Tag Archives: teaching

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.




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.




Teaching a class? Be the 1st to arrive

When I leave my office and head for class, I’ve noticed that my step quickens noticeably. I feel excited about the class I’m about to teach and eager to share with the students what I’ve learned about the day’s topic. However, I also walk briskly because I want to arrive in the classroom before my students do. My goal is always to be the first to arrive so that I’m there to greet the students as they enter. This may seem like a minor detail in the greater scheme of all things pedagogic, but I actually have a well thought out plan for this tactic.

Workers in the Great Depression

Men arriving at work

First, arriving early gives me the opportunity to engage in small talk with individual students about the course and how things are going for them. Information gleaned from these discussions may generate a question that I bring to the general class discussion or may lead to modifications in an assignment I had planned. For example, students might point out some better contemporary examples of the principles discussed in a reading or they might have seen something in social media that’s worth mentioning to the whole class. I also find out about what’s happening in their other classes, which is information I can often work into our class discussion. Some students will be motivated to show up early because they want to hear what I’m telling other students – – they don’t want to miss anything.

Second, chatting informally with the students who have arrived early gives me a window into college life in general. Has sorority rush started yet? Is anybody in the class a candidate for election to student government? Are students excited about an upcoming appearance by our women’s soccer team in the conference tournament? Some of what I learn can be used subsequently as examples in the class discussion. For example, issue-oriented student groups are very active on my campus and their organizing tactics make for great examples in a social movement course. Generally, I get a good sense of the pulse of the campus and the rhythm of students’ daily lives.

Third, students are often willing to share things with me before class starts that they would not mention when their peers are seated around them. For example, did they find the readings for the day difficult? Why? Are they worried about meeting deadlines for the term paper? Revealing such anxieties to everybody, once the class is underway, can be a daunting experience for shy students. By contrast, as I walk around the room before class starts, engaging in small talk, I find they are more likely to open up and reveal such concerns. Speaking to students individually, or in small groups prior to the start of class, is particularly helpful for students who are nervous about speaking during a large class session.

Fourth, my students often use this time to ask me questions about how I spent the weekend, how I feel about recent political events, and so forth. Students often seem surprised that I have a life outside of the classroom, one that includes children and grandchildren. Sharing – – but not over-sharing – – some recent events in my life helps to humanize me as more than just their instructor. In my experience, this also helps in making students feel comfortable about coming to visit me during office hours.

Fifth, showing up early carries significant symbolic value. It signals to the class that you take teaching seriously and are prepared to put in whatever time it takes. When students realize that I will be in the classroom 15 minutes before the official start of class, they start showing up early as well. Often, almost all the students are seated several minutes before the “beginning” of class. Few people walk in late, where “late” is defined as not being seated at the official starting time. In contrast, were I to set a bad example by coming in just before class started, I would be encouraging my students to do the same.

Sixth, setting aside time in your daily schedule to leave your office early to head off to class will give you a bit of extra time for those unusual circumstances that sometimes disrupt your schedule. If a student visiting your office hours has an issue that needs more time or if an emergency phone call keeps you in your office for a few extra minutes, you will still arrive well in advance of the starting time. Do not treat arriving early as an option or you will end up finding the time occupied and you won’t ever get to class early. However, on rare occasions when “stuff happens,” you will still arrive on time for the start of class, given your new routine.

I strongly suggest you try out this practice at the beginning of the next term. Make it a routine practice for all your courses. Arriving 10 to 15 minutes before the published start time will make a dramatic difference in how much you know about your students, how much they know about you, and in creating a more comfortable and positive classroom atmosphere.

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.

Lecturing & daydreaming: what happens when students have no decisions to make?

A few weeks ago, I spent several days at a conference on a topic that holds great intrinsic interest for me. I signed up for the conference, eagerly anticipating meeting new people and being challenged with novel ideas. I had never attended the conference before and had few preconceived notions about the format for presentations. However, because most of the scholars were in the humanities, I knew that I wouldn’t be seeing many tables of numbers or hearing about esoteric statistics!

What I wasn’t prepared for was being read to. Over the course of several days, almost every speaker read their presentations from pre-prepared scripts. In one typical session, the first two presenters held their papers with two hands, looked up occasionally, and put the paper down only to change the PowerPoint pictures. They read well, using inflection and pitch to emphasize important points, but it was still a word for word matching of oral presentation to the text. The third presenter had a script but had done a better job in memorizing it, as she occasionally made eye contact with us and did a fairly good job of disguising the fact that she was reading.

Biennale sculptures in Arsenale

Which way to turn?

As I always try to do in conferences, I had made a point of sitting in the first row, so I could see the slides clearly and also have a clear view of the presenters’ faces. I found that being able to see faces helps me catch meanings I otherwise might miss when I don’t hear all the words.

Despite my advantageous location, where I should’ve been in the thick of the action, there wasn’t any. I found my attention wandering, and to stay focused, I tried taking notes of the key points that I heard. As often happens, my notes quickly became observations on the format of the presentations and not just their contents.

Why couldn’t I stay focused on the content? Frequently in such situations I find myself lamenting the lack of presentational skills by the panelists and speculating about what it must be like to sit through one of their classes. But in this case, I turned the focus on myself and asked why I wasn’t doing a better job in playing along with the role of an “audience member,” which is apparently how the presenter saw me. Then I realized that I didn’t want to play that role anymore.

Instead, I wanted to do something. I wanted the presenters to ask me questions, to solicit my feedback, and to force me to puzzle out where they were going next. Alas, their one-way talk left me with no options — no decisions to make. I had been forced into a thoroughly passive role.

If there was to be action, I needed to force it myself. I started writing down objections to what was being said, but because the presenter had left no space for such diversions, whenever I wrote something down, I missed a part of the presentation. Because the presenter was reading from the text, and redundancy had mostly been edited out, missing a few sentences often meant I lost the thread of the argument.

Colleagues who know me well will recognize that, once again, I’ve found another provocation from which to push my case for active learning! The situation in which I found myself was very much like that of our undergraduate students in classic lecture based classes: an instructor does 90% or more of the talking while students passively try to record in their notes as much as possible of what has been said. The few questions asked of the students are mostly rhetorical and only answers that conform to the a priori expectations of the instructor will be followed up.

Why do such situations make me so unhappy? Why was I so disappointed with the presentations I heard at the conference? I think it is because the presenters had made no allowance in their plans for bringing me into the session as an active participant. Just as instructors who rely heavily on one way talk give their students no decisions to make, as an audience member, I also was expected to simply absorb what was being offered rather than let the speaker know that I actually understood – – or not – – what was being said.

The decisions offered to me could have been simple ones: the presenters could’ve asked for examples of what they were talking about. The speakers could have offered several alternative scenarios that completed their narrative and then asked us which one we thought was the most plausible, and why. They could have purposefully constructed an alternative counterfactual scenario and then asked us why it didn’t occur.


Venice red threads & keys

You Keep Me Hanging On! Keys hanging by red threads at Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale, May 2015

My point is straightforward: when humans are put in situations where they are simply being talked to, with no opportunities offered for them to engage their higher order cognitive powers, they will struggle mightily to stay engaged with the material. I recently read a blog post by a scholar who works with online courses and who noted that she had viewed some amazingly well produced videos. However, within one week, she had completely forgotten their contents! The slick videos had given her no role to play in her own instruction.

The natural cycle of human attention is quite short, but it is further truncated when people are asked to play only passive roles, as audience members. Daydreaming is a more likely outcome than deep learning!