Monday, June 7, 2010

"Are There Any Questions?"

I forget where, but I once read somewhere that simply asking whether there are any questions is the worst way to discover whether your students have any questions. That can't literally be right: telling them you'll destroy their genitals if they ask any questions is surely a worse way to elicit questions. So it must be hyperbole or something.

Anyways, my problem with the people who say that simply asking your students if they have questions is a poor way to elicit questions is that the admonishment is never accompanied by positive advice. If I'm not supposed to say, "does anybody have any questions," what am I supposed to say? It's as though eliciting questions is some sort of incommunicable skill; like you have to be some sort of classroom whisperer with a magical gift of getting the students to ask the questions they have. The rest of us can never hope to get to that level.

So I've been asking my students what, if not asking whether there are any questions, I should be doing. They don't know. I ask them if they ever had one of these classroom whisperers who could really elicit the good questions. None of them ever have. One guy says he had a math teacher who elicited lots of questions by being obscure and never explaining anything. Obviously, that's not a good way to elicit questions. Another guy says he doesn't ask many questions because he doesn't find me confusing. I already explained the stuff he was going to ask about, he says.

But the weird thing is this: whenever I have this discussion with a class, it leads seamlessly to them asking a bunch of good, penetrating questions about the material we were covering right before this digression. It's really bizarre. The best way I've found to elicit questions is just to claim that you have no idea how to elicit questions.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

It's odd that you were offered that advice without the rest of the suggestion of what to do in its place. Whenever I was steered away from "do you have any questions?"--either in the corporate world in presentation skills training seminars or in academia--I was always told to replace it with "what questions do you have?"... The theory, at least, is that it implies that they already have questions (which most do, even if they're not bold enough to ask them) and so the "assumption" of the students having questions sets the right tone of the room. Otherwise "do you have any questions?" is, at root, a 'yes' or 'no' question, and in that strange social calculus that students employ ("will i look dumb if i ask this question?", "how would i even word my response, where do I begin?"), that boolean die-toss is always on the "safer" 'no' side...

Anonymous said...

Yeah, sometimes when there aren't any questions, I just say something like, "I really have no idea whether you're finding this all crystal clear or utterly baffling, but since you're not asking anything, I'll assume the former". Which generally gets at least one question; and then I find that once one student breaks the question barrier, others feel emboldened enough to follow. I think maybe it helps the students to be reminded that their having a question doesn't reflect poorly on them... or anyway, that's at least my best guess.

Asstro said...

I think the problem with asking "Does anybody have any questions?" isn't in the asking for questions, but in the ambiguity of the "anybody." It's a difficult question to answer, since they don't know if anybody has any questions, and they also don't know the relative rank-ordering in importance of their question, if they recognize that they have a question, relative to the other questions that they don't know about. Moreover, since it's philosophy, they sometimes simply don't understand that they have questions.

I always try to ask a student to explain back to me what I've just explained or discussed. Sometimes I'll select someone at random. That usually _reveals_ that there are, in fact, a lot of questions.

I sometimes also say, "Okay, who's lost?" I raise my hand as I say this, to indicate that I am one among the lost. I then use this as a method of encouraging someone else to explain the position for me. "Can you help me understand what's going on here?"

I'm not saying it's the best method, but it kinda works.

A-158 said...

Ask a specific question, such as "what should I be doing instead of X." (Didn't you answer your own question here?)

Or "So, can someone tell me the main point so far?" Or, "So Mill's position here seems to depend on P. Can anyone explain how?" or "Can anyone think of reasons for or against P?"

Other strategies:

(a) ask the students to write a question on a piece of paper, and then have them pass the questions around. Then ask someone to read the question they now have.

(b) have students drop questions (about the last class or the day's reading) in a bag at the start of class, and choose some randomly at some appropriate time.

Anonymous said...

Also, on occasion, flip the (passive, sitting on hands, no-question-having) default:

"Raise your hand if you don't have any questions."

or even

"Stand up if you don't have any questions."

Gets people moving.

Kind of cheesy, but pretty effective.

Dan said...

I say 'What do you think?'

