Any questions?

I try not to ask, “Are there any questions?” in my classes. First, I know my students have questions. Second, that is pretty open-ended and I often get questions that are unrelated to the matter at hand (continue reading for an example). I instead try to say, “What questions do you have about this example/problem/idea?”.

I’ve written before a bit about how I incorporate writing in my freshman math classes and Dan Greene has written about his Numeracy students writing reflective journals. As my seniors haven’t been asking any questions in class, I gave them a quick writing assignment. Now that I’ve had time to read the responses, I wish I had done it sooner.

They responded to the following while I checked homework:

Explain the different ways you can solve a quadratic equation and the relationship between these different ways.

List any questions you still have. Be specific.

Their answers to the first part were interesting and provided insight into their thinking. Most students listed multiple methods to solve a quadratic. However, very few made any connections between the different methods. In fact, some said there was no relationship between any of these. Most disturbing was the number who wrote that finding the zeros allowed them to write the equation in vertex form.

Their questions in the second part let me know what is still troubling for them. Most indicated they still didn’t understand how to complete the square. Many asked how they were supposed to know which method to use. Some indicated they are still confused by imaginary numbers*. Quite a few indicated that they want more practice (that one surprised me). One student wanted to know where babies come from (my fault though, I didn’t write “…questions you have about quadratics.”).

This ten minute activity has given me a better idea as to what I need to plan for next week. I’m definitely going to give writing prompts more often.

I do wish though, that they felt comfortable enough to ask these questions in class. I need to figure out what I’m doing that isn’t making them feel safe enough to do so.

* Why, oh why, do we have to call them that? Saying they are complex numbers doesn’t help to inspire confidence either.

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10 Responses to Any questions?

  1. Andy says:

    I’m guessing the reason they don’t ask any questions when you ask during the day is that they just don’t actually think about whether they _have_ any questions. They _might_ mention a question if they don’t understand what you just said, but probably not if they don’t understand the topic in general. I think if you force them to actually think about questions, they’ll come up with more.

    To that end, you might be able to ask at the beginning of class something like “Is there ANYthing you don’t understand about [topic]? _Anything_ I can explain?” and somehow indicate that they’ll need to think about it for (a minute / two minutes / something), but avoid “You have [n] minutes.” More like “Think about it for a minute. Look through your book.” or something, so they don’t just ignore you for a minute.

    Not sure if that’d help at all, but it might at least get them to think about it. There might be a benefit if you avoid asking “if _you_ have any questions” because it makes it seem like they don’t know something they should (even if they should). You’re more likely to lure them into asking a question if they can make themselves feel better by thinking it’s something that _you_ didn’t explain well, rather than something _they_ didn’t understand.

    Just my thoughts though. They might be right, or they might be wildly incorrect. Or somewhere between those two.

    Good luck!

  2. Jackie says:

    Thanks, I’ll try that. Why do you think the “you have n minutes” isn’t a good idea?

    I’m wondering though, why haven’t you made these suggestions before?

    Basic HTML tags are allowed by the way.

  3. Andy says:

    “You have [n] minutes” implies “I’m not going to bother you for the next [n] minutes.” Even if that’s the case, it makes them think they’re just being given time to sit around/finish homework/etc.

    Ironically, I probably haven’t made these comments before because nobody’s asked.

    (I’ll try to remember that basic HTML is okay.)

  4. Jackie says:

    Ok, I understand the “n” minutes rationale. Thanks

    For future reference, I’m open to suggestions – any time. Even if they are unsolicited.

  5. mathmom says:

    I think the difference between asking questions out loud and asking them in writing is privacy. I think that they feel safe letting you know that they still have questions — it’s probably their classmates that they don’t want to ask in front of!

    You might try something like a brainstorming session where you go around and everyone “has to” ask one question. jot them all down quickly on the board as you go around the room. Then go back and answer them.

  6. Jackie,
    is it possible to offer a session on ustream some evening? You can let your students know that you are available for questions on ustream and they can ask anonymously using this tool.
    I know my daughter would never ask questions or stay after school because she worried that the teacher would think she “wasn’t smart” and she couldn’t let her math teacher believe that about her.
    It’s amazing what happens in the minds of our students and it’s hard to anticipate everything.
    Just another thought. For kids, image and perception is everything!

  7. Jackie says:

    Mathmom – good point about not wanting to ask questions in front of classmates. Some of my classes do this more than others. As for the “whip-around”, when I’ve tried this I just end up getting echoes of the first few questions.

    Ustream? I can barely even get them to check their grades online or check my website for assignments if they are absent. The ustream ideas inspired a thought in my tech consultant which we’ll hopefully investigate soon.

    I know image is very important to them. I tell them that I’d rather know what they don’t understand before we take a test.

    Thanks to both of you for the ideas, as I recently said to someone, I need all the help I can get.

  8. mathmom says:

    How about giving extra credit for asking good questions? I’m not sure if this would work, because if you set up fixed “rules” in advance you might get them “gaming” the system and just asking questions they don’t really care about to get the points. I was thinking more about something spontaneous where someone asks a good question and you respond with, “great question, 1 extra credit point” or something like that, but the problem with that might be if it is seen to be arbitrary and prone to favoritism…

    anyhow, just brainstorming here…

  9. mathmom says:

    Here’s another idea inspired by the 5th grade girls menstruation movie/talk of my youth. Ask them to write anonymous questions on a piece of paper and pass them forward. Maybe everyone has a paper and has to pass it forward even if they didn’t write a question…

  10. Jackie says:

    mathmom – I’m not sure about the extra credit part, but I will try to reinforce the value of a good questions (which is really any question). As for the second idea – it is kind of what I did with the quick writing assignment, which I will definitely be doing again. Thanks for the ideas!

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