Professors. They have the power to ruin your vacations with untimely assignments, bore you with a monotone that defies caffeine, or, if you have chosen wisely, switch on some inner light bulb that makes the world -- and your place in it -- suddenly clearer.
The challenge facing students today is how to go from being one amongst the blur of hundreds to a recognizable face, especially should you plan to ask for a recommendation or career help. Office hours play a big role in getting to know your prof, but Facebook-generation students often avoid the one-on-one because they don't know what to say (and don't want to look like an idiot not saying it).
Take heart, the face time is well worth the effort. Professors are a vital cog in the wheel around which all university life spins, and most are eager to provide insight on coursework and majors and how those influence life ambitions. So, whether you are meeting up with your professor at office hours, on the treadmill, over a steaming horchata, or even helping him rake leaves, keep these in mind.
Five questions that are best avoided...
- How can I get an A in your class? (This question is transactional and makes it seem like all you care about is a grade, not an education, which is a common point of frustration among faculty.)
- Who are the worst professors in your department? (This puts the prof in an awkward position, first admitting there are weak links in the department and then ratting out his colleagues. For a better way to phrase this, read on.)
- Did you see that op-ed by one of your colleagues, and what did you think about it? (Professors hate admitting when they haven't read something, and if she has read the article and disagrees with it, we reiterate the previous point about the awkwardness of undermining colleagues).
- Does it bother you what other people say about you? (What, not everyone loves me?)
- Can I count on you to write me a good reference letter? (This question is another that is highly transactional and doesn't offer the prof a polite way to say "no" without sounding like a jerk).
- What do you like best/worst about being a professor? (His answer will give you some keen insights into what he also likes best and least about students, so listen intently.)
- What other courses in the department/university would you recommend I take? (Remember that awkward question we told you to avoid earlier? This is the flip side that will get you a similar result, not to mention kudos for having a high EQ).
- Why did you decide to enter your field? (Her answer will reveal highlights of an area of study that may be new to you, as well as give a bit of insight into what makes your professor tick.)
- What can I do to improve my writing? (Every professor has a different spin on "writing the perfect paper" and it is an invaluable skill to learn to write to whatever style is necessary to reach your audience.)
- What do you know now that you wished you knew when you were my age? (Don't be fooled by the nostalgic softball this question may seem to be -- your prof has been succeeding in academia probably longer than you've known how to write your name, and he will likely have a nugget of wisdom that will make your thirty minutes of small talk well worth the investment.)
Anne Crossman is an education expert based in San Francisco. Peter Feaver is a professor of political science and public Policy at Duke. Sue Wasiolek is Dean of Students at Duke. Together they have written Getting the Best Out of College (Ten Speed, 2012). Visit GettingTheBestOutOfCollege.com for more info
When you prepare for class, office hours, and help sessions, compose specific questions that you will ask your students (or that you anticipate they will ask you). Doing so will help you increase student participation and encourage active learning. The strategies below will also help you formulate questions for exams and paper assignments.
Active learning extends beyond the classroom. When you ask questions in the classroom, you are modeling a process that students can and should use themselves; encourage your students to use the following questioning strategies to assess what they have learned, to develop their thinking skills, and to study for exams.
General Strategies for Asking Questions
- When planning questions, keep in mind your course goals. For example, do you want students to master core concepts? To develop their critical thinking skills? The questions you ask should help them practice these skills, as well as communicate to them the facts, ideas, and ways of thinking that are important to their learning in your course. (For more information about course goals, see Designing a Course).
- Avoid asking “leading questions.” A leading question is phrased in such a way that it suggests its own answer and therefore discourages students from thinking on their own.
- Follow a “yes-or- no” question with an additional question. For example, follow up by asking students to explain why they answered the way they did, to provide evidence or an example, or to respond to a yes-or-no answer given by another student.
- Aim for direct, clear, specific questions. During class discussions, rather than beginning with a single question that is multilayered and complex, use a sequence of questions to build depth and complexity. Essay questions on exams or paper assignments, on other hand, often provide an appropriate opportunity to ask multi-layered questions. If your exam will include multi-layered questions, use questions during class time to walk students through the process of answering multi-layered questions.
In class discussions, do not ask more than one question at once. When you ask more than one question, students often do not respond because they are unsure which question you want them to answer.
When you plan each class session, include notes of when you will pause to ask and answer questions. Asking questions throughout the class will not only make the class more interactive, but also help you measure and improve student learning. Do not save the last two minutes of class for questions. Students are unlikely to ask questions when they know that only a few minutes remain. (See Increasing Student Participation and Teaching with Lectures.)
