“Any questions?” “Is everybody with me?” “Does this make sense?” I have asked my students these vague types of questions many times and the most common response was…silence. But how should I interpret the silence? Perhaps the students understand everything completely and therefore have no questions. Maybe they have questions but are afraid to ask them out of fear of looking stupid. Or it could mean that they are so lost they don’t even know what to ask! Only our boldest students would say; “Um, you lost me 10 minutes ago, can you repeat the whole thing again?”
Another problem with vague prompts is that people, especially students, often suffer from “overconfidence bias.” They believe they understand something when someone explains it and don’t realize the limits of their understanding until faced with a specific problem or question that requires them to apply their learning. In fact, there is some evidence that college students who understand the material the least are the most prone to overrate their competence. This is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). Unfortunately, students are not the only people vulnerable to overconfidence bias. Kearney and Sheffer (2015) write about the overconfident professor, stating; “When one student answers a question correctly in class, we move on, believing that if one person provided a correct answer, then they must all be ‘getting it’.”
Vague prompts also can unintentionally signal to students that we secretly hope they don’t have questions because we want to move on. Many years ago, I observed a faculty member (who was otherwise a great teacher) ask her class, “Do you have any questions?” while at the same time closing her book and taking out the handout for the next activity. Not surprisingly, no one had questions. When I mentioned this to her after class, she was unaware of the signal her actions may have sent and appreciated the feedback, which shows the value of teachers observing each other, but I digress.
An alternative: Classroom Assessment Techniques
The best alternative to the vague “any questions?” prompt is to use a brief Classroom Assessment Technique or CAT (Angelo and Cross, 1993). CATs do not need to be elaborate or require extensive preparation or class time.
For example, the muddiest point exercise simply asks students to write for a few minutes about what they consider to be most confusing or unclear aspects of the concept being explored. The authors describe this as “just about the simplest Classroom Assessment Technique imaginable” and that “it provides a high information return for very low investment of time and energy.” (p. 154) This simple exercise has many benefits:
- Unlike the prompt, “Any questions?,” which may signal that the teacher hopes that there are no questions so he can move on, the muddiest point exercise signals that confusion is a normal and expected part of the learning process.
- Because the students are writing privately, there is less stigma than raising one’s hand.
- The teacher gets a more complete picture of student learning than one or two students raising their hands.
A high return, indeed, for an investment of about five minutes of class time!
Other examples of CATs include: directed paraphrasing, where students restate in their own words the main points of a lesson; and a pros and cons grid, which asks students to analyze the costs and benefits or advantages or disadvantages of two choices. Angelo and Cross (1993) give examples of how to use a pros and cons grid in a variety of courses including evaluating two possible designs in an engineering course or confronting an ethical dilemma in an anthropology course.
Angelo and Cross’s book lists 50 CATs along with implementation tips and guidelines for when to use the various CATs, For example, some CATs are designed to assess content knowledge, while others can assess higher-order skills, such as analysis and application, and still others are useful in assessing affective constructs, such as attitudes, values, and self-awareness.
Using CATs in your teaching
If your college or university has a teaching center, it is a good bet that they have Angelo and Cross’s book, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. Also, the teaching centers at Carnegie-Mellon University and George Washington University have created concise online guides on CATs, which I’ve linked to in references below.
So, if you are looking for a practical way to improve your teaching, start using CATs on a regular basis. Any questions?
Angelo, T., & Cross, K. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed., The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Using Classroom Assessment Techniques [web page] Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/assesslearning/CATs.html
Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs): A Guide for Faculty and Teaching Assistants [web page] Retrieved from: https://library.gwu.edu/utlc/teaching/classroom-assessment-techniques-cats
Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999) Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 77(6), Dec, 1999. pp. 1121-1134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.111
Kearney, E. & Shefer, S. (2015) The Overconfident Professor: “I Know I Taught You Better Than That!”. The Teaching Professor. Vol 29(2). February 2015.
Pete Watkins is associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University where he facilitates faculty development programming on a range of topics. In addition, he is an adjunct faculty member in the College of Education.