No one wants to look foolish. And the social discomfort of expressing yourself in front of people you respect may very cause 49 out of 50 students to sit on their hands when the professor asks, “Any questions?”
How can college professors encourage more and better questions from students, especially from students who already feel out of place in a course, program, or university setting?
Dr. Perry Samson, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at University of Michigan, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss creating new channels for students to provide anonymous feedback in the classroom.
Creating an Anonymous Back Channel that Makes Questions Safe to Ask Questions
Back in the early 2000s, Perry wanted to be able to ask more kinds of questions. As a climate science teacher, he wanted to ask questions about maps and the information on them. The student could put a dot on the map, for instance, and the class could interact with it. So he created LectureTools, a technology that let him ask a wide range of question types.
Over time, LectureTools gave students new expectations for technology in the classroom. Soon, they were saying, “Look, if we’re going to lug our laptop to class to do this, could we also have these other features?”
One of those features was the opportunity to ask questions back to Perry, who thought, “Well that’s odd. You don’t have any questions, so why would you want to do that?” Nevertheless, he added the feature to the software.
He also started asking students in the first week: How comfortable are you asking a verbal question in class?
The answer: Not comfortable at all.
Female students were less comfortable than male students in general. First-generation students were less comfortable than their peers. And students whose primary language was not English were extremely uncomfortable.
“So this back channel, this ability to ask questions digitally during class, wound up just changing my class dramatically,” Perry said.
After all those semesters of asking, “Any questions?” and getting maybe 12 responses from three guys on the front row, Perry started getting 500-600 questions per semester per class.
Here’s how the backchannel system works:
Perry gets one teaching assistant for 250 students. “That poor man or woman” — as he describes them — sits in class and responds to students by typing, “Here’s what Perry meant to say…”
Everybody in the class can see the questions and the responses coming back from the teaching assistant or from each other, but they don’t see who asked the question.
“For the students,” Perry said, “this becomes a way for them to ask that dumb question that they’re fearful of asking in class, and they don’t have to disrupt the class to do it. So it’s much more a welcoming way to participate in the conversation in class.”
Even better, Perry now sees those students who claimed they were uncomfortable asking questions in class asking questions at the same or higher rate than the rest of the students.
“The class is now a level playing field,” he told us, “and this digital system seems to have helped us move in that direction.”
What Are Other Potential Ways to Encourage Student Feedback?
You can find ways for the students to work in teams and share their answers or pose a question to them and maybe get their individual answers back. Then break them into groups and have those groups debate the topics. See if they can come up with a solution on their own. It’s not uncommon for groups to come up with a better explanation than the individuals do.
“And I’ve got this little stupid weather trick that I use in class that I will offer to others,” Perry said. “That is, you have everybody in class raise their hand, close their eyes and point north on the first day of class.”
Arms flail out in every possible direction, and you take a picture of that. Then you have them break into groups of three or four and defend their answers to each other. After a few minutes of discussion, have them again raise their hands, close their eyes, and point north. Take a picture again, and they’re all pointing north.
“The obvious point there,” Perry said, “is that students will learn from that discussion, maybe more than they’ll learn from me. The value of that inter-class discussion can’t be underestimated.”
Next Steps Advice for Introducing Anonymous Student Feedback
Perry has just begun an NSF-funded project to study this back channel effect, which involves some 11 institutions around the country, including Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan State, UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and Pittsburgh.
The study will first measure how many questions students are asking in these courses now. Then, the schools will install this back channel technology and watch how many questions students ask in the same courses with this technology. The study also looks at changes in students’ attitudes about participation in class and their sense of belongingness in that particular discipline.
“We’re just beginning this research,” Perry said. “It’ll be a two year study. And we’d like to be growing this study down the road. So if other institutions are interested in learning more about this, then I’d be pleased to talk with them.”
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