Lisa S. Tsay Saginaw Valley State University
I used to ask my students, “Do you have questions?” or “Any questions?” My students were quiet, unresponsive–as if I cast a magic spell on them and turned the class it into something of a Bermuda Triangle. All the stuff I taught went into that mysterious area and nothing came back out. Sometimes the spell works more than it is intended: the classroom was not only as silent as a vacuum but also produced blank stares on students’ faces.
It was not the sound of silence that really petrifies me, but rather those blank stares. Those stares are detrimental…well… to my feelings of competence as an instructor. Their blank stares seem to imply unintelligent obscurity or incompetence on my part. With years of teaching experience and hours of preparing lectures, I do take pride in delivering my lecture clearly and covering course content accurately. So, for the sake of maintaining my integrity and pride and for the purpose of engaging students in their learning, I studied some tactics to win the “staring contest” and to shed some light on the cause of “Bermuda-Triangle-like” classroom.
The first thing I experimented with was “wait-time.” I paused for five seconds after uttering, “Do you have questions?” I was curious about what my students were doing within five seconds. Not to my surprise, they stopped what they were doing, whether note-taking or texting and waited for my next move. That five-second interval seemed to grant them a condensed recess, both mentally and physically, and to grant me non-diverted attention from my students. But it seemed, in most cases, just that and nothing more.
Sometimes, to ease the tension, I joked about it: “So, who is the winner of the staring contest?” That did the trick for some classes. I also had students take a few minutes to write down something that they learned from the lecture. Whatever I did, I was re-landscaping the classroom – from that Bermuda Triangle to either a circus or a writing workshop. Or worse, I was (not intentionally) cultivating a class that allowed students to sit there like a rock, waiting for the next big moment to occur. There must be more to this “wait-time” strategy.
Many highly recommend using wait-time to engage students. In her recent book, What Our Stories Teach Us: A Guide to Critical Reflection for College Faculty (2012), Linda K. Shadiow said, “I walked into the next class and introduced the focus of the class period and then posed one initial question. I waited, silently counting out five seconds. Students looked up from their notes. I imagined that they wondered if something had happened to me. Instead of racing ahead with my barrage of questions, I waited” (p. 35). The Teaching Center at the Washington University in St. Louis also lists “wait for students to think and formulate responses” as one of the strategies to ask effective questions to improve learning.
I would not say the wait-time strategy fails completely for my class – it just sometimes takes longer than five seconds to get a first response. What should I do if no one budges in five seconds? Should I stand there until the cows come home? Don’t we need a good pedagogical reason to sustain the effort?
In their recent Monday Morning Mentors webinar, “How can I can help my students develop critical thinking skills?” Deb Moon and Rob Jenkins discussed the art of wait-time and suggested that it was important to reinforce the principle of wait-time because you do not want your students to think that they can just sit there and answers will be given to them. If students know that you will not budge unless they take the initiative, they will be more prepared.
To follow their advice, I made some attempts in refraining myself from asking, “Do you have questions?” or “Any questions?” after a 15-20 minutes lecture. Instead, I told my students something like this:
“I do not expect you to have questions for me now. Before I move on to the next round of lecture or course activity, I would like everyone to take a break for one minute or two. Think over what you’ve learned in the past 15 minutes and ask yourself what makes sense and what doesn’t. Share your reflection with your neighbor if you like. If any question comes up, ask away.”
Or something like:
“I have just talked about this school of thought, (e.g., Cultural Relativism). If you were to define this term, “Cultural Relativism” in one sentence, what would you say? Review your notes, come up with one definition using your own words, and discuss with your team members. When your team has the answer, write it on the whiteboard.”
In the next five seconds or so, some tilted their heads falling into some thinking, some read lecture notes looking for something, and others looked up answers using cell phones or laptops. It did not take long for my class to fill with a cacophony of conversation and laughter, which set the stage for us to have an open, rational dialogue about the subject.
The worry of having a Bermuda-Triangle-like classroom dissolves quickly with each addition of student-led responses.
Asking Questions to Improve Learning (2009). The Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis. Available from http://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/strategies/Pages/asking-questions.aspx#.VTwNDGRVhBf
Moon, D. & Jenkins, R. (2015). “How Can I Help my Students Develop Critical Thinking Skills?” Available from http://www.magnapubs.com/online/mentor/
Shadiow, L. K. (2012). What our stories teach us: A guide to critical reflection for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.