Questions

Stephen Harper in a crowdQuestions are the simplest form of interactive teaching tool, particularly in large classes, and are useful in any discipline. They can help promote active learning and gauge students’ level of interest and comprehension. Ask questions from the first day of class to set a precedent; you will have a much better participation level than if you try to change your routine midway through the term.

  • Develop key questions before class (they won’t occur to you on the spot – this also allows you to plan your time).
  • Decide when you’re going to ask them. During lectures, ask questions early on to stimulate interest and gauge students’ level of knowledge; in the middle, to break the pace of the lecture; and/or at the end, to review main ideas and gather ideas for future classes.
  • Ask questions that can be answered, but favour ones with complex answers.
  • Vary the form of questions: those that gauge knowledge, require diagnosis or explanation, or challenge conclusions.
  • Ask only one question at a time.
  • Pause between asking and accepting replies (pausing gives students a chance to think of an answer, and by not asking the first person who raises his/her hand, you encourage quieter students to participate).
  • Acknowledge all answers – repeat so the class can hear and/or write them on the board (this also helps to show you understood the answer).
  • Move around the room – avoid focussing exclusively on the respondent.

Brainstorming

  • Brainstorming can be simple and useful in all disciplines but it must be used appropriately to be effective. Choose a strategic point in your class for brainstorming: for example, when beginning a new topic or at the end of a lecture as review. Use students’ input to decide on sub-topics to focus on during your class, to identify possible lines of questioning, and to assess students’ level of comprehension and interest in your topic.
  • Decide exactly how much time you’ll allot to the brainstorming, and enforce it.
  • Present students with a question or issue that you want their ideas on: emphasize quantity over quality. For large classes you should use a prompt that asks for tentative responses rather than declarative statements. For example, “tell me what you know, have heard, or have read about this topic.” This allows your students to offer responses without having to fear being “wrong”.
  • Use a few minutes of silence for students to write down their ideas before hearing them.
  • Accept students’ input and organize it into logical groupings, if relevant.
  • Apply only two rules: acknowledge every offering by writing it down and don’t allow judgements of any idea until brainstorming is over (this includes your judgements!).

Quescussion


Quescussion, as the name indicates, combines questions and discussion into one activity. The professor asks a question or makes a statement to the class (this question should be written on the blackboard or overhead projector). There are four basic rules when responding to this prompt:

  • Discussion has to be in question form (No statements!)
  • A person may speak only every nth time.
  • No fake questions (i.e., a statement disguised as a question. For example, "small classes are better than large ones, aren't they?").
  • No ad hominems: an attack on someone else (i.e., "a person would be crazy if they thought that, wouldn't they?" - this is also a disguised statement).

By following these four rules, the quescussion can occur effectively. All questions are recorded, grouped, and used to determine students’ exposure to and understanding of a specific topic. It can also be used to determine topics to cover in each lecture. By framing the discussion into questions, students feel less intimidated to speak in front of the large class. As well, the questions are tentative (impossibly wrong) responses rather than declarative (possibly wrong) responses. The rule of speaking every n times (for example, 3 or 4) generates a variety of voices and allows for reflection while waiting for a turn to speak.

Debate

A debate is a good way to encourage class participation in large groups without losing control, and they can work in any discipline – not just the social sciences. They can emerge spontaneously from classroom material but are best used with planning.

  • The first step is to describe the background context, and explain why you are having a debate.
  • Then decide on the two (or more) sides to the debate and physically group the class according to points of view. For example, the people sitting on the right-hand side of the room are for a concept, while the people on the left-hand side are against it.
  • For large groups, you should have speakers raise their hands while you moderate. The debate will probably start slowly at first, but the intensity will pick up.
  • You, as moderator, can ask provocative questions, but don’t express judgement on any point of view (at least not until afterwards!).
  • After 10 to 15 minutes of debating, end the debate and reflect on what was said.
  • You can use ideas and conflicts from the debate to lead into your lecture, review lecture concepts to end the class, or make a segue to your next class.

