Tag Archives: routines

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.

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Why Students Need Milestones & Small Wins

In my first year honors seminar, 5% of the grade is earned by making five posts on a webpage Forum. I added this to the course because I was searching for a way to keep the students engaged between class meetings. I invited students to comment on the readings, posts from other students, and anything else relevant to the course theme. I tried to reinforce their postings by commenting on those that I thought were particularly insightful. By mid-semester, I noticed that only about half the students had posted anything. I sent out an email to the entire class, reminding them of the requirement. Nothing happened.

As we approached the three-quarter mark, with about a month ago, I noticed that a few more students had posted. However, only a handful of the 24 students had come close to meeting the five post-requirement. To my amazement, many students had still not posted anything. I sent out another mass email, with an additional targeted group email to those students who hadn’t posted anything. The response was desultory.

With about two weeks to go in the semester, my disappointment deepened: three or four students had completed the requirement, about half the class had posted two or three items, and four or five students had still not posted anything. I made an announcement in class, reminding students that this requirement was sort of like “free money” in the sense that they got credit for simply making a posting, without any evaluation of its content. I then sent out another email, and this time I noticed that the number of postings began to increase.

At our penultimate class meeting, I made one last reminder of the requirement and encouraged students to set aside a few minutes to complete the requirement. I also sent personal emails to all the students who had posted nothing to that point. I was actually beginning to worry that so few students were going to complete the requirement that the grade distribution would be materially affected, as three or four points can make the difference between a B+ and an A-. (My friend Joe told me he would have stopped before going this far, as he saw my tactics as “coddling” the students.)

I watched the webpage intently over the weekend, and I noticed a few more people posting things. About one quarter of the class hit the five posting goal. But there were still many laggards.

On the evening before the last day, the posts finally began pouring in. Indeed, it was almost like watching a video game – – announcements were rolling into my email account, showing me an hourly tally. By the 5 PM deadline, most students had met the requirement. However, a few still had only one or two postings. One very surprised student discovered, after 5 PM, that he could no longer post to the webpage and emailed me. He ended up with only two postings to his credit.

What had gone wrong with my simple plan to increase out of class engagement with the course? When Melissa came to my office hours, I asked her why she hadn’t done the Forum postings until the end of the term and she nonchalantly replied, “It wasn’t high on my priority list.” She explained that with everything else she had to do, posting to the class Forum fell far down the list. Not only did she have work to do for her other classes but there are also lots of extracurricular activities to contend with, such as athletic events, concerts, and clubs. Other things were simply more important at the moment.

She could see that I was puzzled and volunteered an obvious – – to her – – solution: prevent students from waiting until the end of the term to fulfill the requirement by setting a target of one posting per month, which would result in five total postings. She told me that she was personally disappointed that students had waited, as she found the flurry of postings over the last couple of days of the class really provocative and wished that she had an opportunity to talk with the students in the class about their ideas in a more timely fashion.

As she was one of the five or six students who had also waited to turn in their term paper during the eight hour grace period on the last day, rather than the morning it was due, I asked her why she’d waited. She offered much the same explanation: she had lots of other stuff to do and had counted on the afternoon of that final day to allow her to finish up the proofreading of her paper.

Looking back, I realized that the milestones I had built into the course for completing various parts of the term paper assignment were simply not strong enough. Once again, Melissa volunteered a solution: set up stronger milestones and more closely assess compliance with the course requirements, rather than settling for “check plus” or simple peer review of outlines and drafts.

I’ll admit to being profoundly embarrassed by what I now realize was my failure to take account of the larger context in which my course was embedded. I had committed an elementary mistake inexperienced instructors often make: I thought that if something were important to me, it would also be important to the students. I had assumed I could motivate students by setting up incentives and creating a few simple milestones that allowed me to track students’ progress in meeting course goals. I had failed to account for the complex and overloaded life – as they perceive it — of today’s college students.

Students are confronted with an enormous variety of activities from which they must choose, and the priorities they follow don’t always accord with what we as instructors would prefer. The tasks we set for them are often overshadowed by much more immediate and pressing demands, including not only work for other courses but also their desire to live a richer social life now that they are on their own. Often, we are just not salient in the midst of more attractive options.

What to do? I suggest being much more mindful of the need for building frequent and graded milestones into your course that give you the opportunity to provide feedback on how well students are meeting course requirements. Management theorists talk about the power of “small wins” that give people a sense of making progress toward a goal. When people feel that they are making progress toward a goal, they feel more positive about the process and the positive emotions feed back into the amount of investment they make in the activity. Motivation increases and people began looking for the next small win in the process.

For example, when I enact milestones requiring monthly postings, I give students a periodic and highly visible reminder of the course themes. Because this particular requirement just assesses whether students have posted, rather than the content of their posting, it is also an easy win. An added advantage of requirements that involve highly visible activities is that students also gain public confirmation of their progress.

Small-stakes assignments also mean that students don’t put a lot at risk with any particular submission. Sim Sitkin described this strategy as one of “small losses.” Either way, it can be effective in motivating students to focus on completing assignments.

Term project milestones are bit more complicated, but they too provide opportunities for small wins. Students might simply get a check for turning in a proposed theme or a plan for researching the paper. Turning in outlines and drafts involves higher stakes’ assessments, and I believe instructors should provide fairly detailed written feedback for such assignments. Again, if it is to be a “milestone,” then students must not be given the impression they have passed the milestone until you, as the instructor, give them the go-ahead.

When students fail to keep up in our courses or turn assignments in late, we often accuse them of procrastination. But I’ve argued in this note that part of the problem is our failure to provide incentives powerful enough to motivate students to keep up. By building “small wins” into the milestones we set, we can rely on positive motivation, rather than draconian punitive measures, such as late penalties. If the milestones are simple and clear enough, students will do their assignments on time.

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