By: Jim Davies, Institute of Cognitive Science
jim@jimdavies.org 
www.jimdavies.org

Asking questions as you lecture is an easy and simple way to engage with your students. Typically, the teacher asks a question of the entire class, the students who wish to try to answer the question raise their hands, and the teacher calls on one of those students.

This method has a drawback that experienced teachers are all too familiar with: the same students tend to raise their hands again and again. The ones who are shy, or not confident in themselves or in their answers, and those who take a bit longer to process the question rarely raise their hands. This prevents real-time assessment, as the teacher is typically only getting answers from the top students. Sometimes the teacher will attenuate this problem by calling on a particular student, which can really put them on the spot and be tense for everyone. I observed an easy solution to this problem in a calculus class, and I use this solution myself, in classes of thirty or fewer students, with great success.

Rather than asking the class as a whole, I ask each student in some kind of spatial order—row by row. I gesture to the student with my hand, palm up (pointing seems rude). The student may guess or say “pass.” I encourage my students to guess because research shows that students will remember a correct answer better if they guess a wrong answer before they hear the correct one. If a student says “pass,” I point to the next student in line to answer the same question. Only after I get two passes in a row do I open the question to everyone. When the next question comes up, I remember my place in the classroom and ask the next student.

Here are the benefits of this method:

  • All students are equally represented in the answering. I try to ask enough questions so that every student gets asked two or three times in a single class period. You can often tell which students are having trouble because they will often say “pass” or get answers wildly incorrect. In this way, the questioning becomes an informal assessment of student understanding.
  • It encourages quieter students to speak up. They do not feel picked on because the system is fair, and the feel no shame from the classroom about saying “pass.” It is perceived simply his or her turn. One student told me that this method was actually making her answer more questions in other classes.
  • It helps the instructor. By removing the choice of which eager student’s hand to call on, it frees your mind to focus on other things.

I hope that this easy-to-implement change works as well for you has it has for me.

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