Think-pair-share

This is a good ice-breaking technique for early in the term. It’s also an easy way to make large classes interactive and encourages more students to participate than regular question strategies. Use the offerings of students after think-pair sharing to lead into a lecture or discussion of class material.

  • Pose a question or problem to entire class: answerable but complex.
  • Give students one to three minutes to think about it individually then divide students into pairs.
  • Have them discuss their answers with each other for two to three minutes.
  • Invite students to share responses with entire class: those whose ideas have been challenged, reinforced, or refined will probably volunteer.

One-sentence summary

This is one possible ungraded written in-class activity. This exercise not only enhances comprehension, but also writing skills, and can provide you with valuable written feedback. Used at the end of the class, the one-sentence summary can be a good review of material just covered. At the beginning of the class, it can review material covered previously and serve as a starting point for the lecture of the day. The one-sentence summary can also be used in its own right to enhance general writing ability.

  • Objective is for students to state the major point of an entire lecture or section in a limited amount of writing.
  • Select a recent issue covered in class, in relation to that issue, answer the following questions as quickly as possible in front of your students: “who did what to whom, when, where, how, and why?” and turn your answer into a grammatical sentence.
  • Announce another, similar topic to your students and give them five minutes or so to produce their own one-sentence summaries.
  • Collect these to determine if students recognized the key points of the lecture. One optional extension is to have students swap with the person next to them – have a few minutes’ silence for reading and formulation of comments, then a few minutes of discussion in pairs before discussing the summaries as a class.

One-minute paper

This shows students that they can write quickly and spontaneously, and enhances general writing ability. Like a one-sentence summary (and the ungraded quiz that will be discussed next), a one­-minute paper can provide you with a source of candid feedback on course material and your presentation style. It can also encourage students to think about the key concepts discussed during this class. You can assign one-minute papers at the end of a class to gauge comprehension, provide general writing practice, and give students an incentive to absorb and comprehend course material. Consider using the content of one-minute papers to plan content of upcoming classes: when students see that the instructor responds to their concerns, they will be motivated to participate in future classes.

  • Give a prompt for the paper such as “what was the most important concept of this lecture and what was the muddiest point of this lecture?”
  • Give students one or two minutes to think about the topic without writing anything.
  • Give students one minute (or another short period of time) to write all they can.
  • Collect papers (depending on the class atmosphere, you may ask students to put their names on them or keep them anonymous).
  • You can also use this exercise as a measure of participation or as a short assignment and assign a grade to each.

Ungraded quiz

An ungraded quiz encourages students to pay attention during lectures by presenting them with a short-term, non-threatening learning objective. It can be done very quickly, and also provides you with a source of candid feedback on students’ knowledge level. Use ungraded quizzes at the beginning of a lecture to determine the level of knowledge, or at the end of a lecture as a review and incentive for students to retain and comprehend information. Alternatively, use an ungraded quiz at the end of a lecture to gauge how successful you’ve been in teaching the material.

  • Write question(s) on the board, overhead, or handout.
  • Give students five to ten minutes to respond on a blank sheet of paper (depending on the atmosphere in the class, you may keep the quiz anonymous or ask students to put their names on papers).
  • Collect papers and report on responses next time the class meets. One variation: prepare multiple-choice answer options and present each one in turn, asking for a show of hands. Another variation: before (or instead of) collecting quiz papers, have students exchange and “grade” each other’s quiz papers based on the answers you present. This grading is to allow students to gauge their understanding and should not be used as a formal assessment.

