Help your students ask questions in class.

Students know that they need to speak up in class–to ask clarifying questions, to practice what they are learning, to share their experience in order to make a link between the course and their own lives, or to encourage other students to do so. But they often hesitate. Here are some reasons why:

  • They don’t want to look foolish in front of their teachers or peers by asking a question with an obvious answer, sharing something too personal or obvious, or hurting someone’s feelings with a careless remark.
  • They aren’t sure when to bring up their questions. They don’t want you to feel that they are derailing your lecture.
  • They assume that if they don’t understand something, it’s because they weren’t paying attention when it was explained, so they don’t want to waste your time or their classmates’ time by asking for it to be explained again.
  • They assume that others know the answer and would resent the time spent hearing it again. 
  • They know you have explained it once, and they didn’t understand the explanation. They are concerned that if they ask again, you will explain it in the same way and they still won’t understand.
  • They let themselves get too deep into the process of work or too close to the deadline before admitting that they don’t understand something that is important to successfully completing their work.

Here are some practices you can use to help them ask for help:

  • Make asking questions a regular part of the class experience. Use polls and surveys to allow students to ask questions anonymously or to test themselves without having to admit that they don’t know the answer in front of others. Start each class session with a question that reviews the previous session’s work, for example, and use this information to decide what to reinforce or explain in a new way.
  • Don’t wait until the end of the class to ask if anyone has questions. Since asking a question will hold the whole class in session longer, students feel pressure not to ask so that everyone can be released early. If answering a question would hold the whole group late, you haven’t given enough time to questions–but if you consistently leave enough time to answer them, students will stop asking so they can leave early.
  • Teach students to maintain a list of questions that they create as they study. Better yet, create a shared Google Doc where students can post and answer questions that arise as they study on their own.
  • Create a faculty-led FAQ discussion board in your LMS. If a student asks a question to you via email, tell them it’s a great question and ask their permission to post it in the discussion board, without identifying information. Write the answer there, and send it to all students.
  • Create a student-led FAQ discussion board. When a student asks you a question via email, tell them to post it there first. Award extra credit to the first four people who provide insightful responses to it that don’t repeat what others have said. If no one responds to it in 24 hours, email the class to remind them it’s there. 
  • Set aside a dedicated office hour to answer questions. If you don’t need to see students or share a screen, host it all via Google or your LMS’s chat, so students can write their questions rather than ask them out loud, which can lower their anxiety.
  • Create a quiz over the requirements of each major assignment. Make it due at least a few days before the assignment. Require 100% on it to pass it (a feature you can set in the assignment settings in your LMS). This will cut down dramatically on questions about word/page requirements, citation style, etc. Since students often feel foolish asking these questions (yes, they know that the answer is in the syllabus, but they’re not finding it or not understanding it), so save them the embarrassment.
  • Chunk large assignments so you can catch students early who are off track. For papers or presentations, require students to submit a general topic, a working thesis, a working bibliography, notes over sources, an outline, a rough draft, etc. Many of these can be graded as complete/incomplete. 
  • Organize voluntary or required student-led study groups. This can be as simple as requiring each student to lead 1 or 2 sessions per semester, at a time they schedule. Have them sign up for which weeks they will offer the sessions; require them to submit notes over what they did in the session, affirmed by at least two people who attended. 
  • Require students to identify two peers they will ask questions of if it’s after the hours when you check email. 
  • Require students to create and record micro-lessons on very narrow topics (distinguishing why you would use median v. mean; the difference between metaphor and simile; the Free Exercise v. Establishment clauses) and post these 2-5 minute lessons on your LMS to share with peers. You can provide a list of topics and they can sign up for them, or you could require one per module per student and allow them to choose anything within the module. Make this a rule: They have to teach it in a way that you didn’t present it already. This gives students who struggled with your explanation another way to learn the material.

We know that some students will pipe right up when we ask “Does anyone have questions?” But many students don’t know how to ask for help even when invited. Making asking and giving help a class expectation, including by making it an assignment, provides a little more guidance for students.

Have a strategy to increase question-asking from students? Please share it!

Like what you read? Support it!

Above, a 14th century painting by Laurentius de Voltolina shows rows of scholars in long robes listening to a lecture from a man seated in a pulpit above them. Note the scholar in blue in the third row, who holds his head in his hands as if asleep, frustrated, or exhausted, and the one in the second row, his head in his hand, apparently daydreaming about his neighbor, who is either paying rapt attention to the speaker or trying very hard to ignore the creep next to them.

2 thoughts on “Help your students ask questions in class.

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  1. I love this, as well as most everything you post on this blog. So many tips I’ve found for online teaching are so broad and theoretical that it’s hard to find concrete ways to implement them. I’ve been online since March of 2020, and I almost always feel out of my depth. Your blogs help me turn pedagogies I believe in into practice. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the encouraging words, Rachel! And I understand the struggle! I think that if we start with pedagogy and understand the values we want to bring into our classroom, we’ll end up doing well, even with bumps along the way. I’m grateful to get to be part of your teaching journey!

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