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In the classroom

Getting your students engaged | Questioning techniques | Classroom management


Getting your students engaged

Research has shown that a “passive” teaching method, such as the standard lecture where professors talk and students listen, is likely to lead to what is sometimes referred to as a surface approach to learning, i.e. students rote learning discrete pieces of information, most of which they will forget as soon as they are assessed on it1.

Getting your students engaged means getting them to become more than passive receptors of knowledge. You may have come across terms such as “active learning”, “experiential learning”, “learning by doing”, and “participatory learning”, while differences may exist, common is an emphasis on learning as an active process. Researchers have found evidence that students learn more and retain more when they are actively engaged in the quest for learning and new ideas2. They are also likely to adopt deep approach to learning and lead to high-order thinking, such as relating new concepts to prior knowledge and building a connection between theories and everyday experience.

Educators also point out that effective instruction involves such key elements as: demonstrating to students what is to be learned; giving students opportunities to apply what they learn; and allowing students to apply knowledge in real-world contexts3.

What this suggests is that where possible you are encouraged to provide learning activities that connect to real life settings, which involves students in doing things and reflecting upon what they are doing and how they are doing them. For instance, a well-designed in-class discussion activity can engage students in applying what they learn to new settings and promote long-term retention of knowledge (See Discussion-based Tutorials for tips). You can also create opportunities where students learn collaboratively through, for instance, role playing, debating, or peer teaching. In disciplines such as medicine and law, problem-based learning and case study are popular instructional strategies, but there is no reason why tutors from other disciplines cannot borrow the ideas and tailor-make it to suit your own teaching and learning situations (See Case-based/Problem-based tutorial for details).

Resources and references

  1. Biggs, J. (1999). What the student does: Teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 18 (1), 57-75.
  2. Hancock, V., & Betts, F. (2002). Back to the future: Preparing learners for academic success in 2004. Learning and Leading with Technology, 29(7), 10-14.
  3. Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50 (3), 43-59.
  4. Active Learning – Centre for Teaching and Learning, Yale
  5. Active Learning – Stanford University
  6. Mangram, J. A., Haddix, M., Ochanji, M. K. & Masinila, J. (2015). Active learning strategies for complementing the lecture teaching methods in large classes in higher education. Journal of Insructional Research, 4(2015), 57-68.

Questioning techniques

For tutors, questioning is an effective strategy to get students actively engaged in learning. 

What kinds of questions to ask?

What questions to ask really depends on what you want to know about your students in terms of what they learn.

If you want to check students’ factual knowledge, questions you ask usually have a predefined correct answer and the questions should be phrased in a way that steer students towards that answer. This kind of questions, often referred to as “closed” or “convergent” questions, only requires students to recall from memory some factual information1.

At times, you may want to check and see whether students can do more than recalling information, for instance, elaborating, synthesizing, or analyzing the knowledge they learn. In these cases, open-ended (or referred to as “divergent”) questions will be useful. The questions are “open” in the sense that they allow multiple, and sometimes conflicting, answers. Open questions can serve different purposes, such as, 

  • asking students to clarify;
    e.g. What do you mean by…? Are you saying that….?
  • probing students’ thought process; e.g. Why would you argue…? What would be an example of what you just said? What is your assumption here?
  • redirecting students to alternative perspectives;
    e.g. What is another (way…thing…idea) you can bring to light to this? Will someone else offer another idea or insight on this?
  • Inviting students to make predictions;
    e.g. What do you think would happen if…?How would this affect…? How much change would there be in the situation that …?
  • Generalizing or summarizing
    e.g. what inference can you make from this? How would you summarize the key issues/elements of this (concept, procedure, etc.)?

Bloom’s taxonomy offers a useful framework for you to think about what questions to ask in checking different levels of students’ understanding2,3. This depends on the learning outcomes you are looking at. For instance, questions such as “Describe X theory” “what are the four inventory costing methods?” target at lower order learning outcomes that require students to recall or comprehend. Whereas, questions like “If you were the secretary of Food and Health Bureau and you had 10 million to implement a series of tobacco control policy, how would you prioritize the possible policies?” would require higher order skills such as reasoning, integrating, and appraising.

