Silence of the la(m)bs

Do you remember the time warp that sometimes followed a question from an instructor, back in your college days? When all sound was sucked out of the classroom, along with most of the air, so we all held our breath, waiting for the moment to pass?

At first you may have thought: this was a rhetorical question, the Prof doesn’t really want an answer. But then the silence thickened and the Prof kept staring, eyebrows raised. It was getting hot in the room, and you felt a sudden urge to read the EXIT sign above the door over and over. The quiet was deafening. A sneak peek at the class confirmed your suspicion that the Prof is still trying to make eye contact and coax an answer – but the gazes were firmly parted down the middle, for everyone else was also busy examining their fingernails, the cobwebs on the ceiling, and the clock’s arms ticking by in slow motion. In those awkward seconds, have you ever wondered:

Why do teachers ask questions?

Instructors ask questions for a variety of reasons. However, their objective is usually the same: to enhance student comprehension.

“I ask questions for two reasons.” – explains Carol Subiño Sullivan, Faculty Teaching and Learning Specialist. – “First, to assess students’ learning and understanding of the topic. Second, I use questions as a vehicle to open up a discussion that will help them explore different perspectives.”

Dr. Sullivan is describing the two main uses of questioning in education: the use of lower level, or factual, questions commonly posed to check if students are following along before moving to the next concept, and higher level, or critical thinking, questions, designed to challenge assumptions, explore diverse views, connect content to real-world scenarios and promote self-reflection.

Wait, those are all things students should be excited to do, right? So…

Why would students rather not answer?

More often than not, there are good reasons behind students not volunteering to answer a question in class.

“It’s the fear of judgment from peers as well as the instructor. This just gets worse as class size increases. Even if there’s a welcoming atmosphere, there’s just a lot of pressure.” – shares Darrion, a computer science major at Georgia Tech.

Indeed, based on a review1, only about 25% of college students are willing to respond to questions in a lecture, and that participation further drops as class size increases2.

Class size, however, does not explain it all. The kind of question being asked also matters a great deal.

“If I don’t know the answer 100%, I don’t want to put myself out there. Especially at the beginning of a course, you just don’t know what the class dynamic is going to be like.” – adds A, a biochemistry major.

Her experience is common among students: if it appears that the question has one specific correct answer (a.k.a. a convergent question) the professor is looking for, a student can feel like she has little to gain even if she gets the answer right, but has much to lose by “saying something dumb” in front of the entire class. Considering these odds, staying mute makes perfect sense.

What if the question is very easy? Well, that’s just suspicious. While instructors sometimes pose questions specifically to elicit the wrong answer, in an attempt to demonstrate a common misconception, imagine how it feels to learn that not only was your answer wrong, you were set up for failure in front of everyone. Conclusion? If it sounds too easy – it probably isn’t. Keep your head down.

And then there are the questions that are so simple they are insulting. Have you ever heard of Napoleon? – asked the instructor in a central European history classroom3. Silence followed her words. She took it as a sign that her students were vastly underprepared if they haven’t even heard of Napoleon. Consider for a moment how infuriating this question must have sounded to her student Mary, who wrote her junior thesis on the topic. Answering the professor’s question would have been analogous to answering “What color is this yellow pencil?” – just duh.

So how do we make questions work for everyone?

Today, of course, The Silence is just as uncomfortable for us as instructors as it is for students. While our students may not catch on (as they are busy looking for escape routes), the sage on the stage is likely experiencing the same urge to flee as they are, garnished by accelerated breathing, dilating pupils and a sudden onset of profuse sweating.

The key to avoiding the awkward stalemate is…

Preparation

When you are planning a class, consider the following4:

  • How large is the group?
  • What are the backgrounds of students (year in school, major, previous education and experience etc.)
  • What prerequisites or other courses have they had?
  • What do the students hope to gain from this course?

