Pushing for Answers

This is one of those very basic teaching maneuvers that its easy to neglect as the semester wears on.  It is easy, when either asking a question during lecture or in the course of a discussion, to let students simply talk.  The typical response is to either let other students respond, or for us to put their remark into context. Both have merits–the former creates a classroom that values freedom for new ideas, while the latter encourages students to speak, knowing that even a not-quite-right answer will be magically transposed into the correct answer.

But there are dangers as well.  In the unmoderated discussion, students may talk but not listen to each other, the dominant students may control the debate, or students may rely on personal experience, isolated cases, or flat out misinformation as evidence for their opinions.  In the case of the student who calls out an answer that we must mold, it encourages lazy thinking, with students calling out whatever pops into their head, not necessarily due to serious thought or analysis.

How to handle this?  There are many methods, but the one I’m rather fond of is to challenge the students on everything they say in a discussion.  When students give answers, I make them elaborate and explain exactly how their answer connects to the material.  I don’t let them off the hook either–I push, cajole, and help them to talk through the connections, rather than making the link for them.  I can’t emphasize enough  how frustrating this often is for students, and how frequently they want to give up in the middle of the process.  Other students will try to help.  But unless the student is really stumped, I don’t stop, and once they’ve actually manged to do it, they really feel a sense of accomplishment.  I’m also upfront with my students about why I do this–my job is to help develop their critical thinking skills, and my providing all the answers and saying ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ doesn’t  help them in that respect.

This method is not always appropriate (brainstorming activities, for example, would be completely cut off if you try this) and they do require a sense of trust in the classroom between students and teachers.  My students know that I am not mocking them or deliberately singling them out for embarrassment, but to help them.  They all experience it, so there is no sense that I am ‘picking’ on them.  And sometimes I soften the experience, by having them discuss a question in small groups so that group mates can work together to explain their answers.

This is one of the most basic ways of taking a passive class and truly making it active, and its applicable to any kind of class where you ever ask questions of students.  Sometimes the simple changes can really have a big impact on student learning.

One thought on “Pushing for Answers

  1. I do this sometimes, but should make it a more frequent habit. ButI find that the vast majority of my students are completely unfamiliar with Socratic dialogue and find the questioning to be emotionally taxing. Maybe I should show them a clip of a classroom scene from The Paper Chase.

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