Tag Archives: learning

The Sound of Silence Can Be Deafening & the Questions You Ask Your Students Can Provoke It

A colleague recently visited my office with a problem. He said the students in his undergraduate class “didn’t want to talk.” He and I had previously talked about how to get students more engaged, and I had suggested to him that he ask questions. I probed, “what kinds of questions have you asked your students?” He replied, “Well, the first question I asked this morning was ‘what is the main point of the article I assigned for the day?’” Nobody said anything.

Instructor pointing at student

You WILL answer my question!

I pointed out that even I might be afraid to answer such a question. Such questions pose a severe challenge to the confidence of undergraduate students, because the instructor clearly knows the answer and they don’t.  The answer is a “fact” which the instructor clearly thinks the students should have already known before they came to class. When it comes to answering questions about “facts,” there are many ways to be wrong, but only one way to be right. When faced with this dilemma, students are understandably silent.

I suggested that he come up with nonthreatening questions: questions that didn’t put a student’s self-confidence and reputation at risk. Trying to begin a discussion with questions for which there is a “correct” answer makes salient the asymmetrical relationship between instructors over students. No one wants to look bad in the eyes of peers and so it is safer to say nothing and wait till somebody else answers or instructors give up and answer the questions themselves.

Is there a better way? What types of questions could you ask to begin a discussion? First, you could ask about something that everyone has seen or experienced. For example, in a class on the sociology of work, I asked students what is the best job they ever had and what were its characteristics? Everybody can answer such a question. Second, you could write a concept or principle on the board and then ask students to suggest examples. For example, you can ask for personal examples of a principle identified in the readings, rather than asking students to define the principle itself. In a class session on organizations and bureaucracy, I asked the students which aspects of the ordering process best exemplified what George Ritzer identified as the rationalization of fast food restaurants. It is critical in this process that you do not comment on the examples that are offered. Instead, simply compile the list. Third, you could ask students which previous class sessions or readings the day’s assignment reminded them of and why. Again, simply compile the list without editing it. Later in the discussion, after students have gained some confidence in participating, you can ask more difficult questions.

In addition to choosing questions for which there is no clear right or wrong answer, I follow several guidelines in getting discussions started. First, if at all possible, I use the whiteboard to keep track of student responses. Otherwise, trying to control the discussion process while at the same time keeping track of what is been said creates a high stress situation. You could also use an interactive polling system, such as Poll Everywhere.  Writing responses on the board clears your short-term memory and also gives you a few seconds to collect your thoughts while you decide on follow-up questions.

Second, I take care to make sure that if I’m writing answers on the board, I write them in the students’ own words. I rarely edit student responses and when I do, I always ask their permission. Writing the responses verbatim sends a strong signal that you are going to privilege student voices in the discussion, rather than just looking for confirmation of what you are going to tell them anyway.

Third, you should follow-up short or incomplete responses. Probe for more information by telling students that you need to make sure that you understand their meaning and thus you need a sentence or two from them. Point out that the few words you’ve written on the board might make little sense in a few minutes, when the discussion turns to assessing what’s been written in response to your original question.

When you are satisfied that you have responses that adequately cover the readings assigned for the day, then turn to editing what you’ve written on the board. This is a dangerous stage in the process, as it is here that instructors often hijack the process and begin selectively drawing from the writing on the board to give the lecture they had planned in the first place. Although the impulse to “correct” the unedited responses may be strong, don’t do it. Instead, turn to the students and ask them for suggestions for improving or simply using the list. For example, after I’ve written down the responses to my question about the characteristics of the best job students have had, I asked students if they see any pattern to the responses. The discussion naturally leads into various ways in which the dimensions of jobs can be analyzed.  In another example, after listing all the comments about ordering systems in fast food restaurants, I asked if the list reminded them of any of Ritzer’s principles and why. Note that it is okay at this point to begin probing for relevance to the day’s instructional goals, because you’ll have shown the students that you are listening to them, that their words matter, and that you take their views seriously.

The next time you find yourself stumped by why students are sitting passively in the classroom, seemingly unable or unwilling to answer your questions, take a hard look at your questioning strategy. Rather than sparking a discussion, the very questions you’re asking may be shutting down the process.




Assignments: better late than never?

A few days ago, a colleague came to me for teaching advice. On his syllabus, he had written that he did not accept late assignments. One of the students, a young woman who was struggling in the class, had turned in a paper that was woefully incomplete and he told her that it did not meet the assignment requirements. However, rather than rejecting it outright, he took account of her struggles and told her that if she turned in a finished version by the end of the week that completely met the basic requirements of the assignment, he would give her partial credit. At the end of the week, she turned the paper in again, but it was still well short of what he would accept as meeting minimal requirements.

