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Get them asking questions!

Marc Peabody
pie sneak
Sheriff

Joined: Feb 05, 2003
Posts: 4727

It's common for an instructor to announce that they wants the group to participate with questions and to speak up when something is not clear. Unfortunately, some of these same instructors seem to get frustrated when questions are asked. I want to be like the good instructors.

In leading a class recently, I found that the group often apologized for raising questions despite my attempts at encouraging more and more. I'm looking for ideas that could increase a class's comfort with asking questions and not feeling guilty or embarrassed for it.

At the No Fluff conference, many seminar leaders offered free books for the "best question of the session." I'm not completely sure that such a bribe works, despite the fact that it's always fun to win free stuff.

Back in my school years some professors made "class participation" part of the grade so that not interacting could affectively lower your grade in the class. This almost feels like blackmail and I hated being coerced into participation like that.


A good workman is known by his tools.
Ilja Preuss
author
Sheriff

Joined: Jul 11, 2001
Posts: 14112
I agree with you that neither bribes nor punishment are likely to give you the good contributions you'd like.

I recently had an interesting experience with holding the exact same tutorial twice - and once getting great discussions, the other time only very few.

The basic difference was that in the former audience, people knew me and each other quite well, in the latter people were foreigners to each other.

My current conclusion is that it probably would be good to put some trust building experiences at the beginning - perhaps some group activities or something. I'm not yet fully sure how to do that, though...


The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny - it is the light that guides your way. - Heraclitus
Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8815
    
    5
We tend to start workshops with a very non-theatening, small group activity. We've been doing variations on "creating passionate users" so we have a nice built-in topic - we ask them to share a current "passion" with the others in the group, with extra bonus points for the most unusual passions. It seems like this raises the energy level, and loosens everyone up a bit. While other topics might not be quite as inherently energizing, I imagine the same technique would still apply.

I'm not at home now, so I might get this title a little wrong, but we recently found a book called, (something like), "What the best college instructors do". It's fantastic!!! Somewhere in there is a quote from a calculus instructor who says that his goal is that by the end of the semester his students feel like they invented calculus. cool.


Spot false dilemmas now, ask me how!
(If you're not on the edge, you're taking up too much room.)
James Chegwidden
Author
Ranch Hand

Joined: Oct 06, 2002
Posts: 201
There is a published article/newletter called "The Teaching Professor" for college and university instructors. They have different articles from over certain ideas some that would be an interesting read would be.

"Working in Groups- Understanding but not Applying"
"10 Worthwhile Considerations for Improving Lectures"

"The Effects of Instructional Methods on Student Learning"

"Students Formulating Their Own Exam Questions"

"Contract Grading Options Reveal Level of Student Involvement"


And for Bert:

"Motivating Students: 8 Simple Rules for Teachers"

"How Faculty Learn to Teach Better"

"An Eloquent, Insightful Teaching Philosophy Statement"

"What Motivates Students?"

"What Does it Mean to "Make a Difference" in Students' Lives"

From Innovation Abstracts:

"Pop tests: Valuable Instructional Tools"

Finally From Elder & Paul

"How to Improve Student Learning 30 Practical Ideas"
"The Foundations of Analytical Thinking"


I have all of these scaned in as PDF..Let me know if any of you would be interested in any of these JC


Author and Instructor, my book
Marc Peabody
pie sneak
Sheriff

Joined: Feb 05, 2003
Posts: 4727

What the Best College Teachers Do
I've read that, Bert. For a while I was reading every book mentioned in the CPU blog - Mind Hacks, Blue Ocean, PowerPoint... anyway it is a really cool book!

I think there must be something to getting people comfortable with participation at the beginning of each day. The first day I got lots of participation. I started that day out by asking people to give their names and a brief intro about their background and experience. Coincidence?

After lunch in the middle of the week we played a quick round of TextTwist (Yahoo games) where everyone had to shout out the words and I'd add them to my computer displayed on the projector. That may have increased participation a little, but boy it was a tough act to follow trying to make JDBC labs anywhere near as exciting!
[ July 27, 2006: Message edited by: Marc Peabody ]
Bert Bates
author
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 14, 2002
Posts: 8815
    
    5
I think there must be something to getting people comfortable with participation at the beginning of each day


This is really funny - our horse trainer tells us that horses vote for "alpha" horse every day

I have observed that in our workshops, we start with interaction early, and we keep the level of interaction going multiple times every day. One of the theories we trust is that memory improves at the beginnings and ends of "episodes" (episode being a very loose term). So we try to create lots of little chunks - no big long lectures (we would consider 30 minutes without interaction to be too long.)
Michael Farinha
Greenhorn

Joined: Jun 16, 2006
Posts: 26
I'm currently a college student at Sacramento State University and I'll be graduating this December. This summer I am taking my last G.E. course, Intro to Anthropology. I ask a lot of questions in this course and participate quite a bit. Reading through this post got me thinking about 'why' I ask a lot of questions. The obvious answer was, 'because I find it interesting.' In particular I find the topic, not necessarily the teacher, interesting so I want to learn more about it. Also, my major has absolutely nothing to do with Anthropology; my major is MIS.