Ask a mix of different types of questions. You should use “closed” questions, or questions that have a limited number of correct answers, to test students’ comprehension and retention of important information. You should also ask managerial questions to ensure, for example, that your students understand an assignment or have access to necessary materials. “Open” questions, which prompt multiple and sometimes conflicting answers, are often the most effective in encouraging discussion and active learning in the classroom. For examples of “open” questions and the purposes they can serve, see below.
Wait for students to think and formulate responses. Waiting 5-10 seconds will increase the number of students who volunteer to answer and will lead to longer, more complex answers. If students do not volunteer before 5 seconds have passed, refrain from answering your own question, which will only communicate to students that if they do not answer, you will do their thinking for them. If the students are unable to answer after sufficient time for thinking has passed, rephrase the question.
Do not interrupt students’ answers. You may find yourself wanting to interrupt because you think you know what the student is going to say, or simply because you are passionate about the material. Resist this temptation. Hearing the students’ full responses will allow you to give them credit for their ideas and to determine when they have not yet understood the material.
Show that you are interested in students’ answers, whether right or wrong. Encourage students when they are offering answers by nodding, looking at them, and using facial expressions that show you are listening and engaged. Do not look down at your notes while they are speaking.
Develop responses that keep students thinking. For example, ask the rest of the class to respond to an idea that one student has just presented, or ask the student who answered to explain the thinking that led to her answer.
If a student gives an incorrect or weak answer, point out what is incorrect or weak about the answer, but ask the student a follow-up question that will lead that student, and the class, to the correct or stronger answer. For example, note that the student’s answer overlooks the most important conclusion of the study you are discussing, then ask that same student to try to recall what that conclusion is. If he or she does not recall the conclusion, open this question up to the class.
Why Ask “Open” Questions? Twelve Objectives, with Sample Questions
1. To assess learning.
- What is the most important idea that was generated in today’s discussion?
- Can you explain this concept in your own words?
- Can you draw a diagram to illustrate this idea?
2. To ask a student to clarify a vague comment.
- Could you elaborate on that point?
- Can you explain what you mean?
3. To prompt students to explore attitudes, values, or feelings (when appropriate).
- What are the values or beliefs that inform this argument?
- What is your initial reaction to this argument?
4. To prompt students to see a concept from another perspective.
- How do you think that this issue is viewed by those with whom you disagree?
- How does that concept apply to this new problem?
5. To ask a student to refine a statement or idea.
When does that principle apply? Always? Only under certain conditions?
Would you say, then, that you disagree with the author?
6. To prompt students to support their assertions and interpretations.
- How do you know that?
- Which part of the text led you to that conclusion?
7. To direct students to respond to one another.
- What do you think about the idea just presented by your classmate?
- Do you agree or do you see the issue differently? Explain.
- Can you think of another way to solve that problem?
8. To prompt students to investigate a thought process.
- What are the assumptions that informed the design of this experiment?
- What are the assumptions that these two arguments share?
9. To ask students to predict possible outcomes.
- What might happen if this practice were to be outlawed?
- What would be the result if a different set of assumptions were used to set up this experiment?
- Would you get a different result?
10. To prompt students to connect and organize information.
- How does this article shed light on the concept we studied last week?
- Can you develop a graph or table that organizes this information in a helpful way?
11. To ask students to apply a principle or formula.
- How does this principle apply to the following situation?
- Who can suggest how we might use this new formula to solve the problems we examined at the start of class today?
- Under what conditions is this equation not valid?
12. To ask students to illustrate a concept with an example.
- Can you think of an example of this phenomenon, drawn from your research?
- Can you point us to a specific part of the novel that led you to that conclusion?
- Can you identify a painting or design that exemplifies that idea?
Use Bloom’s Taxonomy
Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956) provides another useful way to think about when and how to use questions in teaching. As the following table shows, Bloom identified six types of cognitive processes and ordered these according to the level of complexity involved. Ideally, you should combine questions that require “lower-order thinking” (often “closed” questions) to assess students’ knowledge and comprehension with questions that require “higher-order thinking” (often “open” questions) to assess students’ abilities to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.
Refine your Questions
After teaching a class session, leading a help-session, collecting an assignment, or administering an exam, take brief notes on which questions were most effective at achieving the goals you had set out and which questions led to answers that you did not expect. Keep these notes with your lecture notes or lesson plan and use them to refine your questions for the next time you will teach or meet with students.
Links and References for Asking Questions to Improve Learning
Bloom, Benjamin (ed). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay, 1956.
Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 1993.
“Questioning Strategies.” Center for Teaching Excellence. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. http://cte.illinois.edu/resources/topics/methods/strateg.html.
McKeachie, Wilbert, et al. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 12th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
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