Angry instructor

Get that assignment in on time or else!

He asked what I thought he should do. He told me that the assignment counted 15% of her grade, and thus giving her a zero on the assignment would immediately knock her down at least a grade and a half, before taking account of her other less-than-stellar work in the course. But, because he had announced that he didn’t accept late papers and then had recanted on that rule by inviting her to submit a revised version, he felt he had to give her some credit.

After suggesting that yes, it made sense to give her some credit, under the circumstances, I went on to make a more general point about putting strict rules and regulations in a syllabus. I reminded him that in my syllabi, I never say that I will not accept late assignments. I have no list of punishments or points that will be taken off if assignments are turned in late. My friend, Joe Lowman, and I have had many conversations about this & I’ve benefited greatly from his wisdom. Indeed, when it comes to such matters, I usually find myself asking, “what would Joe do?”

On the first day of class, students often ask me, what are your penalties for late assignments? I tell them I don’t expect late assignments, as all the due dates for assignments are in the syllabus they’ve just been handed. In that case, why would any assignments be late? I find this logic impeccable, but some aren’t satisfied with this answer and persist in questioning me. All I will say is that if they find themselves having difficulty, prior to an assignment being due, they need to talk with me and I will try to help them. I never speculate about what I might do with the late assignment, preferring to deal with each of them on its own merits.

I do this to avoid being put in the situation of my colleague: announcing a hard and fast rule which extenuating circumstances may well require me to break. Over my 45 years of teaching, I have heard about plenty of emergencies, some of which were devastating to the students involved. What would I do if a student told me about a family emergency which gave them no choice but to rush home? I would feel really heartless in telling a student that I was very sorry about the accident and I hoped the victims would recover, but I stood firmly by my policy.

My colleagues are typically astonished when I tell them about this policy. Typically, they raise two objections. First, won’t I get a lot of late assignments? Second, if I do accept late assignments, isn’t that unfair to the students who turn their assignments on time? My answer is “no” to both objections, as I will explain.

First, in my syllabus and on my webpage, every assignment is clearly described with its due date. I use Sakai, which sends out automated notices, reminding students of due dates. The assignment is also noted on the website’s course calendar. For larger assignments, such as term papers, I have multiple milestones that students must meet: reporting their chosen topic, submitting a one paragraph description of their theme, a preliminary listing of references, a rough draft, and so forth. These milestones give me many opportunities to intervene when students show signs of falling behind. I also take a very active role in keeping track of how students are doing, sending emails to students who miss class and asking students to come in and talk with me about assignments, if they have difficulties.

When students approach me about the possibility of a late assignment, and what I would do, the first thing I always say is, “What is interfering with your turning in an assignment on time?” I don’t say, ”Remember the penalties.” If, after working with them, it is clear that they will not get the assignment in on time, the next conversation I have with them goes something like this:

Student: “okay, when can I turn the paper in?”

Me: “when do you think you will have it finished?”

Student: “well, will I be penalized?”

Me: “you realize that the reason I ask for assignments to be turned in on time is so I have enough time to read them properly, so I can be sure that I will give each assignment its proper due. Late assignments make that more difficult. However, I will grade it as fairly as I can.”

Student: “okay, I’ll turn it in on Monday.”  [Students almost always pick a date earlier than I would have chosen, if I had picked the date!]

Cutting flowers for Rose Bowl Floats

Cooperative learning means you’re always coming up roses!

One of the consequences of this approach is that I almost never get late assignments! And, my syllabus is not cluttered up with pointless draconian rules that I have no intention of enforcing.

Second, what about the “fairness” issue? Isn’t it unfair to the conscientious students, who get their work in on time, to allow some students to turn assignments in late? I have three responses to this alleged violation of some perceived moral principle. (In what philosophical system is taking account of extenuating circumstances equivalent to a moral failure?)

(1) for students having problems getting assignments in on time, extra time almost never makes a difference in the quality of what they do. The best students in a class are not the ones asking for extensions.

(2) students who get assignments in on time can put that assignment behind them and get on with their lives. By contrast, students who are struggling to complete a late assignment will find they have to forgo other things that they would’ve enjoyed doing, with their assignment-free peers, but instead they are stuck indoors, completing an assignment. Being allowed to turn something in late is no free pass to scholastic heaven. It is a burden.

(3) my goal in assessing my student’s work is to try to figure out what they have learned in my class, and knocking off points from a student’s score because a paper was a day or two late completely muddies the meaning of a grade. I’m not teaching “discipline,” I’m teaching sociology. I want to give students every opportunity to show me what they’ve learned, and if this requires me, every few semesters, to accept a late assignment, I’m quite willing to do so.