By Stacy Palen.
Often, in-class questions are presented as a binary choice: “Does the star grow, or does it shrink?”
I always couch these as, “How many of you think the star grows?" Wait for hands. "How many of you think it shrinks?" Wait for hands. "How many people think that 9:30 in the morning is an unfair time to ask that question?" (Wait for hands.)
The last choice, though it may seem frivolous, is really important.
I try to make these last choices light-hearted and a little bit funny. For example:
- “How many of you were asleep just now?”
- “How many of you were thinking about lunch?”
- “How many of you were thinking about puppies instead?”
- “How many of you wish we would just get to black holes already, and stop talking about nuclear fusion?”
You get the idea. The light humor helps them stay focused and makes it clear that I expect them to put up their hand for every question at some point, even if it’s the silly last choice. I expect them all to participate, every time.
The last choices -- and the way students react, by laughing or groaning, for example -- help me figure out where they are in their heads. Do I have their attention? Are they feeling confident to take a risk and make a guess? Are they actually listening to me at all? Were they really thinking about puppies?
I often don’t interpret that response in the moment. After class, while I’m walking back to my office and putting my notes away, I’ll think about what was happening in the classroom right at that time when I asked the last question.
Was there a better way to explain before I asked the question? Had I been talking too many minutes in a row? And so on. I might make a note in my lecture notes about a sticky concept, or an analogy that worked particularly well. This reflection afterwards helps me improve for next time.
Most importantly, the last choice gives students an “out.” It is an acknowledgement on my part that they might not know the answer, and that’s OK. I expect them to go ahead and guess sometimes! Giving the last choice makes it clear the question is not a referendum on how smart they are. I am genuinely asking the question because I am trying to figure out what they have understood so that I can help them.
Really, that’s what the last choice question is all about: it’s a less intimidating way for them to say, “I don’t know.”
The last choice helps students to stay focused because they know there will be a moment when they can answer honestly, and often it will come with a laugh.
A closing note on classroom technology: Sometimes I use “clickers." Sometimes I use a piece of paper divided in 4, with A, B, C, D written on each square; students fold the paper to show me the letter of their answer. Sometimes I just have them put up their hands, because the question is an extemporaneous one that just happened naturally in the course of my lecture. In this post, I talk about the questioning strategy as though it applies to extemporaneous questions. But of course, you could use this strategy for a planned questions, too.