student raising hand in class March 27

How Do Students Learn from Participation in Class Discussion?

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Despite numerous arguments favoring active learning, especially class discussion, instructors sometimes worry that discussion is an inefficient or ineffective way for students to learn. What happens when students make non-value added, irrelevant, or inaccurate contributions? What about comments from non-experts that may obfuscate rather than clarify understanding? What about students who speak only to earn participation credit rather than contribute substantively to the discussion?


Group of University students in lecture hall March 9

Five Types of Student Questions and Sample Responses

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Students ask all different kinds of questions. Some are on the money—good, honest queries about content that they don’t understand or want to know more about. Other student questions are more difficult to handle. It’s good to have some strategies lined up for when these sorts of questions are raised.

Questions you can’t understand – Sometimes when the understanding is muddled, so is the question. It doesn’t make sense, even though what’s in the midst of the muddle may be a legitimate question.

  • Apologize: “I’m not sure I’m understanding the question. Please ask again. Maybe you can rephrase the question or talk to me a bit about what’s behind the question.” When the student tries again, listen intently.
  • Take a stab: “Let me see if I’ve got the question. Here’s what I think you’re asking.”
  • Enlist help: “I need help. Would someone else take a crack at asking the question?”

Questions that are irrelevant – These aren’t bad questions, they’re just not appropriate given the content under consideration or at this time in the course.

  • Recognize the question’s value but decline to answer it for now: “That’s a good question, but I’m not going to answer it now because the answer will make more sense when we’re talking about. . . .”
  • Say when you’ll answer it: “We’ll be taking about that [in a couple of sessions, later this on today, etc.] and I’d like to ask you to repeat the question then.”
  • Don’t forget: If you said you’d answer the question later, be sure to do it.
  • Say where the answer can be found: “Answering that question is going to take us away from what we’re discussing. If you’re interested in the answer, here’s where you can find it.”
  • Answer briefly, as in very briefly, and explain why. “That’s a good question. It’s not really relevant to what we’re discussing now. However, I’ll give you a one sentence answer.”

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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.