A useful tip is to get a balance of lower order questions and higher order ones. Also, it may be worthwhile to start with lower risk or lower level questions that are factual or require lower level skills and then move on to more complex ones, depending on your specific tutorial contexts.

When to ask questions?

To set a conversational tone and to create an interactive learning environment, questions can be used throughout your tutorials.

Starting with questions: Asking questions is always a good way to start off a session. The kinds of questions you can ask at the beginning of a tutorial or lab session include:

  • Questions that involve startling facts or statistics in the answers to make your students alert and attentive. e.g. do you know the number of deaths attributable to tobacco per year? What is the single most preventable cause of disease and death in the world today?
  • Questions that help you figure out students’ level of understanding related to the topic. e.g. what diseases do you know are associated with tobacco use? 
  • Questions that pose a problem and require students to come up with possible solutions. e.g. what do you think are the effective ways of tobacco control in Hong Kong?

During your tutorial or demonstration: If your tutoring or demonstrating involves any mini-presentations of a key concept/theory/point, well placed question can tell you whether your students are with you. You may think along the following lines:

  •   what would be an example of…?
  • how does this relate to what you learned before?
  • how would you use this to …(a real life context/problem)?

You can also describe a problem with multiple solutions, ask students to vote on the best solution they consider, and get them to briefly explain their choice. For example,

Use cost and cost effectiveness approach to decide which of the four measures here (A, B, C, and D) is most suitable in Hong Kong, and explain why

Using visual aids as prompts: Visual aids, such as graphs, can provide a useful stimulus for questions and that can help students think about the concept/theory/problem you introduce. Taking tobacco control as an example again, you may show students a map of smoking distribution in different areas of a country/region, or a table of data about ages of smoking in a country/region, based on which you pose questions that engage students in higher-order thinking or problem solving, for instance, “what can you infer from the table/graph?” or “what is the implication of this data/graph in terms of intervention?”, etc.

Asking questions on assigned readings: If you assign readings to prepare students for a tutorial session, it is worthwhile to ask questions related to the readings in class so that the purpose of the assignment becomes clear to your students. 

Wait time: Whenever you ask questions, make sure you give students enough time to think and respond. Studies have indicated that wait time as long as 3 seconds or more makes great difference in terms of the number of responses from students and the length and correctness of their responses (Rowe, 1986).

For many new tutors there is often a temptation to rush and answer the question yourself, in order to avoid the embarrassment of silence. If that’s the case, you can try:

  • using body languages to encourage responses from students, especially those who you know are relatively more active in class, e.g. looking expectantly or using inviting gestures;
  • calling students by their names, e.g. “George, could you give me an example of …?”,  in which case students feel obliged to respond.
  • rephrasing your question if no one volunteers to answer and the students look puzzled, e.g., using simpler language.

How to respond to students

Responding to questions or posing questions requires your students to take risks so as much as possible you want to create an encouraging and supportive environment where they feel comfortable. One of the best ways to do this is to let your students know that their voices are heard and opinions acknowledged. Compliments such as “good point, Rachel” “I hadn’t thought about that, William” “Interesting idea” definitely send out the message. A simple “yes” or a nod will also do.

At the same time, students want to know more specifically what you think about their contributions. Pick up on useful and interesting points they make. Use these points, if possible, to extend the conversation/discussion among students.

In the case when a student makes an incorrect answer, you need to respond in a way that raises students’ awareness of the error and yet not embarrasses the responder. For example, you could acknowledge their contribution and simply say “Actually many students often get this wrong". Or you could ask further questions to bring him/her back to the track, for example, “what evidence can you give for what you just said?”, or “how does what you just said explain evidence of other sort?”.

You should always encourage students to ask questions. Do not always give them the answer directly. Instead, if time allows, use questions that scaffold them to find out the answer themselves. You can also invite other students to contribute. This can be a good way to promote interaction among students.

