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.

Teaching Tip #10: Classroom Conflict, Classroom Climate

You may have seen the YouTube video of the Milwaukee student who was forcibly removed from a classroom by campus security after a dispute with the professor about a test question that escalated into abusive language and refusal to leave the classroom when asked.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-KFA1U8iOw While it is unlikely that you will experience a situation as severe as this one, we all deal with disruptive classroom behaviors on a regular basis.  What do we know about minimizing these behaviors?

Recently, Weimer (2010) reported the results of a survey of college professors that examined both the types of disruptive behaviors they experienced in the classroom, and their own classroom behaviors (Myers, Bender, Hill & Thomas, 2006).   The survey results identified two types of disruptive behaviors:  inattentive (e.g. leaving early, arriving late, texting, talking in class) and hostile (e.g. challenging faculty decisions and authority, refusing to comply with faculty requests).   In contrast to earlier studies, the authors found no relationship between demographic variables such as faculty gender, experience, age or ethnicity with the type or incidence of disruptive behaviors.  What they did find were associations between teaching methods, classroom emotional climate and specific types of disruptive behavior.

Inattentive behavior was directly correlated with lecture methods, while active learning was inversely related to inattentiveness in this study.  This finding seems fairly obvious since students are less able to “hide” when they are required to participate actively in class.  Thus, if you are interested in reducing the amount of inattentive behavior in your classroom, consider using active learning techniques such as clickers, small group discussions, cooperative learning or case-based sessions regularly in your classes.  The study also suggested that asking students to help solve classroom behavior problems can be effective, but is not often used.   The CTE has a wide range of resources to help you develop and implement active learning techniques in your classes, and your disciplinary organizations and colleagues can provide a wealth of examples specific to your courses.

Hostile student behavior appeared to be related to the emotional climate of the classroom.  Faculty who expressed warm, caring and respectful attitudes toward students (or at least reported that they did) had the most success at minimizing and managing hostile incidents.  Faculty who did not use these methods reported higher levels of hostile conflict. Improving the emotional climate in your classroom is a very personal and individual matter since your comments and actions need to be grounded in your own personality and style in order to be authentic and believable.  If you do experience this type of conflict in your class more than occasionally, you may want to reflect on how you are coming across to students – do you seem disrespectful or brusque without meaning to?  Do students feel that you are “out to get them” even when you are not?  Or, do some students feel threatened or isolated in your classroom because they are different and don’t feel respected or included? Asking a trusted colleague to observe in your classroom might be helpful in identifying how students are misinterpreting your intent.  The CTE can arrange for classroom videotaping so you can see yourself in action and identify issues to work on, and can also conduct brief focus groups with students to get additional feedback.  Your colleagues also are a great source of suggestions for improving classroom climate. One thing you don’t need to do: changing grades or course requirements appeared to be counterproductive in this study, suggesting that you don’t need to be a “pushover” to manage hostile students successfully.

It’s important to point out that even the best instructors encounter students with serious issues who are going to be disruptive in class, regardless of the instructor’s positive actions and good intentions.  However, we can all be more aware of how the structure and tone of our classrooms influence student behavior.  Interestingly, Myers, Bender Hill & Thomas report that 61% of the faculty in the survey reported ignoring disruptive behaviors; this strategy resulted in poorer outcomes.  So, before you decide that nothing can be done about student behaviors, check in with your colleagues and try some new approaches.

What are you doing in your classes that you think contributes to positive student behaviors and prevents disruption?    What situations do you have the most difficulty managing?

Weimer’s summary:

Weimer, M.E.  (2010). Conditions associated with classroom conflict.  Faculty Focus, January 29.


Original study:

Meyers, S.A., Bender, J., Hill, E.K., and Thomas, S.Y. (2006). How do faculty experience and respond to classroom conflict? International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 18 (3), 180–187. http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE115.pdf