Asking questions

Well, it’s horribly hot outside, which means that the classrooms are either quite stuffy and humid-sticky, or due to HVAC design errors, uncomfortably cold for 95% of the personnel using them. The faculty, staff and students are all yawning from screwed-up sleep schedules, and from being bombarded with mind-numbing amounts of new information, masses of new people to become acquainted with, and multiple changes in their schedules. In other words, it’s once again the first days of school.

Once we get past the obligatory, “Here’s what we’re gonna learn, and here’s the class rules” lecture, we get to finally sink into the actual teaching-learning part of the class. Alas, there is a definite sinking feeling in the classrooms, as for the first few periods of the day many of the students are still half-asleep (a few gave up and have totally succumbed), are often suffering from low blood-sugar levels because they skipped breakfast, and/or just generally cannot rouse enthusiasm for studying biology, algebra, government or whatever subject was given to them for 7:40 a.m. (Omigod, these are teenagers — if pedagogy actually followed research-based practice, none of them would have class until 10 a.m. when they would physiologically be ready to be awake. But of course, that would –godforbid– mess up the sports practices.)

So the teachers are desperately trying to keep their charges engaged by encouraging dialog. You say, “Let me know if you have any questions.” Judging by the general lack of responses regarding the lecture topic, the blank stares, and the mass confusion when given labwork and projects, the students should be asking questions. Or, should be asking more appropriate questions.

But actually, this issue is not the proximate question of,How do you get the students to ask questions?” Rather, we must first ask the ultimate question of, “Why do you want students to ask questions?”

Probably you want to be sure that the students are:
1. Awake;
2. Paying attention to the topic;
3. Mentally engaged with the subject.

And really, those are fair concerns. Otherwise, what the hell are you and the students all doing there, besides using up O2 molecules? Let’s face it, there are more ambient places to forage for food, get sleep, or assess potential mates.

There are other reasons for wanting the students to ask questions. You want to ensure that the process of attending to the teaching is an active and self-correcting process. When it comes to teaching-learning, it takes two to tango.

Part of that active and self-correcting process requires that the student be good self-advocates, that they will “check in” with the instructor to make sure they are comprehending the material. Unfortunately, by the time students get to high school or college, they have spent years in the world of schools designed to turn out consistent robots, where individual thinking was discouraged in favor of getting the “right” answer, and where their creative energies were distracted by the inconsequential bread-and-circuses of commercialized fads, and the group-think of team identities.

There are those students who don’t participate in such (either because they can’t or they won’t), and are outcasts in their nonconformity. These are the geeks, nerds and fools, with intelligences ranging all over the place. In their earnest zeal, they are likely your best question-asking students, yet paradoxically, they are also those who generally have the worst abilities to be self-advocates because both the system and the student body have dumped on them for years.

When you start asking – nay, demanding – that the students become more active, you are stepping outside of the rôles everyone has assumed. This is uncomfortable because of the potential for embarrassment. The students all crave positive attention from their peers, but not at the price of (gasp!) standing out. Or worse, of looking like an idiot. All through school the students have been assessed in a hundred ways and found wanting. They are tested not to check their progress and give them feedback, but rather the test scores compare them to perfect ideals and to each other. The goal has been shifted from personal mastery to competition. The emphasis has shifted from learning as an ongoing process, to learning as the constant pursuit of achieving one bitter carrot just so they can go after yet another.

Asking questions exposes a person; it lays them open to appearing deficient in the eyes of the teacher, or inferior to their peers. To get past that, the students have to feel safe. Asking questions should yield something positive, something worth striving for, but not in a way that is too risky.

There are several ways to increase question-asking by students. There is no one sure-fire guaranteed method, because as every instructor has observed, classes are highly variable sets comprised of greater or fewer inspired students. Too many factors come into play, from which semester the class falls, the size of the class, the temperaments of the individuals, the time of day, and so on.

Create expectation. I tell my students that it is their JOB to ask me questions; that is why they are here, and why they paid for the class. They should get their money’s worth. This plays on the student’s sense of entitlement; they want to get something out of their time with you. It also works because it helps re-define their rôle in the classroom – the students are not there to obey the teacher, but rather the teacher is there to serve the students. (Shocking idea, ain’t it?)

Create opportunity. You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: stop periodically and ask for questions. I have to consciously remind myself to do this, because once I get going on a pedantic roll, it’s all too easy to keep on going. Don’t ask “if” anyone has questions. Stop what you are doing – put down the pointer, the chalk or marker, sit down on the table or whatever, and put the lecturing on [Pause] and ask, “What questions do you have so far?” Then wait … and wait … and wait… (this is the hardest part for me; I don’t count to ten, I count to twenty-five). You have to wait, because the students have to review what you’ve talked about already, probably leafing through the handouts and notes, or mentally re-winding their memory pictures, and contemplate what it was you were talking about, and relate it to what they already know, and feel along to discern just where it was the comprehension process went klunk-klunk-thud, and pull out the vocabulary to express that cognitive disconnect, and then be able to put that into a verbal question. All that takes time.

Create humbleness. Once again, I am re-defining the traditional teaching paradigm (I’m a sneaky radical that way), by emphasizing my own humanity and fallability. When I write stuff on the board, especially anything number-related, I tell them to keep an eye on me and to tell me if I make a transposition or write the wrong thing down. Now, students (especially teenagers) love to catch the authorities making mistakes. They will watch you like a hawk! Ask them to find errors in textbooks, or false premises in ads, magazine or newspaper articles, or anything related to the subject that just looks fishy, and to bring them in for the class to analyse in collective discussion. This takes the subject out of the classroom and into their own lives and back again. This also helps them develop their own critical thinking skills, but only if you explain the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Any young fool can be cynical and put on worldly airs, but it takes someone with knowledge of both the subject and of logic fallacies to be skeptical.

