Thoughts on Questioning Students
The Law Teacher, Volume 3, number 1 (Fall 1995), p. 6-7.
About the Author
Richard G. Fox was a visiting professor at Case Western Reserve University Law School during the Fall 1995 semester. His permanent address is Faculty of Law, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia 3168, FAX +61-3-9905 5305,
e-mail: richard.fox [at] law.monash.edu.au.
"By this time Gertrude Stein was in a sad state of indecision and worry. I sat next to her and she said to me early in the afternoon, What is the answer? I was silent. In that case, she said, what is the question?"
- Alice B. Toklas, What Is Remembered (1963)
Questioning students, and addressing their questions, is a feature of the Socratic method of teaching law. It is a two-way process.
We question them
We often question students to get an immediate confirmation that they have received the information we think we have transmitted to them. All we are asking is the message be retransmitted. In this case, the student's mind may be no more than a reflector.
Other times, we question students to demonstrate the inductive or deductive propositions that flow from the material we have "taught." Or we may use the questioning to orchestrate conflicting interpretations of the material, to break the monotony of straight lecturing, or to maintain interest in the class or topic.
We should avoid using questions to punish or discipline students. If discipline is required, be direct in addressing the disruption rather than use the student's lack of knowledge as a weapon. Students always should have an "out." If they can "pass," or admit that they don't know, you still can call upon them at the next class so that they are not let off the hook.
We assume, in questioning students, that we should receive an immediate answer. Sometimes it is better to be prepared to allow them time to think about the answer. Students often give uncritical answers to questions posed by the lecturer, because they are not given enough time to produce a better one. Reflection time is valuable for understanding. Some strategies for giving students time to think about the ramifications of the problems posed are:
- Utilize "think-pair-share." Pair students or small groups of students with a view to requiring them to discuss the problem and opening up class discussion at the next session.
- Use follow-up questions. ("Why?" "Do you agree?" "Can you elaborate?" "Tell me more." "Can you give me an example?")
- Withhold your personal judgment. Invite other students to respond to the answer given by a student. Suggest they interrogate the respondent.
- Ask for a summary from another student. ("Could you please summarize John's point?") This promotes active listening.
- Survey the class. ("How many people agree with the author's/presenter's point of view?")
- Divide the class into plaintiff vs. defendant, prosecution vs. defense, etc., and set them against each other. Appoint a jury/judge to resolve the conflict of ideas.
- Allow the answering student to nominate the next student to respond. ("Will you please call on someone else to respond?")
- Require students to defend their reasoning against different points of view. Either play devil's advocate yourself, or ask the class to consider the question from the position of someone holding a particular point of view. ("What would the right-to-life people say about this?")
- Ask students to "unpack" their thinking. ("Describe how you arrived at your answer." "Think aloud.") Ask those who are making comments to their neighbors to share them with the class. Even half a thought will do for starters.
- Call on students randomly, not just those with raised hands.
- Let the students develop their own questions and answer them. If there is a flood of questioning, let the flood flow; tolerate what appears to be chaos. Let everyone have a go. Listen and summarize.
- Cue student responses. ("In answering this, I want you to think about (a), (b), (c) . . . .")
They question us
Student questions to the teacher serve many different purposes. They come with different levels of confidence in their legitimacy. Questions serve the students' needs; they may serve or inhibit our objectives. They often need to be orchestrated in some fashion.
We should remember that students' questions are a window into the great unknown. Be alert to fundamental misconceptions that may underlie a question; those misconceptions may be more widely shared than you think.
A fool can ask a question which the wisest person cannot answer. We often have to answer questions by not answering them. Recognize that some "questions" never require an answer, but are rather in the form of a statement that invites a response. When a questioning student seeks a response, why do you have to be the one to give it? Ask another student to do so.
Be alert to the shy, diffident, and tentative questioner. Such a student may begin a question with "This will sound silly but . . .", or may question his or her neighbor rather than ask you directly. Reinforce these questioners by responding to them.
Then there are the confident, highly visible (front-row center), sometimes clever questioners (or show-offs). They seduce your attention. If allowed to dominate, they will provoke reactive non-cooperation from other members of the class. Take an active role in trying to prevent this. Invite questions from those who have not put up their hands.
Be aware that some questions may be deliberately diversionary, particularly if students know you are easily led off the topic.
While we ought to welcome questions, their timing and relevance often will not be appropriate to the topic under discussion, or will interfere with coverage of the material within the time allowed. Consider these strategies:
- Accept the question, but reassign it to a more relevant slot. ("That's a good question, but wouldn't it be better if we look at it when we get to the next issue?")
- Reinterpret a question. ("What I think you are asking is . . . .")
- Ask stooge and phantom questions. Ask a student to ask a question in class (often because the student asked a pertinent question after class, but you would like the discussion shared with everyone else). Sometimes no one asked a question, but you can pretend someone did.
- When too many questions threaten continuity and timing of material, be up front: "I won't take any more questions for the moment. I need the last 15 minutes to complete the material I wanted to cover in this class. I will take questions after class."
- What if you don't understand a question? Consider: (1) asking the student to restate the question; (2) asking another student or students to explain what the question is; (3) reinterpreting the question so as to answer a question that you do understand which appears to be on the topic.
- What if you don't know the answer to a question? Consider: (1) saying you don't know; (2) discussing with the class the principles or policies that may provide an answer; (3) indicating you will look it up by the next class; (4) asking the class to look it up by the next class, and compare results; (5) indicating what you think the answer might be, but qualify it by identifying what additional case law or legislative material would have to be checked in order to confirm your tentative conclusion.
- What if a question is explicitly or implicitly racist, sexist, or provocative (sometimes deliberately so)? Invite members of the class to make explicit the values or attitudes implicit in the question, rather than doing so yourself. Reverse roles ("How would you react if you were in this situation?") or appoint the questioner legal representative of a disparaged group and invite him or her to present the case for his or her clients; change or widen the context in which the attitude is being expressed in order to drive home its implications.
- Have all the questioners write down their questions on pieces of paper. Overnight classify them and, at the next class, take up all the themes contained in the questions. This is particularly useful and time-saving at pre-exam review time.