By Kevin Ramer
It is no secret that students tend to learn best when they are actively engaged with the course material. In this post, I offer a few ideas on how to motivate students to ask more questions.
First Day of Class
Your approach to the first day of class informs students about what to expect for the rest of the semester, especially with regard to participation. If you wish to encourage students to ask questions, it makes little sense to read your syllabus aloud, then dive into a lecture. Here are a couple of suggestions for first day activities to spur student involvement:
- Problem Posting (Nilson, 2010). Ask students to write down questions they expect the course to address (or problems they expect to encounter with the course), then ask them to share, recording their responses on the board. Linda B. Nilson suggests “build trust with your class…by restating the students’ comments and requesting their confirmation.” When everyone has had a chance to share, go through the list and discuss which of their questions will be addressed during the semester and which won’t. This activity encourages students to formulate questions AND share them.
- Classroom Conduct Activity (Nilson, 2010). I have discussed this activity in the past and it is relevant here as well. Divide students into teams and ask each team to decide on exactly two rules that will govern classroom conduct for the rest of the semester. Have each team report their rules on the board simultaneously, then discuss and agree on a certain set of rules as a class. This activity sends a message to students that they have a say in what happens in the course. Also, teams give students an environment where they are more comfortable sharing their ideas, making it easier for them to eventually share with the class (I’ll discuss this again later).
It is also crucial to learn student names within the first week or two of the semester. Learning names informs your students that you see them as individuals and not as anonymous members of a group. This, in turn, helps them feel more comfortable participating in class and asking questions. One way to learn names is to fix a seating chart on the first day and memorize it. This makes it easier to call on students while you match names to faces. Another strategy is to divide students into set teams of at most six; these subdivisions make the task of remembering names much simpler.
Creating an Environment for Students to Ask Questions
Certain students are comfortable raising their hand whenever a question pops into their head, but these students are the minority. To encourage the entire class to ask questions, it is important to create an environment where it is easy for them to do so. Here are a few ideas to help:
- Team Discussions. “Students find it easier to speak to groups of three or four than to an entire class. Divide students into small groups, have them discuss a question or issue for five or ten minutes—or even less—and then return to the whole class. Choose topics that are focused and straightforward” (Center for Teaching and Learning, University of California Berkeley). This strategy has been successful in my classes for teams of up to six students. Questions come up naturally during team discussions and students are inclined to ask if no one in the team can come up with a satisfactory answer.
- Pause Regularly for Questions. During a lecture, plan on stopping every 15 minutes or so to address student questions. “When students learn to expect these opportunities for discussion or questioning, they will listen more actively to the lecture. If you lecture for 45 minutes before you pause for questions or discussion, your students will have been taking notes for so long that they may find it difficult to switch modes quickly” (The Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis, 2009).
- Avoid Favoring the Same Students. Constantly calling on the same students can discourage other members of the class from speaking up when they have a question to ask or a thought to share. “Respond to frequent volunteers in a way that indicates that you appreciate their responses, but want to hear from others as well. Move to a part of the room where quiet students are sitting; smile at and make eye contact with these students to encourage them to speak up” (The Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis, 2009).
- Have Students Write Down Questions. “Have students pose questions on 3x5 cards. At the end of class, have students write down the one or two questions they have about the material for the day. At the beginning of the next class, pose some of these questions to the group as a whole, or redistribute the cards and ask individuals if they can answer” (Center for Teaching and Learning, University of California Berkeley). This gives students who are less willing to speak up in class an opportunity to have their questions addressed. Hearing their questions read out loud in class may also give them the confidence to speak up in the future.
Hopefully, this post has given you some useful suggestions for encouraging students to ask questions. Be sure to check the sources below for more ideas on improving student participation.
Linda B. Nilson, Teaching At Its Best, 3rd Edition. 2010.
Center for Teaching and Learning, University of California Berkeley. “Encouraging Student Participation.”
The Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis. “Increasing Student Participation.”