Create openings. Students are often not used to thinking in class, not necessarily because they can’t think, but because it’s been bludgeoned out of them in the cause of making “well-disciplined” students, educational cannon-fodder, as it were. You get them to start thinking by asking them questions, but not binary right-or-wrong questions. Ask them open-ended questions where you don’t provide a choice of answers. Ask them divergent questions that have several potential answers (after all, real life is messy this way, and there are no answers in the back of the book). No one wants to get pounced-upon; let the students volunteer to answer, lest they be caught unexpectedly like deer in the headlights. But use peer pressure to your advantage, and expect them to follow through; let the pauses extend while you wait for an answer. (You’re stubborn, aren’t you? Use that stubbornness!) If necessary, let them brain-storm in small groups for a couple of minutes; this is especially helpful for those first-hour classes where everyone is still in their pyjamas, mentally if not literally. (Sometimes I miss the days when people used to dress up to attend college classes.)

Create glad chaos. More radical stuff; move the chairs out of rows or take the students outside, something to break free of the soldierly paradigm. The first week of class, ask them to share stories about previous experiences in classes they loved and classes they hated, and describe why they loved and hated those classes. Let them become alive, and individual, and aware of education as a process, and self-aware with regards to their own learning. Then once you have shaken things up; keep them shaken up! The dread inertia will evilly try to settle over everyone again from one class day to the next. Make them keep re-arranging where they sit, and by whom they sit. This forces new perspectives on everyone, from the classmates they confer with to how they see you. (Of course, this has to be balanced with accessibility issues; the student who gets distracted easily or who cannot see the board well should not get shoved to the back of the classroom.)

Create feedback. Observe the students, and watch for those cues of confusion. Share with them respect for their learning process and acknowledge their confusion and ask to help untangle it. Often there are a few students who are inclined to do most of the question-asking, and the challenge is to honor their enthusiasm and balance that with heeding the uncertainty of the other students. Ask for comments and questions from those who haven’t spoken up yet that day.

The secret to getting students to ask questions is to give them back the freedom that has been stolen from them, and to honor their hurt from that loss. You have to be able to not only identify what they have lost, but also to offer them something positive to put into its place, a new sense of what learning can be. You have to give them the tools to build that new kind of learning to take with them. Students sometimes have to be trained in study skills, but fortunately everyone has the innate ability to learn. The biggest trick is uncovering where it was that they had safely stowed away that ability to learn.

It’s great theory. Often it works, too. Some days I still have the urge to brew a pot of strong coffee …

“The art of raising challenging questions [in teaching science] is easily as important as the art of giving clear answers.” And I would have to add, ‘The art of cultivating such questions, of keeping good questions alive, is as important as either of those.’ Good questions are the ones that pose dilemmas, subvert obvious or canonical ‘truths,’ force incongruities on our attention.”
~Jerome Bruner


  1. 28 October 2007 at 0:42

    […] biases, Teaching/Tutoring, logical fallacies) When commenting on a previous post of mine, andreashettle asked, I’m curious: how DO you help students understand the difference between blanket cynicism and […]

  2. 24 October 2007 at 13:39

    I’m curious: how DO you help students understand the difference between blanket cynicism and healthy, balanced, thoughtful, analytical skepticism?

    I don’t ordinarily teach. I’m in a different field. But I’ve done a little tutoring and teaching in the past. And sometimes I run into a student who has learned something about the concept of “bias” — and has become so good at spotting potential sources of “bias” that they refuse to believe ANY potential source of information at all, even the ones that are reasonably reliable and trustworthy (or at least, the ones that make an honest attempt to be, or that experts in the field have judged to be good sources). For example, they may reject peer-reviewed academic sources published by universities because of possible “bias”! It was frustrating trying to get through to them that “bias” is not an either/or paradigm — yes, every source and every author has a certain set of “biases,” but there are degrees of bias and there are ways to avoid the more blatant sources (say, an advertisement from a company that *of course* wants to make their product look best) while still learning something from the safer sources. And there are ways to intelligently evaluate sources to identify the ones that are trustworthy enough to be used as sources for their research paper or literature review or whatever they’re doing. But for them, there is no distinction: they’re all biased, period.

    I don’t really anticipate being in a teaching situation again, at least not in the near future — but just in case … any tips? I’m thinking particularly of students who seem to have very black/white thinking, who don’t seem to be able to parse fine gradations very well, and who also seem to have a tendency to pick a few specific things that some teacher has taught them in the past and cling to them so tightly that they seem incapable of admitting that what they learned could still be refined in some way–or could even be just point-blank wrong.


  3. qw88nb88 said,

    18 August 2007 at 14:56

    Spot on, David!

    Indeed, the things we all really like about teaching-learning are those moments when we feel that we have truly connected and shared in some new level of understanding.

  4. Club 166 said,

    18 August 2007 at 3:55

    Thanks, Andrea, for reminding of all the things I really like about teaching.

  5. 18 August 2007 at 3:24

    Heh! I remember this discussion :)

    I believe it was born out of my frustration with Finnish adult education college students who did not know how to ask questions.

    Eventually, tho, they did learn to do that… and quite well. Because I showed them how to… by asking them questions :)

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