute to this specific lecture and it seems travel-time spent in vain if nothing is actually done.

Students have also come in hopes that the session will help them prepare for exam. And usually the average question-session student is above the average from all the courses students, and lecturers don't like to let down the more interested and responsible students who assumed they don't want to miss this event. And usually this is what happens - the lecturer tries to improvise and talk on some subjects that seems more tricky/useful for the lecturer.

What are the best strategies so the lecturer could actually make the "question" session worth the attendees time?

I know it isn't good to broaden the question intentionally, but solid plans how to prepare and avoid the no-question situation at all are also welcome here.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Feb 9 '17 at 21:09

22 Answers 22

127

Some specific suggestions:

  • You likely know what material the students have been having issues with, based on questions from lecture, office hours, previous homework sets, or whatever. Mention those topics and review them.

  • Instead of asking for broad-based questions, go over the syllabus lecture by lecture, calling out specific topics by name and asking whether there was any issues with each of those. It'll help prime their memory.

  • Ask the TAs to attend. If that's not possible, ask them to send you common questions ahead of time. They also know what the students are finding difficult.

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    It might also be effective to ask the students to send questions they'd like to see covered ahead of time. That gives you (and your TAs) more time to prepare and it allows students to ask questions without feeling embarrassed. – Dancrumb Feb 6 '17 at 16:46
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    Speaking as a student, I think the big issue is people feel uncomfortable speaking up. In environments where the students feel comfortable speaking, there are generally a lot more questions. I don't know what magic those professors use to make that possible... – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Feb 6 '17 at 17:43
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    If a student is afraid to ask a question in a classroom they are going to suck at the real world. – Matthew Whited Feb 6 '17 at 18:41
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    @MatthewWhited - Unfortunately, many students are overly shy. Part of the teaching experience should be to convey to them that this approach will hurt them in real life. – eykanal Feb 6 '17 at 19:29
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    Shy students can be open and friendly too, it's not like they're vampires afraid of socializing light. But they won't just stand in the middle of a silent judging crowd of 120 unknown (and yes, UNKNOWN, big classrooms tend to form small friend groups and never meet everyone else unless required by the teacher) people and just ask what they surely think is the most stupid question ever. – CptEric Feb 7 '17 at 8:04
90

A big issue is that they're reticent to be "that person" who monopolizes the time with their questions. They're also concerned about revealing their ignorance to their peers - despite the probability that their peers likely have similar ignorance. Hence this is why you're getting 25 students attending an optional review session, all hoping someone else asks the questions. An added wrinkle is that they're probably hoping you reveal what's on the test, and don't want to inadvertently waste time asking questions about things that are not going to be on the test.

Just because it's a review session for the explicit purpose of asking questions doesn't mean that your students aren't still students. As you're probably aware, students are (generally) horrible at in-class participation unless you explicitly construct the environment to encourage it. So I'd recommend pulling out the same bag of tricks you use during normal lectures to encourage class participation.

One I like is the awkward pause. We, as lecturers, tend to fill space. Typically it's less than a second between asking "Are there questions?" and then saying something else. You need to wait a good 5-6 seconds after asking before saying your next thing. This gives students time to organize their thoughts and get up the courage to respond. The length of the pause is going to feel awkward and you'll need to fight the temptation to fill the silence. -- That's a good thing. The students will feel the same awkwardness and feel the same temptation - and hopefully succumb by asking a question.

You also should lower the stakes. One reason they don't ask is because they're afraid of looking like the unprepared one to their peers. (Yes, despite the explicit purpose of this session is to prepare them.) You need to re-phrase the purpose of the session such that they know it's not just for the bumbling incompetent. This can be rather simple:

  • Anyone have any questions? (*mumbling* "No.")
  • So we don't need this review section? (*murmured disagreement*)
  • Everyone has this stuff down cold? You are all going to get perfect scores on the test? (*vocal disagreement*)
  • There's not any topic you want to know better? (It's important to emphasize the "any" here.)

At this point I'm guessing that someone will ask a question, or point to a particular topic they think they should know better. You've just lowered the stakes. It's no longer about playing catch-up for the woefully unprepared, it's now something that's useful for anyone who isn't confident they'll get a perfect score (which is probably everyone who showed).

