Thursday, September 8, 2016

When Answering Student Questions, Address ALL the Students

In classroom discussions, any question that gets asked is answered by me addressing the whole class. I don't ignore the questioner, but I make sure that the answer takes everyone into account—not just that individual. In my online courses, I like to have an open discussion forum that I usually call something like, Kevin's Virtual Office. Here, students can ask their questions and, again, I answer the whole class.

There are several reasons I've found this to be a successful strategy in online and on-ground courses:
  1. I can leverage many content questions into an effective forum for clarifying common misconceptions about the topic. If one student didn't quite "get it," you can safely assume there are others. And I can bring in related misconceptions that my experience tells me are likely to be out there.

  2. By addressing the whole class, you avoid losing student attention. Although student questions can breathe new life into a classroom activity, there's also the risk that students will notice your focus on only the questioner, and drift away—perhaps never to return to the fully engaged mode.

  3. Overarching themes and "big picture" concepts can be woven into the answer, thus giving students a better context for the topic at hand. Depending on the question, the answer can expressed in a way that brings many other ideas together to illustrate how the main themes of your discipline are being played out in this particular context.

  4. If it regards course policies or procedures, I can take the opportunity to explain my rationale. Many students embrace unfamiliar learning strategies if they understand the reasons you have adopted them.

  5. You can teach problem-solving skills. Some answers can be easily found in the syllabus, textbook, handout, or some other handy resource and you remind students of this fact for future questions they might have. By walking through a process to arrive at a not-so-obvious answer, however, you can teach additional skills. Perhaps by asking questions of several students during the process, or going through some logical steps, you can model how a student might answer their own questions that occur during study times. This is a well-known mechanism for teaching critical-thinking skills.

  6. You can trigger more questions. By addressing the whole class, you demonstrate that you want everyone to understand fully. This may provide an inviting atmosphere in which other misconceptions or confusions can be brought up and addressed—a sort of "just in time" teaching opportunity.
One thing that can throw us off is when a student asks a question in a public forum that really should be asked privately. This can be tricky. Depending on the exact nature of the question and/or answer, I may still use it as learning opportunity for all members of the class. But if sensitive, personal information is revealed, I assume that the student did not realize that the whole class can read it. So I usually take the student down from the forum (if I'm able) and respond privately (by email) to directly to the student.

One other issue that is important is making it clear that I expect students to regularly watch Kevin's Virtual Office and read all the threads posted there. I explain at the beginning of the course, that most questions help everyone and that I'll be responding to everyone when questions are asked.