Teaching Tip: Questions from Students

So far in this series on questions, I’ve focused on faculty asking questions and dealing with student responses.  There’s one more wrinkle to go — how do you handle the questions students ask YOU?   At first glance, the response may seem obvious – answer them!  While that is certainly one option, it can limit the learning to only the student who asked the question as the rest of the class tunes out.  Instead, you can use one student’s question to engage the whole class. First, you may need to clarify or paraphrase the question first (if you do, check with the student to make sure your interpretation is correct).  Then ask other students to contribute their thoughts on how to find the answer or what it might be.  In the course of answering the stated question, you also may find the opportunity to elaborate on the issue at hand or link it to other points you wish to make.

Deferring the question to the class also can work when students ask questions that have already been covered in class or in the syllabus.  This technique discourages students’ tendency to depend on the instructor to give them information they could easily get on their own.  If there isn’t time in class to have the student’s question dealt with by his or her peers, you can refer them to the syllabus, Blackboard or other relevant information and let them know that you will respond to any questions they still have AFTER they have looked over the information you’ve already provided.

What if you don’t know the answer to a student question?  Admit it and use this great learning opportunity as a chance to model how to be a life-long learner!  Just as when you deferred a question you did know, you can get the class to talk about how and where you could go to find the answer.  If it’s relevant to the topic at hand and you have time, search for the answer together in class.  If not, perhaps the class could help figure out a search strategy and then the questioner could bring in the answer next time, or post it on Blackboard.

I don’t want to imply that you never just answer the student’s question.  Some questions aren’t productive areas for discussion and sometimes time is short.  Plus, if you NEVER answer student questions directly, they may begin to feel like you are putting them off.  But do pause before you answer, and think about whether this is a good “teachable moment”.  It’s also good to think about why the question was asked to begin with. Most faculty who have been teaching even a short time have encountered situations where a question is not prompted by the desire to learn and understand the course material you are teaching.  Other motivations behind student questions include:

The student wants attention.  Sometimes the purpose of the question is just to get the class to focus on the questioner.   You can often see the student soaking up the class response. Ignoring them will only intensify their need for attention.  Once you have the sense that a student is attention seeking, you may want to try shaping their behavior.  Start calling on them when they are NOT volunteering or calling out in class, and compliment their actions when they asking appropriate questions or contributing positively to class discussion.  If the behavior continues, speak to the student individually.

The student is hostile to the instructor or the course material. Questions can be an act of aggression, a means of expressing dominance and control.  Encouraging students to ask questions cedes some classroom control to them, and some students may take advantage of the opportunity. This is a difficult situation, and is best dealt with by asking the student to meet with you privately.  Listening to their concerns (although difficult) and paraphrasing them at least can get the issues on the table.  Paraphrasing is an important part of listening, because it shows the student that you actually heard what they said.  For example, the student asks “Why do we have to learn this stupid material?  This course is a total waste of my time.”   I would invite the student to discuss their concerns with me privately after class or at a mutually convenient time.  Trying to convince this student of the worthwhile nature of your course is not likely to succeed.  If you reflect back their statement with something like “So, you’re feeling like the class is pretty worthless, right?” and get their agreement, you can go on to explore with them why they think they are required to take it, what they might be able to do to make the situation more bearable, what they are really angry or upset about , etc.   Some of you may find paraphrasing too “therapy-like” but I have successfully used it with hostile store clerks, students, faculty and others. It often helps.  If nothing else, you can assure the student that you have listened to and heard their concerns and that the class must go on.

The question is inappropriately personal.  Some students have boundary issues.  They genuinely like their professors and want to get to know them better, but they don’t understand the limits of the relationship.  They show this by asking questions about your personal life or experiences, or questions that reveal too much of their personal life and experiences.  Many of these types of questions come up in informal conversations before or after class but they also can be triggered by specific class topics and discussions.  For example, teaching Abnormal Psychology or many literature and writing courses can prompt more personal questions.

Faculty members have varying levels of comfort with sharing personal information or hearing about students’ lives, so deciding how to handle these questions is a decision each individual will make differently.  It helps to have some sense of what the questioner really is asking.  Is it a bid for connection to you?  Is it because they are struggling with a particular situation and would like to know that you understand them and can help?  While it’s appropriate to say that you’re not comfortable answering a personal question, you also can explore the meaning of the question with the student.  For example, if a student asks you if you are divorced (substitute any other personal experience here!), you could ask them to tell you what it would mean to them if you were, and what it would mean to them if you were not.  Depending on the response, you now have some idea of what the student really wants to know.  Then you can choose whether and how to respond.  Even if you ultimately decide and say that you don’t feel that answering that question would be helpful to the student, you haven’t just blown off their attempt to connect to you.   Obviously, if you have a student with a continuing pattern of boundary issues, you will need to talk to them privately.