Take an anonymizing approach. They're worried they'll make a fool of themselves in front of their peers or you by revealing that they're ignorant. (Or worse, revealing that they think they're ignorant on some trivial point.) Remove that fear by asking them anonymously. Have them write things down on pieces of paper, and pass them forward without names. Directly asking for questions might not help much if they don't have well formed questions, but you can get around this some by providing a prompt like "Write down what you think the three most important topics for the class are, and how confident you are on your knowledge of them on a scale of 1-5."

You can then get the students' responses and quickly skim through them for topics where a number of people are expressing doubts. (Even if it's only a 4/5.) Then present that topic to the group as one where a number of people are struggling. This will likely prompt people to ask questions about the topic. But if not, you can always take a "peer teaching" approach by asking someone to volunteer a summary of the topic, which should segue nicely into questions. Even if not, you can summarize the summary, highlighting things that they got right and filling in the blanks where things are missing or slightly incorrect. (To encourage participation, be sure to emphasize points where they got things right, and minimize drawing attention to where they got things wrong while still correcting the summary.)

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    "They're also concerned about revealing their ignorance to their peers - despite the probability that their peers likely have similar ignorance." - this made me think that the ones having questions are usually the ones who prepared and thought through. Can we find an encouraging (not derogatory to others) way to say "if you gotta question, you are among the best here and you will help your peers if you ask it because they don't even know they don't know that thing." – Džuris Feb 6 '17 at 16:35
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    I always make a point of announcing, for these kinds of review sessions, that "I won't prepare anything; if nobody brings questions, it's going to be an incredibly awkward hour" I try to do it in a way to get a bit of a laugh, but then make sure it's understood that it really is up to the students to make sure we have something to do. – pjs36 Feb 7 '17 at 0:34
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    Indeed, it's underestimated how much time can intervene between the asking of a question (including the question, "Do you have any questions about the course?") and receiving an answer. Give it time. The "awkward pause" works not because it's awkward, but because it's a pause. – Wildcard Feb 7 '17 at 10:54
  • Most of what you suggest in the first two sections would make students feel more like fools. – EMBLEM Feb 9 '17 at 4:58
  • This answer would deserve an upvote for the use of succumb alone, not to mention the fact that all suggested points are simply perfect. – Andrea Lazzarotto Feb 11 '17 at 1:11
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Your students want to learn (otherwise they wouldn't have shown up), but don't have any specific questions. It sounds like they want a general review of subject material with specific regard to the test. If you have a test from previous years that covers the same material, you could work out selected problems from that exam with the class. When doing a specific example, I am sure there will be questions that will come up more readily than when holding a wide-open Q&A session.

  • Your first point is why I don't feel like sending everyone home :) But what if the exam is oral? Can't show previous exam in that case... We usually have students draw some topics (from a known set of topics which is quite similar to the syllabus) and tell about those in a structured manner followed by aditional questions from the examiner. – Džuris Feb 6 '17 at 14:19
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    @Džuris: Speaking as a student, in that case I would appreciate if the instructor pulled a few topics at random and started asking detailed questions. As a student, (1) if I can't answer it, I then know I had better review that material again, and (2) if I can answer it, then I have a better understanding of how the oral exam itself will look/feel. Think of it essentially being "review by Socratic method". – tonysdg Feb 6 '17 at 14:46
  • @tonysdg One of my improvisation routes is taking a couple of topics of random and tell myself what should exactly should be covered in this question (without actually covering everything). That also seems a way to show how the exam will look. Your way seems nice and I'd like that myself as a student. However most students wouldn't like to be the ones who have to answer in the pilot exam. – Džuris Feb 6 '17 at 16:27
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    @Džuris: If one of my peers was to show up to a review session and then be unwilling to actually participate in the review, my own response to them would be "why did you come?" That said, I wouldn't bother worrying about the students who won't answer. Find the ones that will participate with you, and focus on them. If others want to join in, that's great -- see if there's a way to tune your questioning to help them too. If not, that's not your problem - it's an optional review session, right? – tonysdg Feb 6 '17 at 16:30
19

If you don't manage to stimulate questions by the methods mentioned in other answers, you can certainly end the review session early. But you shouldn't go home.

