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Getting students to ask questions

Traditional lecturing is easy – you stand behind a podium and ramble on about the subject matter for fifty minutes.  If your monotone delivery is a bit slower than you anticipated, or if you bore yourself to the point where you nod off for a little bit, no big deal: no one will really notice if you don’t get to your last page of notes.  On the other hand, if you tend to race along and run out of class before time is up, you can always let them go early – it’s a win-win situation in which you do less work, and the students appreciate you more.

More modern teaching methods, on the other hand, are more fraught with danger.  Whatever your choice of buzz word – student-centred teaching, active learning, inquiry-based instruction – interaction is critical.  If you can’t get your students to participate, the whole enterprise falls flat on its face.  You need to ask good questions, you need to get your students thinking so that they come up with good questions – and you need to get them to talk.

When you throw out a question, the game begins.  You stop talking.  The spotlight shifts from you to the students.  They are off balance, out of their element.  Their anonymity is under attack.  The students respond to your silence with silence.  It has become a contest of wills.  Who can tolerate the silence longer?  In most cases, the instructor blinks first.  Many people don’t really expect questions, aren’t really committed to the pedagogical value of questions.  It’s just something that they have been told they are supposed to do in order to appear more open to their students.  They don’t really understand why they are doing it.

If you actually want to use questions as pedagogical tools, you need to be able to tolerate the silence.  You need to wait the students out.  Some students really do have questions, but they don’t want to be the first person to start talking.  Others ask questions to fill the space, to save you, the instructor, the embarrassment of silence (students can be nurturing that way).  But sometimes, even that won’t work.

Neil Sinhababu writes about his job interview at the National University of Singapore:

Before giving my job talk, NUS had me give an hour-long presentation to the graduate students and advanced undergraduates to prepare them for the talk and also evaluate my teaching abilities… I’d planned the talk to include about 20 minutes of student questions, but a third of the way through, the students hadn’t asked me anything.

So I looked at them and tried a trick that I had spontaneously come up with in the previous session of the lecture I’ve been teaching at Texas. I said, “If someone asks a question, and it’s a good question, I’m going to dance.” Amid lots of giggling, a brave young man raised his hand and asked a question — I’ve forgotten what it was now, but it was good, and the students laughed again when they saw me dancing. After that, good questions flowed freely. When students see that their teacher is willing to do comical and mildly embarrassing things to reward student participation, they get the idea that class really is a place where they’re suppose to participate.

H/T Janet Stemwedel.


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