November 24, 2009, by Teaching at Nottingham

Strategies to address a reluctance to ask questions in lectures

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Martin Binks: “People are often too shy to raise issues, but one of the things that I tend to do periodically through the lectures is just say ‘Right, you’ve got two minutes. Talk to the person next to you, behind you, in front of you, whatever, and work out what you think the main characteristics of… What are the characteristics you associate most strongly with a successful entrepreneur.’ And you just let them chat for a bit, and you warn them and say ‘Because then I’m going to pick on you and ask you to just say a characteristic. It only needs to be one word.’ a) they laugh, and b) when you do say, as soon as you start, one person says something and that breaks the ice, and the others… I’ll then get them and I’ll say ‘No, one at a time,’ and they’ll start shouting them out. So I get round it to some extent that way, but, no, in that size of group a student doesn’t necessarily want to say ‘I don’t understand. How does that work?’ You’re in quite a vulnerable position in front of the rest of the group when you do that.”

Chris Ennew: “You see people dong some interesting things around text messaging, because it anonymises the asking of questions, so you could ask the questions by text. Or you can do one-off multiple choice answers, get instantaneous responses and you get a sense of whether the class has understood. And then, if they haven’t, you know that perhaps there are a whole series of questions that are going to come up, then, you could deal with them there and then. So, I think some of it just thinking about our own practice and saying, how can I deal with this? The low tech solution, if you’ve got a question, write it down on a piece of paper and you know, there’s a bag coming round or, you know, whatever, you know, there are things I think we can do that will deal with those questions.”

Mike Clifford: “I get round it a number of ways. I get, I do a sort of multiple choice quiz with some of them and I get them all to stand up and I say, Well, okay, if your answer was B, then sit down, or if your answer was C, stay on your feet, if your answer was A, sit down. So, they have to consciously do something because they never put their, if you ask them Well, who said A? they’ll never admit to it. Whereas if they have to make a choice, they have to stand up in the first place, then they’re already on their feet so it’s easier to sit down than to stay standing. I also try bribery. [laughs] I’ve, I did an exercise with, it was a very simple calculation that they had to do. And I said there’d be a prize for the winner, it was a small chocolate cake. And I was amazed by the motivation of the students, you know, even to put their hand up and come up with the wrong answer, you know, all for a little chocolate cake. I was quite surprised, so I’m going to do that one increasingly in the future.

“But even then, you still get people coming at the end of the lecture, and maybe it’s just a case of leaving a few minutes there that, that says, Okay, well, I want to be seen as approachable anyway and I’d rather have it then than, you know, two hours after my lecture coming to my office and asking the same question. So I deliberately finish lectures early to give a bit of space, and I also have a break in the middle of two hour lectures to, you know, have a bit of interaction with the students and wander up and down and see how they’re doing. things like that.”

Chris Barnatt: “I think that the biggest issue is the expectation of what a lecture is for and how it runs. We’ve found, for example, that students from Ningbo are tending to be, they want a lot more from the lecturer immediately, they’re used to a model of, for example, asking people at the end of a lecture and we’ve had situations where people are swamped, well perhaps that’s the wrong word, but they get 20 people, 30 people come forward and they want an answer to the question then. And if only because of the practicality of getting people out the room and getting the next ones in you can’t do that in the UK. Where the model perhaps is more you’d expect people to contact you in other ways or come back to you over time.”

Stephanie Bridges: “It’s a nice way of getting to know the students individually but it’s not necessarily very efficient and not necessarily what you’d want.

“You know, it’s a hard thing for anybody to ask a question in a group of a hundred and odd, and many students of whatever background and whatever nationality wouldn’t do it. And, certainly, I’ve heard some of them say, Well, we go to the library and we talk to each other and we find out the answer, and I think, Well, maybe that’s no bad thing actually.”

Martin Binks: “The mentoring sessions are very good for that because the groups, they’re in groups of five, they know each other, and so quite often there when I’m going round to make sure they’re actually on message and doing what they’re supposed to be doing, while I’m there one of them will say ‘Excuse me, but in the lecture you said such and such. Does that much such and such.’ And the rest of the group will say ‘Yes, what…’ So they’ll have actually sometimes discussed a question they want to ask almost as a group, so that’s quite a useful way of doing it and facilitating that, you know, and to get them to actually ask what they want to say. They can actually discuss it to some extent and reassure each other that, yes, I didn’t know quite what he was on about then either.”

Chris Ennew: “I’m not convinced that it’s automatically the case that it’s the international students who won’t ask the questions. I suspect it’s a lot of students who won’t ask the questions. It may be the international ones who are concerned enough to come up at the end, or for whom it’s important enough that they come up at the end but I think, you know, be wary of over-generalisation.”

Christopher Barnatt
Nottingham University Business School
Martin Binks
Nottingham University Business School
Stephanie Bridges
School of Pharmacy
Mike Clifford
Department of Mechanical, Materials & Manufacturing Engineering
Chris Ennew
Nottingham University Business School

Extracts from interviews with staff and students about experiences of internationalisation. This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Learning from internationalisation collection. Produced November 2009.

Posted in InternationalisationLectures