Any Questions? How to Turn Student Silence into a Conversation

Any Questions? How to Turn Student Silence into a Conversation

I now cringe whenever I hear a speaker say, “Any questions?” Few of us are ever jumping out of our seats with secret unanswered questions. If we had had something urgent to ask, we probably asked it right away. And if we didn’t, the speaker’s query is just met with awkward, almost guilty silence.

In fact common advice for teachers is to ask for questions, and then wait…as long as it takes to get a question. Even thinking about this makes me uncomfortable. Surely there has to be a better way.

A Better Way to Get Students to Ask Questions

In our last blog, Are Some Questions Better Than Others, we talked about how questions fall into two main categories: those to clarify a specific piece of content, and those that push the class forward towards a solution to a larger identified goal or problem. This second is a more powerful kind of question, a question that takes us a step away from our current knowledge and toward our greater goal: we call that second kind of question a Natural Next Question.

Even our undergraduate classes where everything is organized around learner questions students struggle with asking questions. But instead of the awkward three-minute wait, there must be better ways to help students ask questions.

Here’s the Goal: Getting Students to Ask Questions.

First, students might have trouble thinking of questions at all. Students need to gain confidence in phrasing questions, and learn what questions are valuable in what contexts. No matter in what context you are asking for questions, students might need some scaffolding to help them start. Don’t use scaffolds for long – just a couple of class times should suffice.

For content questions, here are some question stems that students can complete, and some prompts that might inspire questions (you may need to alter them for your age group):

  • What is the definition of ____________? What exceptions is the definition trying to avoid?

  • How would I identify____________?

  • Why have the authors focused on____________?

  • What was the first moment in the lecture/reading/video that confused you, or where you felt a little lost? What question can you ask about that moment?

  • Do you have any questions about any of the author’s choices in what they did or wrote about, and what they left out?

  • Did any argument or assertion in the lecture/reading/video feel poorly supported? What might the author need to justify better?

And for natural next questions, students might use these prompts:

  • What question do you need to ask yourself to move forward?
  • What’s a new topic (not the ones you’ve been learning about so far) that you might need to learn about to reach your big goal?
  • Look at your big goal. What’s a specific thing you need to learn to get to that big goal?

Starting Question-Asking Outside of Class

But, of course, students might still be intimidated speaking up in class. The time and place of question-asking can have a big effect on the confidence of learners. The lowest-pressure time and place is by themselves, outside of class. Start by have students write a content question about that day’s lecture on an index card right after class, and hand it in at the beginning of the next class. Or, ask students to prepare natural next questions in the evening to ask in class the next time.

Before requiring students to ask questions in class, remember that there could be some potent cultural pressures. Many cultures, including large parts of Asia and India, virtually forbid students to ask teachers any kind of challenging question. Simple shyness can also be a big deterrent! Students may benefit from practicing at home first.

In the classroom, be explicit about your expectations: for example, perhaps everyone needs to ask a question each week, but not necessarily in every class. If you are collecting a list of questions, let everyone know that “brainstorming rules” are in effect: there will be no critique of any question. All questions are good questions, all questions are applauded and welcomed.

After the class relaxes about questions, you can introduce the idea of improving questions (for example, you can use our Question Productivity Index - click here to download). Students can work on improving their own questions, or they can work in supportive groups.

Finally, showing the students that their questions count is a great encouragement for their learning process. Address content questions in groups; the Beagle software can do this for you automatically. For natural next questions all the members of our undergraduate courses either upvote them in software or vote on them in person at the end of class, and the top question or questions become the topics for the next class. When learners can guide their learning direction, their engagement naturally grows, and their information retention grows, and their sense of belonging grows.

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