Then they do not feel they have to come up with a well formed question - as well as questions, often they will just give their take on things, or how they think it connects with something else, or (quite often) they will give me objections to the argument, all of which reveal what they think, and give me a chance to clarify possible misunderstandings, show how the account in question can handle that objection, praise them if they say stuff that is interesting and useful, and so on...

'What do you think?' is, at the end of the day, a question most of them know how to answer... :-)

Anonymous said...

A lot of good ideas. I too found that students tend to remain quiet when asked 'Are there any questions?' but to ask great questions, and a great many of them, when it is just assumed that there are questions, or when I ask something more specific. So I usually do one of the following things:
1. Ask something specific: 'how did x get this from what s/he was saying before?' it may just be another way of saying 'did anyone get anything at all from the last half-hour?' but it sounds more specific, so it works.
2. Ask them to help recap, or give the 'bottom line'. Once one of them starts, there will be questions, comments, suggestions, etc. Also works well in the beginning of class: can anyone remind us what we talked about last time?
3. Ask if there is any particular point that needs clarifying, getting from any one step to the next (suggest a few). Sometimes it is easier for them to realize than the whole picture.
4. Ask why / how this point/discussion is relevant or fits in the framework of what's been done so far.
5. Sometimes I just state: OK, I know you have many questions. And it works. (Maybe our acknowledging the confusion as part of the process makes them recognize it).

Basically I think as long as there is an abstract confusion they are facing, they can't always focus it into particular questions, but once we ask specific questions, it helps clarify what isn't entirely understood, and so they can ask.

Dan said...

ps Perhaps the reason why, if you discuss with students how to elicit question then they ask more questions, is perhaps because it shows to the students that you *really do* want them to ask questions...

Anonymous said...

I like A-158's suggestions. I've used something similar with success. I write a question on the board (e.g., "What are some possible objections to the argument we just discussed?") and have the students spend a minute or two writing down their answer to it. The discussions that follow such exercises are usually quite good.

A variation on A-158's "passing" suggestion: Have everyone write a question on a piece of paper. Have them pass the papers around and read the questions to themselves. After they've all read a few questions, have someone tell you which question they found the best/most interesting/most important/whatever.

If your students expect this to happen on a regular basis, you might encourage them to write down questions as they occur to them so that they'll be prepared with a good question when the time comes.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes employ a take-home assignment that's worth a few points with several recent topics where I ask them to write a question about each given topic. Then I survey the answers to see where the most general misunderstandings are and respond to them in class. That way I can address problems without singling out particular students (which is the biggest reason they don't ask questions--they're embarrassed to do so).

Also, how you respond to questions in class is probably more important than the sheer quality of your answers. Try as much as possible to praise the questioner: "Really nice question" for anything like that or "I bet a lot of other people would have liked to ask that" for a question that to you (and other better students) might seem silly. Honey works much better than vinegar here--everyone needs respect.

(Counterpoint: with a recent logic class chock-full of students that were really smart and with whom I had excellent personal rapport, one such good and personable student asked a really, really dumb question and I said "Oh, wait a minute, where did I put that?" and pretended to search behind the computer desk. Not finding what I was looking for I shrugged my shoulders, went into slight histrionic exaggerated speech while bending down ala Vincent D'Onofrio in Criminal Intent and said "I can't seem to find THE NOOSE I NEED TO HANG MYSELF!!!" The class burst into laughter as did that student--but I repeat that you can only get away with that very rarely with closely-understood ways that you relate to a particular class.)

Anonymous said...

When I was in college, I almost never had questions when the prof asked for them. But if someone mentioned the right point, the questions I had forgotten would pop back into my head.

One of my tactics is based on my recollection of being that kind of student. It seems to work.

I ask the class what confuses them most, and I give them options. (Were you most confused by A? Or B? Or C?) Once I mention the right idea, they seem to wake up and remember what confused or bothered them. Almost inevitably someone will jump in with a fairly clear question.

Even if that doesn't work, they'll still perk up when they hear mention of what confuses them. Focusing in on that area and giving further options will end up guiding them to their questions.

This pretty much always works for me. I imagine it wouldn't work with all teaching styles, or all kinds of classes. But at least it works for mine.

