2 Leadership Interventions

2.3 Getting unstuck

If you want to avoid getting stuck with unproductive questioning processes:

  • Try to have some idea of the mental processes students are going through, and adjust your questions to the way they respond rather than thinking up good questions beforehand as though the quality of a question was independent of the time, place and person involved.
  • Try to avoid questions which suggest one answer is expected more than another, eg 'Do you think Wordsworth had a great influence on Coleridge?'. Rather ask: 'What sort of relationship do you see between the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge?'
  • Beware of prompting the students to guess what is in your mind, as in the children's party game 'Hunt the Thimble'. If you do not want students to arrive at a predetermined answer or you have your own favourite solution, it is probably better to draw out a range of possible answers from students and then encourage discussion of their merits. This often produces ideas which you had not previously thought of. You may then reveal your own list for comparison.
  • Try to ask questions which give informative answers. Avoid verbal checklists: 'Did you calculate the mean? Did you subtract the mean from each reading?' Rather ask: 'Tell me exactly what you did.', followed by 'What about...?', 'What else?', 'Uh-huh?'.
  • Ask questions directed at higher levels of objectives, eg 'Could you put those ideas together for us?', 'How does that theory compare with the other?', 'How important do you think this scheme is?', 'How do you feel about it?' or 'How committed do you feel to that?'.
  • Be very cautious about showing approval and disapproval in evaluating answers. Sometimes it may help reticent students to have their one and only contribution approved, but disapproval is likely to change what a student is willing to say. An honest attempt to contribute should be welcomed. If you feel a comment is irrelevant to the discussion (remember it may not be irrelevant to the student concerned or to the other students), you may respond with: 'That's very interesting - could we come back to it later once we have settled the issue of ...?'. It is important to recognise that the apparent irrelevance of a comment may be an indication that the student is feeling out of depth or has had to wait so long to speak that the contribution has become out of date.
  • Once you have asked a question be prepared to wait for an answer. Short silences are not necessarily a bad thing - they often get students talking more freely in the long run once they know you require and appreciate an honest answer to an honest question. If every question is greeted with silence then it might be of value to discuss with the group why this may be so.
  • If you find you do not get the answer you want, consider the possibility that the answer a student gives may be the answer he or she wants, or that you have asked the wrong question.

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