Active learning through questioning
Compared to passive learners, students who are actively engaged in the classroom process the material more deeply, retain it longer and are more likely to apply the knowledge. Questioning is an active learning strategy for processing information profoundly and assimilating it as knowledge. Questions can emerge for a variety of reasonsgaps in comprehension, anticipation of issues slated for future discussion by the instructor, disagreement with ideas presented, and analysis of facts and concepts from novel perspectives. Besides benefiting the learner, student questioning is intellectually challenging and enthusiastic students motivate instructors.
The norm of silence
In the typical lecture, one observes very little participation from students. Few students spontaneously raise questions and comments on lecture material are rare. Is it plausible that most students are in passive mode? I believe that there are, in fact, many students who are actively thinking about the content, but are very reluctant to speak up in class because of the following reasons:
- There is social pressure to avoid causing disruption to the flow of the lecture. The class may not be in tune with the specific questions or comments voiced by an individual. The resulting one-to-one interaction between questioner and instructor puts the rest of the class in the periphery and could be resented by the class as a needless digression.
- Public speaking arouses anxiety and effectively deters question asking.
- Verbal articulation can also be cognitively very demanding: few individuals are adept at fluidly expressing thoughts as they come to mind.
Instructors attempt to redress this situation by encouraging questions outside the classroom through face-to-face contact in the office, web-based discussion forums and email. However, experience reveals that only a small number of students use these channels to supplement their understanding of the material, particularly if there is no credit given for participation.
A question-enhancing strategy
I will now describe a question-enhancing strategy that I employed in a class of 42 undergraduates. During each lecture from the second week of the course onwards, each student was given a plastic name tag which they wore during the lecture; they were also given a small piece of paper to jot down questions and comments as and when they came to mind. At the end of the lecture, students would insert their pieces of paper into their respective name tags and return the tags to the instructor. There was no credit awarded for question/comment submissions. Through this procedure, over a third of the class would provide at the end of each lecture some comment or question, many of which were thought provoking and well articulated. After the lecture, I would put a smiley sticker on each name tag; those students who wrote questions received an additional good job sticker. I typed out the student questions with my responses and posted them on the Web. (To view the questions, comments, and responses, please see http://www1.swk.nus.edu.sg/swk/pl3208/comments.doc.)
Why did such a low-tech strategy prove more effective than high-tech email lists or discussion forums? When students are each handed a name tag and a piece of paper, instructor expectations are made very clear. In addition, at significant moments in the lecture, the instructor can reinforce this expectation by raising an issue that is relevant to a specific topic and reminding students to write down their reactions. Most importantly, students have the opportunity to engage with the material when it is still fresh in their mind. Students are more likely to be able to ask searching questions when they are in the lecture hall; an hour later, it may be too late as they are engaged in other activities and they would have forgotten significant chunks of the material.
Problems & solutions
Are there problems in implementing this strategy? Yes; but in my view, they are surmountable. The process of collecting and distributing plastic name cards is awkward and time consuming; perhaps a suitably designed contraption with slots for cards can address this problem. The process of transcribing questions, typing out answers, and putting stickers is laborious, but appropriate IT and tutor assistance can address the large volume of questions. Students can also SMS their questions to a server that organises them in a convenient fashion for instructor/tutors to respond by text or voice.
Finally, does handing out name tags and bits of paper guarantee significant student question asking? For four weeks, students submitted weekly assignments that were graded and handed back to them at the beginning of the lecture. During this period, the number of questions asked was very much greater (by a factor of three) than towards the latter part of the course when students did not submit weekly assignments. Why was this so? I speculate that providing graded feedback at the beginning of a class increased students awareness of their subject-related competencies and enhanced their engagement during the subsequent session. In particular, they were motivated to present themselves in the best possible light as making a comment or question is a clear way to manage the impression one creates on the instructor. While the effort was not designed as a formal experiment, it appeared that graded feedback at the beginning of a class had a significant impact on active learning and question asking behaviour.