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PLACES TO START: QUESTIONS AND DISCUSSION

Space:

  • As always, keeping background noise in the classroom to a minimum is very important for all students. One student speaking at a time is essential if all students are expected to listen.
  • Think about where you will stand/sit/move during this activity. It helps many students to be able to see your face and mouth while you speak—how can you make that happen? Can you find an alternative way to write on a whiteboard or chalkboard, so that you don’t turn your back to the class?

Ground Rules:

  • Clearly communicate with students about how much time you have for questions or discussion, and what you are looking for from this time. Do you ideally expect every student to have a question? Are you looking for problem-posing, questions of clarification, extensions, applications, critique? Don't assume that students know what the pedagogical purpose of the discussion is.
  • Review past material as you begin.
  • Remind students that they need to be clearly heard: they should keep hands, glasses, or other objects like pens or pencils away from the face when speaking; they may need to speak more slowly than usual if possible; translate difficult ideas, words, and metaphors into plainer language, and so on.
  • It is important to remember that both those delivering and those receiving messages need accommodations.
  • Even if you don't think you need a microphone, it is almost always better to use one than not—so if you have a wireless microphone, get students to use it too.
  • Ask students to state their name before they begin speaking—or ask them if they are comfortable with you stating their name to introduce them as the speaker.

Interaction:

  • Be ready and willing to work with sign interpreters or CART interpreters during question and discussion periods. Slow down when you are using big words or complicated phrases and spell out key names, and urge students to do the same. See all of the above advice about working with interpreters during lectures.
  • If students are having trouble communicating, avoid making remarks such as “Slow down,” “Take a breath,” or “Relax.” This will not be helpful and may be interpreted as demeaning. Avoid finishing the person’s sentences, or guessing what is being said. This can increase their feelings of self-consciousness.
  • Force yourself to speak more slowly than usual, to pause more frequently than usual, and to repeat key ideas aloud.
  • Silence in the classroom is okay—it is actually good—and if you become comfortable with it, students will too.
  • Remember that not all students are comfortable with extended direct eye contact.
  • Repeat the key point of all comments or questions for the rest of the class, using your microphone if possible. For instance: "Jennifer just asked . . . "
  • After you ask students a question, count to at least five in your head before answering it yourself. When you ask students a question, if you really want them to think and be able to give an answer, be willing to wait for it, then be willing to wait a little longer.

Alternatives:

  • Allow students to ask questions or share ideas in class anonymously, or without speaking “out”—circulate note cards for students to write questions or comments, or to answer your questions, perhaps anonymously, and collect and address them.
  • Give students low-stakes opportunities to think and discuss content—this is "tolerance for error"—students sometimes need to get it wrong, take risks, or try out different ideas to learn.
  • Provide ways for students to volunteer ideas or questions without raising hands. For instance, create a comment or question box you can pass around, take questions online before, during, or after the discussion, and so on.
  • Facilitate smaller discussions among students before you ask students to share with the entire class. Many students need some time and space to try ideas out with one another first. This also gets many more students talking.
  • Facilitate smaller activities—like an opportunity to write or solve problems quietly for a few minutes—before discussion and questions start, so that students have time and space to compose their thoughts. You might even consider asking students to pass these ideas around the room to share with one another, as long as you have warned them in advance that you will do so.
  • Use online resources and content management systems when possible to extend class discussions. Students won't all get the chance to contribute in a large lecture, so offer the opportunity somewhere else. Students should be given many different opportunities and spaces in which to participate (and to be graded for participation).
  • As a larger general rule, develop a wide range of ways to be “present” and to “participate” in class—these alternatives can speak to the many ways we have to be present and to participate in discourse in the contemporary work and social world. What if students were asked to summarize your lecture in 140 characters, as a cartoon, a chart, a map?
  • Have students take turns writing down questions and answers on whiteboards or on large flipchart paper, and then post the notes around the classroom for future reference—keep them up all semester—build running answers to pertinent and revisited questions.