Announce that you'll stay until the end of the scheduled time, in case anyone has a question they'd like to discuss individually. Sometimes students do have questions but are too shy to ask them in front of everyone, or they think their question wouldn't be interesting or relevant to other students (though usually they are wrong about that). Also, since question sessions are often scheduled outside regular class time, some students may have to show up late; you want to still be there.

This also helps keep you from being perceived as "lazy" by the students.

You can also say "I'll be in my office if anyone thinks of more questions", so that if nobody comes you can get some other work done. But be sure to leave a note on the classroom door for latecomers!

12

My usual approach is to begin with a summary of what all the topics are that will be covered by the exam. Or, as I put it, "Here's a list of all the things that you've forgotten we talked about." That serves to break the ice, lower the stakes (as suggested by R.M.), and prime their memory about specific topics (as suggested by eykanal). After that, I usually get plenty of questions to fill up the time, though I occasionally have to wait them out through an awkward pause (as discussed in R.M.'s answer).

  • This is what my professors typically did in undergrad. As a student, I found it to be very useful. – Nat Feb 6 '17 at 19:43
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    But that makes the session more than a questions session, and may give even more people who don't have questions that feeling that they have to be present. That is what leads to this problem in the first place. If you have useful things like summaries to share, they go in the normal lectures. – RemcoGerlich Feb 8 '17 at 9:38
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Here's a list of my tips. The formulations may be a bit exaggerated, but you probably get the points…

  • Phrase right. The phrasing of your own question makes a huge difference. Do not ask "Does anybody has questions?". Why not? First: The only correct answers are "Yes" or "No". While this sounds stupid and no student would ever answer with "yes" (one even more so for "no") it still is correct. Second: It sounds like having a question would be something special. Also, do I would not recommend to ask "What questions do you have?". I would recommend to start the question session with: "Now we have time for all question you might have about the material. Please go ahead and ask your questions." This makes it clear, that it is perfectly normal that there are indeed questions, and that you very much expect to answer questions.

  • Announce early so that the students can prepare.

  • Rewards. Once I had the question session at the same date when I had print out of the lecture notes ready. I started the question session and when the first guy asking a question I first answered the question, said "Thanks for the question! Here have a copy of the lecture notes." I did not say anything more about that (in fact, I had announced earlier that everybody will get lecture notes) but still, it sparked more questions, and the students noticed, that questions are appreciated. Also other small rewards like sweets can be used (haven't done that myself, but people told me that it works, too).

  • Give the students time to think. After you said "Now it's time for your questions." you should wait in silence. Don't say anything more to encourage questions for some time. And with that I don't mean 5 to 10 seconds (which would actually feel like a long time for you) and I also don't mean 30 seconds (which feels like eternity for you) but I mean 1 to 5 minutes. I am serious. Think about it - how long does it take to formulate a question in case you aren't prepared? (And it seems like the students came unprepared…) I have been in questions session where there have been a few minutes silence (believe me, I looked at the watch) before the first question came, but then the questions kept coming… In some cases you may sense (after a minute or so) that further encouragement could be helpful. I would not suggest to say the same thing again, but

  • Make clear that questions are for the students benefit and their responsibility. To put it bluntly: "If nobody has any question, then I do not have any answers." I actually say that in class, and it helps. If there are really no questions, follow the suggestion by Nate Eldredge.

  • Do not ask questions and answer them yourself. Once once you started to ask a question for the students, answer it or review some material on your own, the students will be back to "lecture mode". They'll takes notes, think about what you say, but will be passive again. I also had question session that ended with no questions and that was that. If this happens to you, it would be good, if the students would get a second chance to ask questions. An alternative approach could be, to ask extremely simple questions (well, you may think that they are extremely simple…) and wait until somebody from the audience answers. When I ask questions, and nobody answers, I usually say "okay, well have to leave this here, but if you have any answer at a later time, feel free to interrupt" or "okay, we may come back to this question at a later time".

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    +1 "... I also don't mean 30 seconds (which feels like eternity for you) but I mean 1 to 5 minutes. " – Karl Feb 6 '17 at 19:22
  • Give the students time to think is spot on. Several minutes may be required and it feels like an eternity. – Paul Feb 7 '17 at 9:41
9

One technique I have used for this situation (in addition to other other fine suggestions in other answers) is to collect an FAQ list from sessions in previous years. If it all goes quiet and I don't want to force the direction of the material, I show them some of the Frequently Asked Questions (sans answers) and see if any of those questions pique their curiosity. I also include silly questions in the list.