Assessing your audience will help you with…

Asking the right questions

If you have a good grasp of what your students know or don’t know, it will be easier to calibrate your questions to be just the perfect blend of challenging but manageable.

Darrion points to another hack: “I would be more comfortable answering questions if we were assigned more pre-class work. With more prep, I have more confidence to answer.” Questions from readings are also a great way to check whether students are completing their assignments.

Dr. Sullivan highlights the importance of what type of question we ask: “I avoid asking: ‘Any questions?’ Because that is a sure-fire way to get silence. I am very intentional about asking specific questions. For example, instead of asking ‘What did you think about the reading? ‘I would ask: ‘What’s one idea that you disagreed with?’ “

Asking questions at the right time

Anxiety over others’ judgment combined with uncertainty about knowing the correct answer to a question creates the perfect, silent, storm. It is worth lowering the stakes by first offering divergent questions that allow for multiple answers.  As it is wisely offered by A: “Before asking <What’s the correct answer?> professors could ask ‘How might we start to solve this problem?’”.

So assume both you and your students have done your homework. Are we out of the bushes yet? Have we gotten rid of awkward silences for good? Not quite. Not all questions are pre-planned, nor should they be. Sometimes, as the class unfolds, the instructor wants to grab a teachable moment that has arisen organically – a question neither they or the students prepped for. But the question catches everyone off guard – so instructors have to do a bit of…

Salvaging on the fly

Uh-oh, it’s the silence again. How am I gonna get out of this one?

“When nobody wants to answer a question, the most important thing is to wait. Sometimes students just need time to process the question. But waiting is hard, so I hold on by focusing on my breathing: I take at least two full breaths before I speak up again.” – offers Dr. Sullivan.

Research confirms that instructors only wait 3.75 secondson average after asking a question in class before they move on. If the question in question is complex, it is understandable why one might want to think more than 4 seconds before offering their opinion.

What if you just can’t keep waiting any longer? Don’t give up! Turn the attention away from the podium by handing over the conversation to the students: “If we talk in pairs first, and we come up with something, then I’m more willing to share. You also learn the material better that way.” – suggests A.

Any question can be turned into a quick think-pair-share activity. Alternatively, you can ask students to write down some ideas on a piece of paper – they will similarly be more confident after having had some time to formulate their ideas.

If you asked a factual question, you can ask students to open their books and find the answer, or look it up on their devices – you can even throw in a prize for the one who gets it first.

Two more creative ways to engage students who might otherwise not volunteer (without calling on them) is having the whole class answer as a chorus6 or using the beach ball method:

All shall not be quiet on the lectern front

Questions are perhaps the most powerful vehicle to learning ever invented. Keeping the discussion alive in a classroom is imperative to ensure deep, meaningful comprehension and the exploration of diverse perspectives in a classroom. Do some smart planning and pick a few strategies that might work in your class – and carry on questioning!

References

  1. Weaver, R. R., & Jiang Qi , J. (2005). Classroom Organization and Participation: College Students’ Perceptions, The Journal of Higher Education, 76:5, 570-601.
  2. Kenney, J.L., & Banerjee, P. (2011). “Would someone say something please?” Increasing student participation in college classrooms. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 22(4), 57-81.
  3. Weinsheimer, J., & Weinsheimer, J. (2005). “Ever heard of Napoleon?” A case study on perceptions. Scenarios A and B prepared for Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) Faculty Workshop, Prague, 9/16/2005.
  4. Davidson, C. I., & Ambrose, S. A. (1994). The New Professor’s Handbook. A Guide to Teaching and Research in Engineering and Science. Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 176 Ballville Rd., PO Box 249, Bolton, MA 01740-0249.
  5.  Larson, L. R., & Lovelace, M. D. (2013). Evaluating the efficacy of questioning strategies in lecture-based classroom environments: Are we asking the right questions? Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24(1), 1-18.
  6. Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic Lecturing: Research-Based Strategies to Enhance Lecture Effectiveness. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

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