questions marks February 6

Questions That Promote Student Engagement

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I don't know a single teacher who doesn't try to use questions to encourage student interaction. The problem is that most of us don't spend a whole of time thinking about the kinds of questions we're asking students, how or why we're doing it, and whether there might be some things that we could do that would encourage more student interaction.

Since this is a piece about questions, I'm hoping you'd expect me to pose some. Let’s start with this one: What kinds of questions are students asking in your classrooms or online? Are they provocative and stimulating queries driven by intellectual curiosity? Or are their questions more pedantic than provocative—how many words you want on a reaction paper, or how many of the homework problems they need to do, or whether there’ll be multiple-choice questions on the test?

Yes, those kinds questions are important to students, but they aren't the kind of questions that we'd like to have students asking us. We need to ask ourselves why students ask these not very inspired questions. Lately I’ve been wondering if it’s related to the kinds of questions we’re asking them. How often do we ask them provocative, stimulating questions?

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Student in lecture hall January 30

Navigating Ethical Waters in the College Classroom

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Should teachers strike?
How should government balance privacy rights with national security?
Should companies value their shareholders over the environment?
How quickly should a software company fix a known bug?

Regardless of discipline, faculty are faced with ethical issues in our classes around a variety of sensitive topics, and students will question the ethics of certain practices or topics in our field. As trained academics, we are not always comfortable having discussions where there is no clear right or wrong answer or talking about ethical areas in which we do not feel we are experts. So, how do you respond to students who really want to know “the answer” to these types of questions?


pedagogical research_active participation December 1, 2016

Strategies That Increase the Number of Students Who Participate in Class

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  • Increase your wait time.
  • Talk about how you think discussion is better when many students participate.
  • Get students to discuss what makes participation a valuable learning experience for them.
  • Don’t let some students participate too often.
  • Listen carefully when students speak and thank them for their contributions.

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Managing student complaints November 28, 2016

Three Tips for Navigating Contentious Classroom Discussions

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Good teaching often relies on productive classroom discussion. However, many of us have experienced dynamics in which our discussions take a perilous turn and a palpable tension settles over the class. The precipitating comment may have offered a provocative perspective on an issue—maybe it rather aggressively challenged something someone said, or perhaps it smacked of racism, sexism, or some other discriminatory innuendo. Generally, students respond to comments they perceive as contentious with an awkward, uncomfortable silence. Nobody says anything; body language registers a collective recoil. What can or should teachers do when situations like this occur? Constructive disagreement, argument, and debate can play instrumental roles in learning, but not unless the exchange moves forward constructively. I’d like to offer three suggestions that can help teachers safely navigate through the potentially destructive terrains of contentious comments.

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November 15, 2016

Questions: Why Do They Matter?

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In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke urged the younger correspondent to learn to love questions, even those that were unanswered. This admonition has stuck with me for several decades, especially in times when I am seeking answers to seemingly tough questions. In thinking about actually loving questions, I contemplated my own relationship with them, and I realized that asking questions is one of a teacher’s most essential responsibilities. The act of posing a query is one of the characteristics that actually sets this profession apart. Reflecting on this epiphany, I wondered if and how exactly I pose evocative and powerful questions. I decided that there are several opportunities to place a well-developed inquiry, and I wanted to share those. The “Who are you?”questions are ones we direct to ourselves; the “What are you thinking?”questions are ones we need to ask our students; and the “So what?”questions are for students to ask themselves—with a little prompting from us, naturally.

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class discussion and hot moments April 18, 2016

Seven Bricks to Lay the Foundation for Productive Difficult Dialogues

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There are three basic ways that I hear faculty talk about difficult dialogues—in-class dialogues that were planned but did not go particularly well; in-class hot moments that were not anticipated and that the faculty member did not feel equipped to handle; and difficult dialogues that happen during office hours or outside of class.


Most popular articles of the year. December 18, 2015

Our Top 15 Teaching and Learning Articles of 2015

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As another year draws to a close, the editorial team at Faculty Focus looks back on some of the most popular articles of the past year. Throughout 2015, we published more than 200 articles. The articles covered a wide range of topics, including assignment strategies, cell phone policies, course design, flipped classrooms, online discussions, student resistance, and grading policies.

In this, our last post of the year, we reveal the top 15 articles for 2015. Each article’s ranking is based on a combination of factors, including e-newsletter open and click rates, social shares, reader comments, web traffic, reprint requests, and other reader engagement metrics.


classroom discussion December 9, 2015

Influencing How Students Discuss Content

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When students are talking with each other about content, most of us worry, at least a little bit. We’ve all heard less-than-impressive exchanges. For example, four students are in a group discussing three open-ended questions about two challenging readings. It’s less than five minutes since they started, but they’re already on question three. Or, they’re working with clickers, supposedly exchanging ideas about a problem, but the group has already decided on one member’s solution. She just happens to be a student who regularly answers in class and is almost always right.


calling on a student September 30, 2015

Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussions

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I once heard class discussions described as “transient instructional events.” They pass through the class, the course, and the educational experiences of students with few lingering effects. Ideas are batted around, often with forced participation; students don’t take notes; and then the discussion ends—it runs out of steam or the class runs out of time. If asked a few days later about the exchange, most students would be hard-pressed to remember anything beyond what they themselves might have said, if that. So this post offers some simple suggestions for increasing the impact of the discussions that occur in our courses.


professor with students June 5, 2015

Teacher Questions: An Alternative?

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Kant declared false the commonplace saying “That may be true in theory, but it won’t work in practice.” He acknowledged that there might be difficulties in application, but he said that if a proposition is true in theory, it must work in practice. What about the proposition “If teachers don’t ask questions, students will ask more and better ones”? A preponderance of practical and empirical evidence shows that teacher questions suppress student questions (see the Dillon reference). Thus we have every reason to believe that if you want students to develop, ask, and attempt to answer their own questions, we have to quit asking the kinds of questions teachers typically ask.