Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Questions in the classroom

Pharyngula has a post discussing how his undergraduate students are often hesitant to ask questions in class.
"When I hear silence during a lecture, I assume the students are absorbing the material without a problem, so I start ramping up the quantity of information to challenge them --and I've discovered that it takes a major overload to blow the fuses on these quiet, diligent sons and daughters ..." (link)
Why don't students ask questions about material they have failed to grasp? We've all been students, so I'm sure that we've all been in this situation (did you ask questions every time you were lost in class? I know I didn't), but I'll detail some of the reasons I can think of here, grouping them into three major categories.

1. Students perceive that there are potential negative consequences to asking questions in class:
  1. Students almost never do the required reading ahead of time, but they don't want to make this fact obvious to the instructor. Thus if they believe the answer to their question may have been in the reading, they won't ask a question until they've checked the book.
  2. Students may think that their question has been answered in a prior portion of the lecture that they missed (while they were not paying attention, in the bathroom, out sick, etc.)
  3. Students don't want to appear ignorant in front of their peers, and thus they don't want to ask what they think may be a question with an obvious answer. In the same vein of peer pressure, students might not want to appear as though they're holding the class back by asking too many basic questions. These reasons especially apply when no one else is asking a question, which can lead students to believe that all their peers are understanding the lecture.
  4. Students may be so completely lost that they have no idea where to start. If a student hasn't understood the last three hours of lecture, the last thing they want to ask is the equivalent of, "Can you go back to the beginning of the unit and start over?"
A common element to almost all of these is that the student may feel that it is his or her fault that he or she doesn't understand the material (instead of blaming the instructor for blazing through the material in ten minutes), and thus by asking a question the student is revealing his or her own faults publicly.

2. The students believe that there are other ways of obtaining the information that don't involve the potential negative consequences of asking questions in class:
  1. Students may be hoping that if they can write everything down they can review their notes later and figure the material out then. Thus if there is a lot to write down a student's first priority will be to take notes and not to think about the material or ask questions (this can apply even when notes or slides are given out ahead of time, since then the student's time must be spent finding the topic on the notes and squeezing their own notes onto the pre-prepared notes).
  2. Students are more willing to ask a classmate or check the book than they are to ask the instructor. This also applies to the web, as I know I've had students search the web for hours looking for an answer before asking me a single, basic, question.
  3. Students may believe that if the instructor couldn't convey the information clearly the first time around, there's little likelihood another go-round will help.

3. There may be other factors outside of the classroom environment that inhibit student question-asking:
  1. The students may be tired and overworked. At my community college more than half of my students are working at least part-time (and a select few work nearly full-time), many are taking multiple classes at once, and even if they're not taking multiple classes or working they're likely doing things outside of school that are keeping them quite busy. Asking questions requires more active thinking than just writing down everything the instructor says, and being tired makes this harder.
  2. Students may be in a foul mood due to some event that has occurred outside of class.
  3. A lack of good language skills may inhibit a student's ability to understand the lecture the first time around (many of my foreign students tape my lectures and listen to them multiple times, a very intimidating thought), and may also make the student feel quite awkward about asking questions in class.
  4. A few students may have psychological predispositions (e.g. social anxiety disorder, being incredibly shy) that inhibit question-asking behavior.
None of the reasons I've listed above include that the students don't care about the topic or don't want to learn, an intentional omission. While these reasons certainly explain a lack of question-asking in some situations, I've talked with instructors who apply them far too frequently, especially since these reasons may be the result of poor pedagogy in the first place (go ahead, call me a hopeless idealist).

The fact that there are so many separate reasons why students may not want to ask questions in class means that instructors cannot assume that students will ask questions whenever they don't understand the content. Of note, however, is that when a student has a basic understanding of the topic at hand many of the reasons for not asking questions evaporate, and thus we get the counter-intuitive conclusion that students ask more questions when they understand the material better. This also explains Pharyngula's observation that graduate students ask more questions than undergraduates: they're more comfortable with the material and thus many of the reasons for not asking questions don't apply.

Thus, in my view, the way to get questions in class from undergraduates is to cover the material more slowly and in more depth, which allows the students to understand the material and thus begin to ask questions about it. But if we stop using student-asked questions as an indicator of student comprehension, what can we use?
  1. Common sense. We, as instructors, can think back to how long it took us to comprehend the material we are teaching, and we can also logically deduce how long it should take students to understand something (and then probably double that time). The problem here is that we often forget that it took us years (or even decades) to learn what we know, and thus we can't expect a student to gain even a semblance of the same knowledge in 30 minutes.
  2. Ask questions of students. Instead of waiting for students to ask questions, turn the tables around and ask them challenging questions. But don't just wait for a student to raise their hand to answer your question, because then all the reasons above come into play again and you'll only get the one person who understands the question raising their hand. Instead either pick students at random (I co-wrote a program with a friend that did this automatically for me in-class) or ask the entire class the question (e.g. with an in-class response system, or some lower tech format).
  3. If you do insist on waiting for questions from the class (or asking the rather horrid question, "Does anyone have any questions?"), then strongly consider interpreting a lack of questions as a lack of understanding, and cover the topic again.
  4. Base your time-on-topic on end of the semester evaluations. At the end of each semester I ask every student which topic I should rework in the next semester and why. I then rework the section(s) that are most frequently listed, generally giving them more time.

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