Student liaison committee (“Ombuddies”)

“Ombuddies” or the student liaison committee can be an excellent way of getting feedback from large classes in particular. With this tool, a group of student volunteers act as a liaison between you and the class. The group can meet independently on a regular basis and then periodically meet with you to provide you with the feedback they have gleaned from their classmates. Or, this can be less formal, with the students simply reporting to you questions or concerns as they arise. The class should always know who the volunteers are and should receive regular reports from the “ombuddies” and/or you. There are two components that make this activity work:

  • Provide the volunteers with some guidance about how to function as a committee and how to solicit and collect feedback from their peers.
  • Students should know one another. Ombuddies should be used in highly structured programs or upper-year classes where students are going to be familiar with each other. If a student is reluctant to talk to you about an issue, they will most likely be apprehensive about talking to a fellow student who is a total stranger.

Suggestion box

This tool could involve bringing a suggestion box to your classroom every class or hanging an envelope on your office door. Students can use this method to provide you with anonymous suggestions regarding your teaching or the course in general

  • Be sure to tell students about what types of suggestions you would like: the more open you are, the more unfocussed the suggestions will be.
  • Scan the suggestions regularly to put them into context, summarize them for the class, and indicate which ones you will act on and why.
  • Keep in mind that students who write their suggestions by hand may not be totally honest since you may recognize their writing. Encourage students to submit typed suggestions if they are concerned.

Blank index cards

Similar to the one-minute paper, blank index cards enable you to gather a small amount of feedback quickly and easily.

  • Students respond to two questions that you pose, answering one question per card side
  • Questions could be very general (i.e., What do you want more of? Less of?) or more specific (i.e., Are the problem sets too difficult?).
  • Allow students one to two minutes to jot down their ideas. With any more time, they may become frustrated with the limited paper space.
  • Collect students’ responses and answer any questions they have during the next lecture.

E-mail and voicemail

In large classes, it can sometimes be difficult to respond to every concern or question. E-mail and voicemail allow students to ask questions or provide feedback on a particular issue at any time of the day or night.

  • Be sure to check your messages regularly, particularly before each class so you can respond to students’ questions as soon as possible.
  • Clearly explain your guidelines for using these tools. Specifically, you should explain how often you will check your messages, the type of language that should be used (it is a lot easier to be unpleasant to a computer than it is to a person), and policies regarding timing of questions (i.e., you will not explain a concept in detail the night before the exam.)

Internet

You can use an electronic bulletin board or course website to post the course syllabus, course notes, assignment instructions, or administrative details (i.e., your office number, dates for tests and so on). More intensive use of the Internet could involve using bulletin boards, chatrooms, or on-line discussion groups to answer student questions or pose discussion questions. These tools work best in large classes if students are divided into smaller groups and are graded on their participation. Electronic polls can be used to get feedback from the large group on times for office hours, topics for lectures and for voting on debate topics. Also, consider what face to face activity you will eliminate from your course to make time for on-line discussions. Refer to the Centre for Teaching Excellence teaching tip on collaborative on-line learning for specific details or contact the Centre for Teaching Excellence, or Information Systems and Technologyfor more information about using computers in your course.

Clickers and twitter

You can use clickers to collect students’ responses to multiple-choice questions. You can extend the learning with clickers by having students first respond individually and then having them respond again after discussing their ideas with their peers. Some instructors, too, encourage participation via micro-blogging technologies such as Twitter: students have the option of participating verbally or of typing their contributions into a live Twitter feed.

Resources

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    Teachers. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
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  • Haughley, M. and T. Anderson. Networked Learning: The Pedagogy of the Internet. Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
  • Millis, B.J. and P.G. Cottell, Jr. Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1998.
  • McKeachie, W.J., ed. McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College
    and University Teachers (10th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
  • Newble, D. and R. Cannon. A Handbook for Teachers in Universities and Colleges: A Guide to Improving Teaching Methods. New York: Kogan Page, 1989.
  • Silberman, M. Active Learning. Needham Heights: Allyn & Bacon, 1996.
  • Timpson, W.M.; Burgoyne, S.; Jones, C.S. and W. Jones. Teaching and Performing: Ideas for Energizing Your Classes. Madison: Magna, 1995.

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Activities for Large Classes. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.