Good answers depend on good questions. That’s why we work so hard on the content of our questions and why we should work with students on how they ask their questions. What also helps to make questions good is asking the right type of question. It goes to intent—what we want in the way of an answer. The type of question we ask conveys this intent to the listener.
“Get students talking about their experiences!” I heard this recommendation in a couple of sessions at the recent Teaching Professor Technology Conference, and the admonition does rest on sound premises. Students learn new material by connecting it to what they already know. If a teacher gets a sense of that knowledge base (which often grows out of and rests on experience) it’s a lot easier to make good connections between what students know and what they need to learn.
I was looking at participation policies in a collection of syllabi this week. I wouldn’t give most of them high marks—lots of vague descriptions that don’t functionally define participation and then prescribe instructor assessment at the end of course with little or no mention of criteria. But I’ve voiced my concerns about participation policies previously, so I won’t do again here. Instead, what I would like to share with you is a policy that’s impressive in its specificity and in the intriguing idea it contains.
I found a nice set of online discussion activities that strike me as good in-class discussion activities as well. One of the reasons discussion so often fails or doesn’t realize much of its potential is the absence of structure. The discussion is too open-ended. It wanders around and is easily sidetracked. I’m not discounting the value of an occasional unstructured exchange, but when students are still learning what academic discourse entails, a structure can keep the discussion focused and on track.
As a sociology teacher, not only do I discuss topics related to oppression and inequality, but these topics comprise a pervasive and substantial portion of our pedagogy. The chapters on class stratification, race and ethnicity, and gender and sexuality are a required chunk of the curriculum by the social science department, and an obvious pedagogical necessity to the social scientist who knows that our location on the social hierarchy is tremendously dependent upon the “isms”—on an individual and institutional level. When covering a lesson on privilege and oppression—almost inexorably, and amongst others—at least one of the following responses from students ensues: denial, defensiveness, and/or diminishment. Aptly enough, their reactions exemplify a part of the lesson, and therefore can be used as a learning device in the liberal arts and social sciences classroom.
“What did you think about the reading?” can serve as an acceptable discussion prompt if your class is reading a novel, but a question like that doesn’t generate much response when the assigned chapter is in an engineering mechanics book or a principles of accounting text. For those who teach “technical content” — and by that I mean material with “right” answers and preferred ways of doing things, like problems with specific solutions or checklists of procedures — it can be doubly difficult to get students talking.
I have been known to berate the quality of classroom discussions—student-teacher exchanges that occur in the presence of mostly uninvolved others. Perhaps instead of berating I ought to be trying to help faculty improve how they lead discussions, and that has gotten me thinking about all the details discussion leaders must keep track of and make decisions about — all on the fly. Leading discussions effectively is not an easy task for any of us. Even those who make it look easy have actually worked very hard to hone this important skill.
A colleague and I have been revisiting a wide range of issues associated with classroom interaction. I am finding new articles, confronting aspects of interaction that I still don’t understand very well, having my thinking on other topics challenged, and learning once more how invaluable and personally satisfying a pedagogical exchange with a colleague can be. My colleague recommended an article I had forgotten. The article is old but the point it makes is just as relevant today, if not more, than when it was made in 1987.
Presenter Jay Howard, a widely published author and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University, reveals classroom norms that inhibit discussion and how you can overcome them.
Integrating technology with appropriate teaching strategies can help stimulate participation and create a student-centered atmosphere conducive to learning. One technology shown particularly successful in boosting student engagement is clickers (Martyn, 2007). In fact, a research study found that student test scores were significantly higher when clickers were used as part of an in-class lecture as compared to a different section of the same class that didn’t use clickers (Mayer, Stull, DeLeeuw, Ameroth, Bimber, Chun, et al. 2009).