Emphasis on Teaching
by Marshall Brain

Answering Questions
The last issue of "Emphasis on Teaching" discussed the importance of questions, and ways to encourage questions. It created a lot of feedback. One common question was, "What's a good way to answer all these new questions?" Another was, "Don't all of these questions waste time?"

Question answering is a developed skill. Whenever a student asks a question, a choice must be made - you can simply give the student the answer, or you can use the question as an opportunity to teach the student and the class something new. Simply giving the answer is sometimes the easiest thing to do, but it often wastes a great opportunity to help students better understand your topic.

In order to make the most of the opportunity presented by a student's question, three internal judgements need to be made about the situation before an answer to the question is given:

  1. Does the student already know the answer to the question? Many times students know the answer, or have all the pieces they need to formulate the answer themselves, but they don't realize it. Try to bounce the question back to the student with different wording, or try breaking the question down into a few sub-questions so that the student realizes the answer for him/herself. Eventually students begin to answer many simple questions internally - they think before they ask.
  2. Is there one important concept keeping the student from formulating his or her own answer? If this is the case, use the question to reinforce that important concept and highlight it. Review the concept, then toss the question back to the students so that they can answer it themselves.
  3. What can be learned by the class in the process of answering this question? Use the question as an opportunity. Show how the question relates different topics together, or use the question to introduce a good real-world application of the topic being discussed. Use questions to stress important points, to introduce new concepts, to promote creative thinking, etc.

If you decide to try this approach, you may find that it takes several seconds to figure out the appropriate response to a question. Persevere - with practice these three internal questions become automatic.

It is helpful if the questions being asked focus on the topic you want to cover, so the material that needs covering is what students are thinking and asking about. You can control the flow of questions in a number of ways, but one of the best is with homework assignments. Create assignments that direct student attention to the correct area at the correct time. Then leave time available in class to go over homework questions. Students will be asking the right questions - questions relevant to what you need to discuss - at the right time. Because of this, questions can be seamlessly integrated into the class without any "waste" at all.

When questions are answered badly (see the last EoT), or when the opportunities created by questions are wasted, then questions waste time.

Something to Try

I have been sitting in on a class this semester. Before the first test in this class, the instructor gave out a one page "Midterm Exam Review" handout. On this handout he included the identities that would be given on the test (so students knew beforehand what they should and shouldn't memorize), and then briefly reviewed each of the topics that would be covered on the test. For example, "Sorting Algorithms: Insertion sort, Quicksort, Mergesort, Heapsort. Know worst case and average running times, and also space usage. Know special properties that make them appropriate/inappropriate. You should understand well how they work, and be familiar with...."

The beauty of this idea is that it allows the teacher to focus student study time on the important concepts. It also lets students feel much less intimidated when they come into the test. With final exams approaching, you might want to consider giving this idea a try.

A Good Idea - Lunchtime Seminar Program

[This was written in 1990, but it is still a good idea...]

In the Civil Engineering Department at NCSU, the student chapters of the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) and AGC (Association of General Contractors) run a weekly seminar series that could be an excellent model for other departments.

Every Wednesday between 12:00 and 1:00, the ASCE and AGC hold their chapter meetings (each group takes alternate Wednesdays). The meetings are well attended, and include lunch (catered on a rotating schedule by local restaurants for $2.75 per person), a 10 to 20 minute section of chapter business while people eat, and an outside speaker brought in from industry.

According to Kevin McDonough, the president of the ASCE, the idea is to have, "a speaker, film, slide show - something to bring an outside source of information into the student environment." These are not research dissertations, but seminars that students can relate to and understand. Past meetings included speakers on structures, wetland management, toxic waste disposal, ethics, concrete construction practices, etc. - topics that Civil Engineering students can relate directly to their class work.

This program, completely run by two effective student organizations, offers a tremendous learning opportunity for students in the Civil Engineering Department. The success of this program is based on a number of factors:

  1. The program is held at a good time. A lot of student organization meetings are held at 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m., and by then most faculty and commuting students are long gone.
  2. Lunch is used as an incentive to attend and lunch is served right in the middle of the building's main entrance. It is impossible to miss.
  3. The speakers are targeted at the audience and people from outside are brought in. The speakers talk about things students can understand and apply to their classroom experiences.
  4. The student chapters conduct their meetings frequently - students are more likely to be involved.

The whole program is an excellent way to promote learning, faculty/student interaction, and student involvement within the department. It would be a good model to copy in every department on campus.

BYG Publishing, Inc.
http://www.bygpub.com - info@bygpub.com
(888)294-7820 - P.O. Box 40492 - Raleigh, NC 27629

Questions or comments, email:

© 1998 BYG Publishing, Inc.