Sunday, April 25, 2010

Promote Active Listening With Questions

I believe that what the students do is just as important as what the teacher does. One of the big problems with traditional lecture is that most of the students are doing very little, the teacher is doing all the work. The teacher talks and the students listen. In the days before whiteboards and powerpoint this was often referred to as “chalk and talk.” I must confess that I can slip into this mode if I am not careful. Delivering a well organized lecture and writing notes as you go is not bad, but keep in mind that just because YOU SAID IT does not mean that the STUDENTS LEARNED IT! It is important to use delivery techniques that keep the students engaged. One simple technique is to ask questions. Three types of questions I use are volunteer responses, shout outs, and directed questions. Note: these are my own labels. Other folks probably have their own descriptive labels for these common methods.

I often open a topic or discussion with volunteer responses. This gives me an idea of what my students know and opens a discussion on the topic in a relatively low stress way because students are not put on the spot. Students that have done their homework or already have knowledge in the topic are the most likely to respond. Volunteer responses are probably the most often used in many class rooms. Two potential hazards of volunteer responses are that the same students tend to do all the answering, and the answers you receive can be wrong. Wrong answers are OK, just try and steer the class in the correct direction without embarrassing the student that offered the incorrect answer. If people are shot down when responding, the responses will stop.

Shout outs (my term) are questions directed at the audience in general where the answer you expect is fairly obvious and several people are likely to shout out the answer. These work to reinforce material, review main points, and provide you with feedback before you go on to another topic. I just have the class finish my sentence. For example, after discussing the states of matter and the properties of each state you might say “So, the three states of matter are … and the class will respond “solid, liquid, and gas.” Then follow with some more specific questions like “The state which has both a definite shape and volume is...”

Both volunteer responses and shout outs suffer from a common flaw: they allow a small core of dominant students to do all the answering while less confident students hide. Directed questions ask a specific student a detailed and specific question. This can be done using homework questions. The idea is to make sure everyone has to answer at least one question. I had a professor in college that was great at this. He would ask a few questions over homework or the previous day’s lecture to start each class. He would ask the question before calling the name of the person who was required to answer. This kept all of us listening to the questions and the answers because you did not know when you would be required to answer. I can tell you this technique is effective at getting lazy students to study the material before class – it certainly worked on me! However, it does also create a fair amount of stress. I use directed questions about once a week when we go over homework. Everyone knows they will be embarrassed if they show up for class without having done their homework. I reduce the stress level by going around the room in order, so students have a good idea when their time will come.

The simple act of asking questions and requiring students to do more than sit quietly improves retention of the material. After all, the goal is not for you to say everything the student needs to know, it is for the students to learn it.

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