06Dec 2016

Creating Engagement in the Classroom: Providing Answers to Questions

How professors and students alike can stay atop of the changing question-and-answer dynamic in the modern classroom

In today’s higher education environment, there are many obstacles faced by both students and educators. As class sizes continually rise, the opportunities for individual student interactions have fallen. When a single educator is tasked with presenting one or more chapters in a one-hour lecture, there is often little room to field questions. This can create a specific challenge on both sides of the podium.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." Albert Einstein touched on this as well when he noted that "the important thing is not to stop questioning." Creating a bridge between the teacher and the student to ask questions and receive answers has always been important, but what happens when the learning environment is no longer able to accommodate student expression as a part of the learning journey?

Where did all the questions go?

In the past, higher education classrooms were much smaller and more personalized. They required more involvement than attending an hour long voice-over-powerpoint presentation. The teacher taught, and the student followed along, raising their hand when they had a question about the lesson of the day.

If a student is no longer asking questions, it’s important to point out it might not always be a bad thing. The student could already know the material so well questions aren’t necessary. More often than not, though, I find these possibilities to be most common:

  • They’re not sure what to ask.
  • They want to avoid the embarrassment of seeming like they don’t understand the material.
  • They don’t want to hold up the progress of the lecture.

Those aren’t promising reasons.

Professors vary in the extent to which they encourage questions and in the ways they respond to them. Some welcome questions, others do not. Some tolerate questions, while others expect questions. Styles do vary.

Student engagement platform

Educators know that questions from students can provide a useful indication of how well the students understand the material. As content and class culture dictates, every class is as different as the educator. When the educator simply cannot find the time to take questions though, students learn that this is not a channel of communication available in this class from this teacher.

We can plan for alternate channels, or we can hope they identify others.

Asking questions is a proven way for students to fill gaps in their knowledge. A good question can help students avoid wasting time trying to interpret unclear directions or completing tasks incorrectly. Student questions can help the professor determine if they are moving too fast or at a pace that allows students to follow along.

So where are the questions going? And how can we bring them back?

From the Professor....

As classrooms grow in physical size, the distance between the teacher and a student in the back of the room increases. The volume necessary to hear the lesson increases, while a professor’s ability to be heard decreases. The student-teacher relationship may never form simply because of this physical distance.

Without a quality microphone and amplified speakers, many in the audience will get less than the best of the classroom performance. It’s a two-way street. The teacher might also miss the best from student contributions because the technology wasn’t in place to facilitate audible communications.

For instance, a student sitting in the back of my class won’t scream their question from the back row. Whether they feel it’s not worth the embarrassment or they are just the quiet kid in class, most feel they are disrupting the students around them while still barely reaching me at my podium.

As classrooms grow in student density, the number of points a teacher must connect with also increases. If the goal is to address each student every day, a 30-second touch for a class of 100 requires 50 minutes of conversation. Even fractional applications total more time than many educators allocate to their lesson plans. There’s just too much to cover to meet the perceived goals.

The classroom can become a series of compromises to serve many masters: management, students, and our teaching ethos - and depending on whom we speak with, a new tipping can occur.

The challenge is real.

From the Student...

As a first-generation college student, I take my education seriously. I have sat through lectures packed with 500 students and realized quickly that if I wanted any chance at getting a question answered, I needed to sit in the center of the front row. My strategic front-and-center approach was not always effective. On a number of occasions, I found myself flailing my arm in the air and feeling pretty awkward about it – especially when making eye contact with the instructor and watching them pretend they did not see me.

But I needed my questions answered to advance through the lecture, and other students may have benefitted, too. After interviewing other students around campus, I found I was not alone in this experience.

“In my first year at SDSU, I just could not keep up with the material that was being presented to me in class,” says Alek Sanchez, senior. “Although I needed clarification on the material, the professor viewed questions as a disturbance to his lecture, so I never bothered to ask.”

“I really like when my professors make me feel like I have one-on-one access to them, even in lectures,” says junior, Marisa Cubing.

