(From Stanford’s Tomorrow’s Professor). The Sound of Silence Can Be Deafening and the Questions You Ask Your Students Can Provoke It. A colleague recently told me that the students in his undergraduate class “didn’t want to talk.” He and I had previously talked about how to get students more engaged, and I had suggested to him that he ask questions. I probed, “What kinds of questions have you asked your students?” He replied, “Well, the first question I asked this morning was ‘What is the main point of the article I assigned for the day?’” Nobody said anything. I pointed out that even I might be afraid to answer such a question. Such questions pose a severe challenge to the confidence of undergraduate students, because the instructor knows the answer and they don’t. The answer is a “fact” which the instructor clearly thinks the students should have already known before they came to class. When it comes to answering questions about “facts,” there are many ways to be wrong, but only one way to be right. When faced with this dilemma, students are understandably silent.
I suggested that he come up with nonthreatening questions: questions that didn’t put a student’s self-confidence and reputation at risk. There are better ways which start with different types of questions.