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Advice, Rhetorical Analysis

Don’t Ask for Questions – Ask for Answers (That ARE Questions)

Quiz time: which of the following is the single hardest question for an ENG 1020 student to answer?

* How is ethos different from logos?
* What strategies does this author use to persuade her reader?
* What do you hope to accomplish by writing this paper?

The correct choice is – none of the above. At least, that’s what I’ve concluded after three months of teaching. It’s not that hands go shooting up when I ask questions like these, but that there’s one query virtually guaranteed to get no responses; to leave everyone fidgeting and looking everywhere but the front of the room so they don’t have to say anything; it even silences that one kid – you know the one – who is so desperate for class participation points that he’d put up a paw if you asked for a thorough explanation of the differences between general and special relativity, in under six words, and you would fail the class forever if you get it wrong.

Yeah, it’s that hard to get an answer for this question. So naturally, it’s probably one of the most important ones we can ask our students, and one that we absolutely need responses on.

Are you ready? Here it is:

“Any questions?”

If three months of teaching has taught me anything, it’s that no one ever has any questions – at least, not when you ask if they do. Not when you’ve set aside class time to field questions after introducing an assignment, or after you’ve just spent ten minutes explaining some difficult rhetorical concept that you know you yourself struggled with in freshman comp. You ask, “Does this make sense? Is anything about this confusing?”, and no one says a word. So you move on – and then you discover as you’re reading rough drafts that half the class thinks “pathos” means “opinion,” or that they actually don’t know how to create new pages on the Wiki and then link to them. Clearly, there were things they were confused about, so why didn’t they have questions? You would have happily spent the entire rest of the class period explaining XYZ if only they had asked!

One solution is simply to allow more time for students to formulate questions, but even then, you might only get a handful of inquiries about relatively superficial matters, like a paper’s due date. A more effective strategy I’ve tried out with my class is not to ask if anyone has a question, but to have everyone give me some feedback via a simple sentence completion exercise.

This strategy comes from Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, and requires just a little preparation ahead of time. Generate a list of sentence beginnings, such as “The thing I still don’t understand about this concept is…”, “What worries me about this assignment is…”, “What really interested me about the reading for today is…”, and so on. Here is the list of sentence completions I used after introducing the Ad Analysis assignment:

That last one is a special favorite of mine: a tongue-in-cheek way to let students know that the floor is still open to any and all questions, even if they don’t fit one of the predetermined shapes I’ve offered. I post my list on the day’s Wiki, then give everyone five minutes in-class to complete one sentence of their choosing. I then go around the room and ask everyone to read their sentence. You can choose to answer/address each student’s response one at a time, or record them on a whiteboard or a sheet of paper, then respond to common questions and concerns.

Doing this with my students has been illuminating. In particular, by doing this as I’m introducing a project, I can get a sense of where my assignment description is less than clear, what I need to spend more time on or add to my lesson plan, and even where students are emotionally with the project. For them, it can be a chance to see that they aren’t the only ones anxious or worried about some aspect of the paper – or to catch a little of someone else’s enthusiasm.

I like this exercise for introducing projects, but it can also be a very effective way to kick off reading discussion. One important caveat: this can eat up a lot of time, especially if you address each student’s response individually. But compared to getting no questions, then having to backtrack to cover problems discovered in drafts, it’s a nice problem to have.

Kerin Ogg is a GTA and PhD Candidate in the department in Film & Media Studies who currently teaches ENG 1020 and works as a tutor in the Writing Center.



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