The student has an interpersonal skills deficit. Increasingly, we have students who have difficulty reading social cues, including students with Asperger’s syndrome and non-verbal learning disabilities.  They do not understand when they are asking inappropriate questions, dominating the classroom or engaging in other disruptive activities.  And their impulse control also may be poor.  If the student appears “disabled”, I have found that the other students often are surprisingly tolerant.  When the disability is more subtle, the other students are more likely to engage in eye-rolling and other signs of annoyance.  If the student has a relationship with Disability Support Services (DSS) it’s very helpful to talk with the student AND the DSS coordinator to figure out a strategy that will work in the classroom.   You, the student and the DSS Coordinator can establish guidelines that you can refer to in class e.g. a limit on the number of questions or comments per class; a requirement that the person cannot answer more than two questions in a row, etc.  The DSS Coordinator can monitor and follow up with the student.

So – any questions?  What difficult questions have you been asked by students, and how did you respond?

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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: I have a question…..

According to many MU faculty, questioning and discussion are favored methods for increasing student activity and engagement in the classroom. These strategies can be highly successful, but only if we are intentional in the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of discussions we start.  Since everyone uses these methods at least some of the time, and many faculty see them as the primary pedagogical method for their disciplines, I thought it would be useful to look at what we know about asking good questions and holding good discussions.  This will take more than one blog post so I hope you’ll add some comments and we can develop some ideas together.

Some educational research suggests that too many classroom questions require recollection of facts or basic information.  Questions that require students to use higher level thinking skills are relatively rare in many college classrooms.  These types of knowledge-based questions are sometimes good openers or fact checks, but they are only the beginning. Good questioning is a skill that can be learned and improved.  Doing so will help students develop their thinking, raise the level of classroom discourse and give you insight into how well your students are learning.

Pose a range of questions

Identify your key questions as you plan your course, and balance the kinds of questions you ask.  For example, you can ask students to draw inferences from a text or image, to interpret what they have read or seen, to transfer information from earlier courses or from earlier discussions, or to generate hypotheses.  Other types of questions challenge students to compare and contrast, probe causes and motives, or give evidence for their opinions.  Asking for student “hunches” or educated guesses can encourage students to think creatively and then develop those guesses through inquiry.  Here are some additional examples of types of questions.

An important but often neglected question asks students to reflect e.g. “how do you know that” or engage in metacognition.  Metacognitive understanding helps students understand their own learning process and thus become more effective.

Pose an arc of questions

Try to create a set of questions that lead the class deeper and deeper into the material being studied.  An arc can start with an open ended question and back up into deciding what evidence one has or needs to answer it.  Or it can build from a definition into applications, evidence and hypotheses.   But these types of arcs do not naturally occur without thought and planning.  As you plan your list of questions, try to anticipate likely answers and think about the follow-up question that will lead the class onward.

How to Question

Sometimes questions go flat not because they aren’t interesting, but because of the way we use them in class.  Here are some points to ponder.

  • Putting your question into written form (on the board or on the screen) can help students keep it in mind and process it more fully.  Not all your follow-up questions need to be written, but key questions that you’ve planned in advance benefit from this dual presentation mode.
  • Calling on people can keep class involvement high, but may be very difficult for non-native speakers, shy and/or anxious students.   Unless it is done with warmth and humor, calling on students can feel threatening.  There may be times when the ability to respond to rapid questioning is part of the skill set you are trying to teach (e.g. legal training) but for most of our undergraduates it is not required.
  • Giving students time to write out a response, confer with a partner, or otherwise engage with the question can help reticent students feel more comfortable.   Doing this type of exercise before calling on students feels less threatening.
  • Asking students to respond to each other can keep the questioning from feeling too much like an interrogation by the professor and more like a discussion.
  • Wait!  Count to yourself to see how many seconds you are used to waiting.  It probably isn’t long enough.  It takes time to come up with a thoughtful response and then get the courage to say it.
  • Keep your questions focused – “what about the theory of x?” will not get you much.  Nor will “Does anyone have any questions?”  Planning ahead will keep you out of this particular unproductive pattern.
  • Your tone of voice and body language speaks very loudly when questioning.  Questioning is at its heart an intrusive activity.  The more inviting your body language is, the more likely your class will respond with enthusiasm.
  • Are your questions sometimes authentic?  Many times, the questions we ask in class are ones we already can answer.  In order to join in the spirit of inquiry with the class, pose some questions that you can’t answer and explore them with the class.   Acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers can be the start of a fruitful and interesting inquiry process.  It also means giving up a bit of classroom control to the learners, which is empowering for them but uncomfortable for some instructors.

Next time I’ll write about responding to student answers — in the meantime, what are your questions about questions?