So I guess the next question is why do I want to learn about Anthro?

I'd have to say there are two reasons (I'm not sure if this adds anything to the conversation so take it for what its worth).
  • Because I find the subject matter of where humans came from fascinating
  • Because of the current debate surrounding evolution and intelligent design/creationism. I want to be informed on the topic.


  • I think ultimately the subject matter will determine who will ask questions and who will just sit through a class. However, I also think the teacher can help facilitate interest in the subject matter through the proper use of motivation, inspiration, and presentation.

    Hope this adds something to the conversation.

    -Mike
    Marc Peabody
    pie sneak
    Sheriff

    Joined: Feb 05, 2003
    Posts: 4727

    Mike, do you believe that your interest in the topic was as strong before taking the class? I'm curious if your professor used current debates to get the class into discussion and fuel motivation.

    What the Best College Teachers Do states:
    Teachers succeed in grabbing students' attention by beginning a lecture with a provocative question or problem that raises issues in ways that students had never though about before, or by using stimulating case studies or goal-based scenarios.

    To gain students' attention and hold it for some higher purpose, the best teachers start with something that, as Sandel put it, "students care about, know, or think they know, rather than just lay out a blueprint or an outline or tale or theory or account of our own."
    Marc Peabody
    pie sneak
    Sheriff

    Joined: Feb 05, 2003
    Posts: 4727

    I have to laugh at myself a little.

    I've been trying to figure out how to make Java topics more interesting to a class. I started trailing off on this great idea of fabricating fake businesses, users, etc. that have requirements for solving some small problem at the beginning of each chapter. The materials of the chapter reveal how to solve the problem and then a short lab at the end would allow the class to implement the solution to the problem stated at the beginning.

    I got to feeling pretty proud of myself for the "original" idea until I realized that I was basically describing the Head First Java book. *Sigh* Maybe they'll let me use HFJ as the textbook for a future class.
    James Chegwidden
    Author
    Ranch Hand

    Joined: Oct 06, 2002
    Posts: 201
    Marc,

    Why would they not let you use the HFJ in your class. I use it as an optional book.

    Just curious you have no say in what book you teach out of...
    Michael Farinha
    Greenhorn

    Joined: Jun 16, 2006
    Posts: 26
    Marc,

    I can say that I've had a passive interest in the subject. I knew that I needed to be more informed on the subject if I were to ever intelligently discuss the topic. However it's not a topic that comes up often enough to motivate me enough to pursue this topic for the sheer joy of learning it. But it being a G.E. class is a good excuse to take it.

    I've also wondered why teachers choose the books they do.
    I loath most text books I've purchased.
    Dianne Doss
    Greenhorn

    Joined: Aug 18, 2006
    Posts: 17
    Also a greenhorn,...not an author,...wandered in here because I thoroughly enjoy the Head First books, which took me into the only other thread listed here.

    I'm also one of those students that is not afraid to ask questions. I would agree with Mike, that it is probably because I am interested in the topic - or can find something interesting in the topic.

    When I was in college, I tutored students in Physics,...I found that it was a lot easier to teach someone a concept when I could relate it to something that they already understood. Physics can be a scary topic, but talking about driving a car is a non-stressor.

    So, maybe the best approach (for getting interaction with entirely new groups each time) is:
    - assess the group ahead of time, to think up things they might have in common
    - have a little getting to know you section in the beginning
    - and it always helps to have freebies for people that speak up

    Knowing that you can't realistically create your presentation on the fly, thinking about the group ahead of time, might provide you with an idea for a common story to work with - teaching in SanFrancisco, maybe create a project based on breaking out of Alcatraz - lecturing at a college, maybe create a project based on something about the college. In this way, you connect with the participants, into something that they already know/understand.

    Having the getting to know you section, might help people to loosen up, get over some initial stage fright, and then be able to participate more.

    And freebies sometimes loosen the most non-talkative,...setting restrictions on us talkative people, so that we don't get all of the goodies.

    two cents,
    Ilja Preuss
    author
    Sheriff

    Joined: Jul 11, 2001
    Posts: 14112
    I'm currently reading "Agile Retrospectives" (and like it very much, by the way), and they a have a nice, simple trick to get more people to participate: get everyone to say one or two words at the very beginning, and if it's only their name. Someone who contributed something during the first five minutes seems to be much more likely to continue to do so.

    Probably doesn't work that well for bigger groups, but for small groups it sounds quite intriguing...
     
    It is sorta covered in the JavaRanch Style Guide.
     
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