Get Students to Ask Questions in Class with One Simple Trick

Students always have questions, but they rarely ask them, especially at the beginning of the year. They might feel awkward or embarrassed to ask questions, or perhaps it’s just inertia. Whatever the cause, the vast majority of student questions go unasked, and for teachers this can be wildly frustrating. Teachers can’t answer the questions students don’t ask, and in many cases, the unasked questions represent anxieties and uncertainties that negatively affect students’ performance in class and inhibits their learning. In the past, teachers have tried requiring students to ask questions and even going around in a circle so each can take a turn, but it’s no secret that students hate this. They can tense, resistant, and sullen rather than motivated and engaged. Index cards are the secret to success in getting students to ask questions.

After the teacher completes their introduction and reviewing the course and the syllabus, they can hand out index cards. Let students know they are anonymous, so they can ask any questions or voice any concerns they have about the class without self-consciousness or nerves getting in the way. After collecting the cards, mix them up so it’s impossible to tell where the cards came from. You want the students to know that their anonymity is important in an anonymous activity, and that they won’t be embarrassed publicly in front of their peers. Then simply read the questions and comments out loud to the class, responding to each one individually.

Teacher Meriah Crawford does this with every class without fail. She says, “By the time we’re done, everyone has had the opportunity to get their questions answered, and they get to hear answers to questions they didn’t even know they had. In time, the students become more comfortable with me and with each other, as well as with the course goals. These are all tremendous benefits for the whole class—including me.”

Teachers can do this same exercise two or three more times at critical points during the semester, such as when the class is in the early stages of working on a big assignment. Ff the content of the card seems to warrant a longer or a personal conversation, the teacher can simply ask the student who wrote that card to come speak with them at another time one-on-one.

Meriah got great feedback from her students about the index card trick. In her end-of-semester reflection assignment, one student said, “Something that was really minor but appreciated was the anonymous writing of comments and questions on notecards. As someone who takes a bit of time to open up in new environments and as someone who dreads public speaking in front of strangers, it took a lot of the pressure off of getting the information I needed without making a complete and utter fool of myself.” Another student said, “One part of the class I really enjoyed was the notecard activity employed every once in a while. It was a good way to get unresolved questions answered as well as possibly obtain crucial information I hadn’t thought about based on the answers to other students’ questions.”

Index cards can be used in classes of any size and age, and can easily be adapted to an online course.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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