They then may vote for or point at one of the items of the FAQ and the discussion can start.

In the first year of operation I seeded the FAQ myself.

You may find this useful also.

6

Consider drafting an optional block of exercises or applications to do together if this happens in a period. I've used fairly simple conceptual exercises from a completely novel perspective (not a direction they've seen before); or possibly a scan of vocabulary, fill-in-the-blank, or find-the-error questions from the book.

Or even possibly an entirely new optional lecture topic. On the one hand, these are more dedicated students; on the other hand, desire to focus on the test may make them restless in this scenario.

5

I've done this before: Show questions that were given on previous exams.

In the case of essay questions, I've also shown some answers that were given by students, and explained why one answer was scored higher than another. This gives the students a better idea of what I'm looking for in an answer to an essay question.

Other problems can be given to students to work out in pairs, with a class discussion afterwards.

In other words, if no one has any questions, simply say, "Okay, then - if you don't have any questions for me, then I have some questions for you," and give them some problems that do a good job representing the kinds of things they might find on the exam.

I've found this to be effective, but you'll have to do more prep work than you usually do. However, at least you'll have a backup plan if the student-led discussion goes nowhere. Moreover, the real up-front work comes early on. Once you have a library of sample or former questions to draw from, those can keep getting reused from year to year.

5

First, I warn the students in advance that these sessions will be entirely based around their questions, and that I will not be preparing any specific material for them.

At the revision session itself, I start with a quick reminder of the major topics that we've covered in the course (i.e., that the exam will cover) so that students have a "menu" to choose from. I then take as many questions as students come up with, recording them on the board, before answering any.

I find that the "menu" is a good way of getting students started asking questions. Once somebody starts, either others agree that topic X would be a good one to revise – which helps me to know that it is worth spending some time on it – or they see that no-one has asked about their own bugbear, topic Y. Either way, it doesn't take long to gather enough questions to last the whole session. Then I can choose to answer in whatever order makes most sense – by topic, or easiest ones first, or whatever.

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    The first sentence itself is already upvote-worthy. Telling students, in advance, that they need to have questions prepared is great, because it makes them actually think about what they do/don't know, instead of hoping that they will just gain wisdom through osmosis. Furthermore, instructors can inadvertantly reveal information about the specific exam questions when they come up with review session exercises; making the students come up with the questions mitigates that pitfall as well. – Greg Martin Feb 6 '17 at 21:41
4

Ask them to send you questions in advance, and begin the session with questions received in advance. Include in the announcement of the Q&A session that you will spend the first n minutes on those questions. Those questions and their answers will likely inspire more questions and get the session going. (If no-one actually sends you a question, you could reuse an old one or plant a fake one just to get started.)

Prepare a list of topics - either a handout or a slide (or both). (This can be the same as the list on the review sheet, or an outline of the sections covered.) If/when no-one has a question, refer to the list and ask which topic they're most interested in or least prepared for; if you can rattle off subtopics they can narrow it down. If that doesn't inspire any specific questions, it will at least give you an idea what part of the material is most valuable to review.

It can be hard for students to translate a lack of understanding into a particular question. (When I took undergraduate Statistical & Thermal Physics we spent a lot of time in uncomfortable silence, understanding too little to form useful questions, the professor speaking far over our heads.) If students come in hoping to hear questions from others I expect that to mean that they know they don't understand it all but they haven't been able to find the right questions to pursue to connect all the dots for themselves, and you have the difficult job of guiding them to that. There doesn't seem to be any general solution to this problem, but I usually start by trying to discover particular gaps in understanding, which I hope my suggestions above will help with.

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    +1 for "It can be hard for students to translate a lack of understanding into a particular question" – Imran Rashid Feb 7 '17 at 16:21
3

You can propose:

  • One extra point for them who asks dull question.
  • Two extra points for them who asks good question.
  • No point for them without question.

You can also set up open and anonymous forum, where students can chit-chat and discuss the subject. Join it after some time, one month perhaps, and answer as many questions as you can/want. Serious ones seriously, funny ones funny, but correct, way. Bring some of them to the Q&A session.