References and resources

  1. Asking more effective questions.  McComas, W., & Abraham, L., Center for Excellence in Teaching, University of South California
  2. Asking questions to improve learning. The Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis
  3. Leading discussions. Center for Teaching and Learning, Penn State University
  4. Twenty ways to make lectures more participatory. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University
  5. Some different types of questioning. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University
  6. Asking good questions in class. The McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning, Princeton University
  7. Questioning, Listening & Responding. Harvard Business School

Classroom management

The ability to manage a class is often reported as one of the biggest concerns of new tutors or demonstrators. Following are some tips to preempt problems and strategies to deal with them when they occur.

Time management

  1. When you plan each of your tutorial session, make sure you allow some flexibility in time allocation so that you can deal with anything unexpected at ease, e.g., giving students extra help with a certain concept/theory, or extra time to complete a task.
  2. Have some contingency plans in case your primary plan does not come along as expected, e.g., material is covered faster than you anticipated.
  3. When getting students involved in some interactive group work, give clear time parameters, instructions and expectations for the activity so that they won’t waste time in figuring out what they are supposed to do.
  4. During the activity, monitor each group’s progress to make sure they remain focused on task.
  5. When noticing you are running short of time, wrap up the session with a summary. Leave the uncovered contents to the next session, or assign them as homework if necessary.

Handling non-participants / students who talk too much

You may come across two most common problems in organizing a discussion: having students who talk too little or too much. Here are some useful tips for you to deal with such problems:

With students who talk too little,

  1. give students discussion tasks that invite personal opinions. This could reduce students’ fear of giving ‘wrong’ answers. 
  2. organize smaller group discussions or pair-share discussions. On the one hand smaller groups may make students feel more at ease. On the other hand smaller group impose greater pressure on individual input.
  3. when it is possible, allow some time for students to write out their opinions or answers before discussion. Having something written down may make the students more confident and therefore be more willing to speak up.
  4. invite non-participating students to comment on what's been said
  5. reward student inputs. This could be done by pointing out what is valuable in the student contribution and providing useful feedback.

With students who talk too much,

  1. redirect the discussion to the non-dominant student. You could acknowledge the input from the dominant participant first and then turn to other students to invite their comments.
  2. assign a facilitation role to a dominant participant. You might ask a dominant participant to be a note-taker or a moderator of the discussion. Tell him/her his/her role is to listen to, observe and moderate the discussion, instead of dominating the discussion. Through observation and facilitation, the dominant participant may develop some sensitivity upon the relevant issues.

Disruptive, annoying behavior

You may encounter disruptive, annoying behavior of various sorts in your teaching, e.g. arriving late, leaving early, skipping classes, chatting, etc. Here are some tips for what you can do:

  1. First and foremost, make your expectations and classroom policies clear in the first tutorial. If you have a small number of students, you can also try and get them to work out a set of rules that receives wide consensus.
  2. Be consistent in following the rules when dealing with unacceptable behaviors.
  1. Try to remember students’ names and use their names in any classroom conversations, so that they don’t feel anonymous.
  2. When noticing any disruptive behavior in class, make direct eye contact with the student(s) or physically move to that area where it is occurring. Often close proximity to the tutor will lessen the disruptive behavior.
  3. When referring to disruptive behavior, use positive language, instead of being negative or sarcastic.
  4. Vary your teaching format, or do something different, preferably every 15-20 minutes, so that students’ attention is maintained.

When feeling challenged

This occurs rarely, but in case you find yourself in a situation where you are constantly challenged by a particular student, or faced with a student who has aggressive tendencies, here are some tips that may help you preempt and deal with the situation.

  1. Dress professionally, which of course doesn’t mean business suit, but somewhat more formally to creates a little “distance” between you and your students.
  2. Sound sure of yourself when you speak, in which case having a clearly organized and well prepared lesson plan always helps.
  3. Connect with your students as early as possible (e.g. from the first tutorial), and communicate with them in a way that allows them to see your respect for them and your openness to different opinions and perspectives.
  4. In a case when you are challenged by a student of your subject knowledge, deal with it in a way that diffuses the tension between you and the students, e.g. by opening the student’s question to the class and inviting other students to join the discussion.
  5. When you do not know the answer to a question posed by an aggressive student, it is legitimate for you to tell the student you need time to think it through and will get back to him/her in the next tutorial session.