Teaching Tip: Q&A Part II

Last week I shared some thoughts about asking good questions in class, so this week I thought it would be useful to think about what happens after the question is asked.  Whether you are just starting to think about the quality of the questions you use in your classroom or have been using them successfully for years, responding to students once you have asked a question can be a challenge.

What do you do when the student’s answer is clearly wrong?   You don’t want to humiliate the student or shut down conversation, but you don’t want to let the incorrect response stand either.   You can ask for other students to agree or disagree with the incorrect response to open up a discussion.   If the answer is correct but off target you could try something like  “You answered the question “How did X happen” , but what I really asked was  “Why did X happen?”  Or you can probe the response to see where the student might be going off track with questions like “what makes you think that” (tone of voice is vital here!).  This is one of those times when having a good rapport with your class can make all the difference – humor can be used if the students know you are on their side e.g. “Is that your final answer or would you like to phone a friend?”    What’s most important is that it should not be a big deal to miss a question – nothing ventured, nothing gained.

What if one student is dominating the classroom?  It’s sometimes hard when only one student keeps volunteering to answer your questions while the rest of the class sits there unengaged and happy to zone out.  I’ve had some success with speaking to the overactive student before or after class, letting them know that I appreciate their enthusiasm and participation, but that I need to make sure that other students are also engaged.  Some instructors have a classroom rule that limits the number of comments students can make per class, or that five different students have to respond before you comment again.  These can feel a little too structured for some classes, but if you’re really struggling with a domineering student you may want to give one of them a try.

And of course, the opposite case is also a problem – the student who never says a word.  Calling on students is one approach, although again this is best done after establishing some sense of safety in the classroom.   Asking students to write their responses first is helpful – it can slow down the overly enthusiastic student as well as give the quiet student time to think and reflect.  And demonstrating that incorrect or incomplete answers are just fine also helps shyer students come out.

What about students who answer questions correctly, but at a very basic or superficial level?  Probing further using Socratic methods can both help that student develop his or her thinking as well as model the process for the rest of the class.  This is something to think about before you ask your first question – you want to set up an expectation that class discussion will be in depth and thoughtful, so don’t let simple answers slide by without further probing.  Here is a list of the most common types of Socratic questions:

  • Questions that ask for clarification of concepts e.g. what is an example of of x? How does x relate to y?
  • Questions that probe assumptions e.g. what are you assuming about x? What if we assumed y instead of x?
  • Questions that ask for reasons and evidence e.g. what information did you use to justify your answer?  What authority are you using for your argument?
  • Questions about viewpoint or perspective e.g.  who benefits most from your interpretation?  Would you agree if you were x instead of y?
  • Questions about implications and consequences e.g. if your answer is correct, what happens to x?  What comes next in your interpretation?
  • Questions about the question e.g. why is this question important?  Why do you think I asked this question?

You can start the probe with the original student who answered the question, then expand it by asking other students to answer further probes.  This keeps a Socratic dialogue from feeling quite as interrogatory as it may otherwise, and keeps the rest of the class engaged as well.

As always, I’d love to hear your examples and stories – what best and worst questioning experiences have you had?

Next time I’d like to turn the tables a bit – what about the questions that students ask you?  Do you always answer?  What about the student who asks obvious questions or hostile ones?  If you have specific situations you’ve had to deal with, post them for us or email the CTE at teaching@marymount.edu.

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