Tips from the McMaster Community

Often when I ask questions in my class, no one volunteers an answer.
Alan Blizzard, Instructional Development Centre

I have found three steps to be helpful: making sure that the question is of the right type, giving students time to think and making it as easy as possible for students to respond.

Whenever possible, I try to think of questions that have more than one acceptable answer. For example, I might ask students to make a list ("What factors do we need to bear in mind when ...?") or think back on their own experience ("When have you seen examples of ...?) or think of their own questions ("Thinking back on the last 20 minutes of this lecture, what idea do you find hardest to understand and why?).

I give students a few minutes to write down their thoughts, and then discuss with their neighbour or with the three or four people sitting near them. The average time instructors wait after asking a question is five seconds. This step allows me to give the students 30 or 45 seconds without it seeming like an eternity.

Then I ask for reports from a few groups. Students find it much easier to report on a short discussion than to risk being wrong as an individual.

Steps 2 and 3 are easy to do and are quite general. Step 1, coming up with a good question, takes a bit more thought. A very helpful resource is "Practical Discussion Techniques for Instructors", by Ray V. Rasmussen published in AACE Journal, 1984, 12(2), pp. 38-47. He gives a clear description of the characteristics of good questions with plenty of examples.

Since I have started using these ideas, my problem has been not one of getting students to answer, but rather of getting them to stop talking.

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