Any Questions?

We’re back in full swing now for classes and one issue that’s been playing on my mind of late is that of interaction and, more particularly, students asking questions. Or rather, not asking.

When I ask if there are any questions in a class, I’m asking in a genuine fashion, because I appreciate that it’s not an automatic process of comprehension. Moreover, if one person has a question or doesn’t understand, they are rarely alone in this. For me, it’s an excellent opportunity to be led by students’ needs, rather than my own. Not for me, the sigh of relief that no one’s going to challenge me on what I’ve said.

This is not to take it to the (probably (hopefully) apocryphal) story I was once told of a lecturer, who was in the habit of turning up to lectures, starting off with “any questions?” and if no asked him anything, then he’d say “then I have no else to add” and would stalk off again. Nor am I trying to do what one of my professors from my youth used to do: every 15 minutes, pick someone out randomly from the class, make them stand up and summarise what had been said. This achieved little except to make people very careful about where they sat.

So when I get a group that has no questions, I get concerned, because it suggests to me that they’re not really engaged.

I know that much of this is about structure and that the passive environment of the lecture (especially) makes that very difficult, but I do struggle a bit to see how I can overcome this. Partly, it has to be about being accessible to students, in the sense of them feeling comfortable raising a hand. Partly, it has to be about creating opportunities to let students talk more generally. The difficulty comes in balancing that with the need to communicate certain information in the session: there is some notional limit to how much students lead, when we take the learning process as a whole. Even in problem-based learning, there is still educator input, albeit as a procedural level.

This is where I’d usually offer a solution, but I don’t think I have one yet, so I’m more than willing to take advice or listen to good suggestions.

2 Replies to “Any Questions?”

  1. I’ve actually used this.

    William James used to ask in class if there were any questions about the readings. If no one answered, James would lie down on the floor beside his desk and say that since no one had any questions about the material, he was going to take a nap. But if anyone tried to leave, he would tell him (this was Harvard in the old days) to sit back down and wait until the class time was up.

    I’ve always said that I have reading to do – I almost always do – and lie there, daring the students to leave. If they do I pick up a grade sheet (I show it to them first) and mark their name.

    Well, James was a half decent psychologist and this usually works. For two or three class periods, that is.

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