Joingly...
When I came to university when we were leaving sequences and upgrading to functions our math professor stated, that he was bored and generated pi for us to show us what real numbers are. When he showed fifth slide full of digits, he had had to be really bored, he covered the small ellipsis in the end and said "And this is just rational number... I was also so bored that I changed one digit... Who will be the first one to find it?"

He got the answer right before midnight. And confirmed it at 3 AM.

He gave us all the questions in the exam. All 12 000 of them. In Q&A sessions we can discuss them, and we were. The sessions took 3 hours each...

This was the best course I have attended so far.

3

Our teacher create a shared document for "open questions" one week before the exam. Everyone can write into this document questions related to the course material with reference to one or more specific slides. That's how we do it.

2

One of my professors used to hold "Online Office Hours" on Sunday afternoons from the comfort of his living room couch.

The Software used was Adobe Connect (no affiliation on my part) and allowed him to use his Ipad as a streaming and doodling device.

Questions could be asked either by typing in a chat box (this grants anonymity and makes it easier for insecure students to ask) or by voice as in any conference call.

All in all doing it like this may lower the bar for actively participating and as an added benefit you do not need to commute.

2

This is somewhat echoed by other answers, but only as part of a longer list of suggestions. From past experience, I think it's crucial to:

  1. Tell students well ahead of time that they're expected to bring questions, and that you're not supplying pre-packaged material.

  2. Nicely point out after asking, "Who has the first question?" that you're willing to wait silently for as long as it takes. This can be minutes! After facing ~30 seconds of silence, I've suggested to students that they talk to other students near them for a few minutes, and come up with questions. This works well.

2

You can ask the students to send questions to you before the session and go over them during the question session. This way students have more time to phrase their questions, and don't have to be the one that asks "dumb" questions in front of their peers.

You can also communicate beforehand that if there are no questions send at all before a certain deadline (say, one day before the question session) you will cancel the question session to not waste anyone's time.

This is what some of my professors did, and I feel that this way there are more questions than in other question sessions.

2

One of my lecturers would ask people to email him questions for a question session. This worked well because it allowed him to prioritise questions and if he had a large amount of questions he could book an extra session.

Email has other benefits like anonymity to other students, removing the problem of students forgetting the question and allowing you to respond to any issue with a question before the session

2

In my experience, students are always hungry and poor (ok, a bit of a generalisation, I know).

So a good ice breaker can be to offer something for free such as chocolate bars to bribe people to ask questions. A chocolate for everyone who asks anything until the bag runs out will likely get questions started, and once the ice is broken there'll likely be more questions thought of.

As an anecdote, I know a real estate auctioneer who gives a bottle of champagne away each auction. Not to the person who wins the auction, but to the first bidder, to get things started.

1

One thing that works well for me is, the class before the problem session (so 2 or 3 days earlier) pass out copies of an old exam for the class. Ideally, choose a hard but fair one. Tell the students that I would appreciate it if they would look at this, think about how they would do, and come prepared with questions about things they might have had trouble with.

Not all of them do it, of course, but enough do to get the discussion started.

0

Adding to R.M's suggestion about taking the anonymizing approach. Google Slides has this feature called Slides Q&A which lets the audience ask question whenever they like anonymously or by name. In my experience, this has increased the amount of questions asked in lectures. The lecturer can now choose when to answer certain questions and filter out less important questions.

But an other suggestion is to let the students set up an agenda before even inviting to a question session. This can be announced a week ahead and that if enough problems, topics or other discussions are submitted by mail, you will set up a extra lecture for preparing for the exam. This will change the format of the sessions a bit, but will most likely get the students to state what they need help with.

0

Omitting for the time a discussion of many other variables, effective teaching, including Q & A sessions, is based on the quality of the relation between the teacher and the student. A major factor in the development of such a relation is time spent feeling personally connected. In a class, the likelihood of feeling that connection probably has some sort of inverse relation to the class size. Long term, more discussion on optimum class size

0

The easiest thing I would say to do is to bring up hypothetical problems that are on the exam, maybe make one up on the spot, or use some from previous assignments and ask them if they know how to answer it. This may answer questions about a topic that the students didn't even know they had. Also constantly encouraging students to ask questions can be beneficial - some students may have questions but are too nervous to ask. From personal experience, teachers who consistently encouraged my fellow students and I to ask questions were always the ones that got me out of my shell and got me talking.

protected by eykanal Feb 9 '17 at 21:15

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