Anonymous said...

i would just ask them if they had any questions, they would stay silent. i would ask them, with mock incredulity 'really, no one has any questions about Kant's moral philosophy (example)? Really?' still silence. i then ask them a rather basic (but not too basic) question on the material (what would Kant say on this given situation...) and have them write the answer on a piece of paper and hand it in, given that they have no questions, thereby knowing it all. I tell them it is 5% of their grade.

I do this once, maybe twice per semester. Then, they ask questions and it gets lively once in a while.

Anonymous said...

As is pointed out, asking them questions is a better way to start discussions than having them ask you questions.

How you respond to questions is also important. As someone pointed out, praising the questioner is a good idea. "That's a good question." or "I'm glad you asked that because I wanted to talk about..." which indicates the students questions are in line with your plans (that makes them feel like they are getting it).

It also works to ask questions back at them, or to encourage them to question each other and act as the moderator. If someone makes a comment or asks a question, rather than responding yourself, ask if anyone else has a response.

Another (big) faux pas, I think, is the tendancy we have to correct student questions or comments. The student does the typical student thing and says something long, rambly, and only vaguely coherent, and we say something like, "I think what you mean is..." what we are trying to do is figure out what they mean, but it comes off as "Your question/comment was wrong, and I am fixing it." which is discouraging to that student and the rest of them. Instead, respond with "Tell me if I am getting your comment/question -- are you saying etc.?" and then let them correct themselves (if they can). This also encourages other students to ask questions because you seem like you want to understand what they are saying and then they will want to understand what you are saying.

I also find connecting material to other courses they may have already taken helps, because it boosts their confidence. I often use examples from psychology, history, and science. So I'll start the example with "Did anyone learn about, ie Freud, in psychology?" If someone responds, I'll say "Okay, tell me what you learned about the superego" or whatever, and that encourages them to draw connections (and talk about stuff they feel like they know.)

Glaucon said...

I think asking if there are any questions is fine so long as it's properly punctuated, e.g., "Are there any questions, bitches?"

Anonymous said...

I think when people just give the negative advice what they have in mind is just this: if you do all the talking, and then make only the most perfunctory effort to elicit response and discussion from the students, you will get no response and discussion from the students. I'm a big fan of lots of the suggestions made in the comments above.

A-158 said...

if you do all the talking, and then make only the most perfunctory effort to elicit response and discussion from the students, you will get no response and discussion from the students

This is super important. Martin Benjamin (Mich St Emeritus) used to give seminars on teaching philosophy. He sometimes referred to a distinction b/w the Explicit Syllabus (EP) and the Implicit Syllabus (IP). The EP is, well, the syllabus you distribute to your students. The IP, on the other hand, is the way you treat your students.

Your treatment of your students sets out your expectations as much as your EP does. You can say all you want about how you'd like them to talk, but if you don't make a place for it in class from the start, the students won't believe you. In effect, by failing to let them talk, you'll teach them to be quiet, despite what you say about talking in class.

Some teachers think they need to lecture for three weeks before they can let students talk, because the students don't have anything much to say before then. This is a big mistake. If you want your students to talk in class (during discussion, to ask questions, whatever), the earlier you get them to talk, the better. And it doesn't really matter what they talk about at first. Just make up a few opportunities for everyone to say something to the class. E.g.:

1. Interview your neighbor in class and introduce them to the rest of us.

2. Tell us what philosophy classes you've had before.

3. Tell us where you went on summer vacation.

Even this last one works. I tell the students that the whole purpose of this is to get them talking. I tell them that the earlier they talk in class, the more likely they are to talk again. They understand and play along.

And, fwiw, when I was a grad student, we had prof's visit our classes to watch us teach. On more than one occasion, prof's commented on how many students talked in my classes. Some even noticed that students who wouldn't talk in their classes would talk in mine.

I do this stuff a lot in speech-intensive ethics courses I teach, and a lot less in advanced courses for majors (in which I tend to lecture more). I end up with very different class environments.

By three weeks into the class, students have developed habits that they are likely to hold until the end of the semester. Get them talking early and they're likely to keep on talking.

Anonymous said...

A-158, you misspelled "Ψyllabus".