The Handbook for Economics Teaching Assistants

There are a number of techniques you can use to encourage students to ask questions and to open up discussion.

The most obvious is to draw on students' questions and comments and to enlarge upon them with your own remarks. What do you do if the subject matter is new and your students are too?

You may want to jot down several statements or questions beforehand and use these as a springboard.

For many quantitative subjects, you may want to plan out a sequence of short questions aimed at helping students work their way through a problem, or grasp a better understanding of a theory or model. A number of class teachers in Economics, Maths, Statistics and Accounting and Finance use this approach. Some will go round the class more or less sequentially, so students know when their "time" to answer is approaching and can prepare. Others take a more random approach, calling on people by name. Yet others ask questions to the group as a whole, and let whoever wishes to respond.

This issue, of whether or not to call on students individually and by name to contribute to the class, is one of the more controversial aspects of questioning. Clearly tutors have different styles and students will have varied expectations. The advantage of addressing individual students is that you can tailor comments and make interventions that are appropriate for specific students. It may be a way of involving a very quiet student who you know has useful contributions to make but finds it difficult to raise them in the class. However, great care should be used when 'spotlighting' students. If some students think that they may be 'picked on' to answer questions it may make them very uncomfortable in the class and less able to think and work out their own position or solution. (This may particularly affect the non-native speakers of English in your class and those with disabilities.) This may also have a knock-on effect on the other students and so the positive atmosphere in the class can be eroded.

If you choose to use a direct questioning approach it is also sensible to think through what you will do when a student cannot answer your question or gives a muddled or an incorrect response. It is likely to fall to the tutor to 'rescue' the situation and in some circumstances to help re-build the confidence of an embarrassed or flustered student. Because of these potential difficulties it is, therefore, suggested that you do not ask individual students to answer your questions so directly until you have established a good rapport with your class and you have got to know your students better.

With more discursive subjects, it is generally preferable to open up discussion with open-ended questions which will get students thinking about relationships, applications, consequences, and contingencies, rather than merely the basic facts. Open questions often begin with words like "how" and "why" rather than "who", "where" and "when", which are more likely to elicit short factual answers and stifle the flow of the discussion. This more closed questioning approach tends to set up a "teacher/student" "question/answer" routine that does not lead into more fruitful discussion of underlying issues. You will want to ask your students the sorts of questions that will draw them out and actively involve them, and you will also want to encourage your students to ask questions of one another. Again, it is for you to decide whether to call on students directly, or leave the discussion and discussant "open". Above all, you must convey to your students that their ideas are welcomed as well as valued.

Very occasionally you may have a student in your class who suffers from more than the normal level of anxiety or shyness when called upon to contribute to the class discussions or to present their work. In some circumstances this may be related to a disability, or to language proficiency. Treat such situations with sensitivity and if appropriate seek specialist guidance.

Top Tip

"On the introductory workshop we heard about a discussion technique that works well for me. I ask a question, I then ask the students to write down their answer and then compare it with the person sitting next to them. I then ask the question out loud to the group again and I always get someone happy to kick off the discussion."

There are a number of pitfalls in asking questions in class. Here are the four most common ones:

  1. Phrasing a question so that your implicit message is, "I know something you don't know and you'll look stupid if you don't guess what's in my head!";
  2. Constantly rephrasing student answers to "fit" your answer without actually considering the answer that they have given;
  3. Phrasing a question at a level of abstraction inappropriate for the level of the class - questions are often best when phrased as problems that are meaningful to the students;
  4. Not waiting long enough to give students a chance to think.

The issue of comfortable "thinking time" is an often-ignored component of questioning techniques. If you are too eager to impart your views, students will get the message that you're not really interested in their opinions. Most teachers tend not to wait long enough between questions or before answering their own questions because a silent classroom induces too much anxiety for the class teacher. It can be stressful if you pick on a student for an answer and all the group are waiting for a reply (see below). Many students, particularly those with certain disabilities or dyslexia, students who are not confident in speaking in public, or not confident in speaking English, may become unduly flustered in such a situation. Creating a more comfortable space in which to think is likely to induce a better 'quality' of answer and increase the opportunities for all students to contribute effectively.

The above approach is likely to help make your students feel more confident for a number of reasons. First the students have the chance to 'check out' their answers with a peer; secondly, they are required to 'rehearse' and put their thoughts into words; and thirdly the answer gains a form of endorsement from the peer which increases confidence in its value. Once the students have confidence that you will give them time to think their responses through, and you show them that you really do want to hear their views, they will participate more freely in future.

Asking Questions Relating to Work Students Have Not Done

This is clearly a different issue from those noted above, and comes back to issues around agreeing ground rules with students to ensure that they prepare adequately for class. It is important to establish agreed working patterns from the start, and follow them through.