In my training of new graduate teaching fellows, a frequent topic of conversation is class discussion: how can we, as teachers, encourage students who seem reluctant to participate to be more involved in classroom conversations. There are no magic bullets here, but I thought I’d share my experience in dealing with this problem and one approach that developed out of that experience—an approach that not only encouraged greater participation, but also, I think, fostered a culture of inquiry in the classroom.
In a previous job, I had two sections of the same class, which I taught back-to-back. The first section was exceptionally quiet: every question I asked was met with a prolonged silence, to the point where it was difficult to advance through the text because no one but me was willing to talk about it. My second section was the opposite—talkative, even boisterous. The disparity was so glaring that, after three weeks of struggling forward with the first section, I decided it was time to have a conversation with those students. Why, I asked, were they so reluctant to respond to my questions in class? The answers I got boiled down to fear: the students in my first section felt so unsure of their comprehension of the texts (which admittedly were not easy), they were afraid to venture answers to my questions—for fear of appearing “stupid” both to me and to their peers.
After talking with them for a while and brainstorming some possible solutions to help them get over their fear of putting their ideas on the table, I decided to try something new: instead of me coming in with discussion questions, I made the students responsible for coming up with the questions, and then we as a class together would try to wrestle with some answers. I started asking students to come in with 5-6 questions they had about the reading each day, then to work in groups: which questions could they help each other solve, and which seemed harder to answer? Then we tackled the harder questions as a class, making a discussion out of grappling with the things that genuinely confused the students.
The class relaxed visibly when I turned to this approach, and conversation improved immediately—again, not in a magic-bullet kind of way, but my students became more wiling to overcome their fear of participation. This worked, I think, for a couple of reasons. First, if the questions are coming from the students rather than from me, we avoid the problem where students suspect I’m looking for a particular “right” answer. This alleviated a certain amount of fear of being “wrong.” Second, it’s easier to ask a question than to find an answer, because it feels like the stakes are lower. Of course, having students bringing discussion questions to class is a well-known tool in the teacherly toolkit, but making these questions the center of the class—making them drive the entirety of the conversation—meant that the subject of the class shifted from the text and to how to inquire into the text.
As time went on, I realized that this approach needed more structure to be entirely successful. Not all questions are created equal: asking “How old was Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost?” is a very different thing from asking why a poem with an explicitly religious purpose would open by presenting a very sympathetic-seeming Satan. For these lessons to work, we needed to have a conversation about the different kinds of questions a person can ask about texts we were reading. So I asked the students to look at their group questions and to develop a taxonomy. What would it take to answer each question—closer reading of the text, or research outside the text? Which questions seem like they will have single, right answers, and which seem like they could be answered more than one way? Once we’d discussed the different kinds of questions they were asking, I was able to direct them towards the kind that are specific to the discipline of literary study, while at the same time validating the other kinds of questions as legitimate topics of inquiry in other settings. No questions were “bad,” but some were better suited to the task we were engaged in than others. And now the students could start to understand how to frame their inquiry to be most productive in class.
I’ve adapted this approach in subsequent classes, and I like the results I get: in classes where I use this approach, I consistently have more engaged students who seem more excited about the material than I see in my more traditional classes. When I reflect on why this might be, I come to the conclusion that my question-based classes teach inquiry and are thereby much more empowering than my other classes. By focusing on asking questions first and then working in class together to find answers, I am trying to overcome the misperception that not-knowing is a disabling problem or a sign of deficiency. Instead, I want students to see what all of us who engage in scholarly work know: that not-knowing is the first step on the way to greater knowing. Not-knowing means that you have a question: and questions are how we get to answers. We learn through questions. By putting the emphasis on these rather than on answers, we can show students who are afraid to answer that it’s okay to ask, and thereby move forward together.