Q&A3

“Even when I want to ask my professor a question in class, I get too nervous to even raise my hand and often let the question go unanswered,” says senior Sydney Wolfe. “When no one else is asking questions, I don’t want to be the one person who’s confused.”

Bringing the relationship back…

Current solutions to reestablishing the question-and-answer relationship between students and their professors come in several forms. Today, we have options, each with its own set of pros and cons. Here are some of the leading solutions for today’s classrooms.

The simple answer to building (or rebuilding) a relationship is to bring back the questions and answers to the classroom. Build time into your lesson plan that includes a break for questions and for the teacher to give solid answers. We know in most cases if one student is asking, others are not, so the professor can make time--in advance--to deliberately and clearly ask the students if they have any questions. Since he/she planned for this “open forum” session, there will be plenty of time to provide an adequate response, as well.

We’ve heard from a number of professors who survey students at the end of their class. This avoids disrupting a class period. In this method, the teacher provides a form at the end of the class asking for the biggest takeaways and any questions to be addressed at the next class. This gives the professor time to prepare thoughtful responses in an efficient manner while also preserving anonymity for the students who did not want to speak up for any number of reasons.

For a technological solution, CourseKey enables students to input their questions into the platform on their device, where the teacher may address them at any time. This gives students an equal opportunity to ask questions, and it ensures the delivery of the question to the teacher. This applies to not just questions, but also to concerns and comments. It saves the student the competition and gives them a better chance of having his or her voice heard. CourseKey also allows a student to remain anonymous. The teacher will still see who submitted the question, but it will arrive to them with an “anonymous” notation, letting them know not to announce who the question came from in the classroom.

What we know...

The nature of the classroom is that information is delivered to students via some means (speaking, video, powerpoint, etc.). However, students have varying learning styles and may not always gauge the information the same way as each other. Some students prefer visuals, while some like audio. Others prefer a combination of both. Some students are too intimidated to ask questions in front of a room full of their peers. They still have questions, but they may not have the equal opportunity to ask the teacher due any number of constraints.

As students have pointed out above, this creates a problem. Throughout history, advances in classroom technology profoundly impacted the learning experience. When the technology arrived, we moved from blackboards to smart boards. Hello, multi-functionality. Goodbye, sloppy handwriting and screechy chalk.

So as the question-and-answer relationship changes, we need to look for similar solutions. The best solution will be the one that reaches the most students in the most efficient manner while still allowing the professor to use his expertise and judgement to deliver a cohesive, educational, and engaging lesson plan.

Where we go from here...

Education requires communication between the teacher and the student, synchronous or asynchronous. It is the basis for learning and the foundation for creating a relationship. Without the ability to ask a question and get an answer, a class could more accurately be considered training.

Q&A4

Unanswered questions are avoidable in the classroom. They just have to be addressed as part of the course content. The tools and technologies are available to professors to include in their presentation and can unleash boundless amounts of information to be explored and shared with a motivation that may already exist. It simply comes down to providing a channel for students and teachers and giving them the tools to utilize it.

Throughout this blog series, we examine the constantly evolving world of education. As class sizes grow, the classroom dynamics change and the interactions between teachers and students become increasingly limited. Educators need to work now more than ever to revive student expression in the classroom.

Most importantly, it’s not too late to heal this relationship. With the assistance of a student engagement platform and educational technology in the classroom, educators can once more engage their students and rebuild the culture of classroom curiosity and interaction that leads to mutual success.

For professors: How do you encourage curiosity in the classroom? How do you ensure that students feel their questions and concerns are of value to their learning?

For students: What can a professor do to make you feel more comfortable in class? What makes you feel encouraged to ask questions and participate?

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Leave a comment below to share your experiences.

As we continue to explore more issues like this one in the blog series, our collective contributions will prove valuable. Share the article with a friend or colleague and see what they can come up with, as well. All of us know more than one of us.

Follow authors Kevin Popovic and Ryan Vanshur as we continue to share our own experiences and insights. Please connect with us on LinkedIn to speak directly.