The worst time for me in a workshop or presentation are those five or 10 minutes before the start time when the faculty participants are arriving. My stomach is in knots. I'm wishing I were at home. I know I haven't prepared enough. Somebody is going to ask me a question I can't answer. I get through it by using a technique I happened on when I was teaching. I use the time to chat. In workshops, I pass out handouts, introduce myself, and find out about those who have chosen to attend the session. “What do you teach?” “Where does that course fit in the program?” “How big are your classes?” “How's the semester going?” Listening to others means less time thinking about myself, but I've also learned it's a good way to find out firsthand some things about those attending. It's also a way of connecting—physically close, at conversational distances, looking and sounding like a real person, and discovering that when seen up close the audience is full of real people as well.
I started doing this when I was still teaching, and again I was motivated by the need to do something other than be nervous before class started. I walked to different parts of the room and chatted. I could find out what other courses students were taking and what they might be learning in those courses. Sometimes they said “nothing,” and I replied with feigned horror, “Oh no, that can't possibly be true! All that time and money, and you haven't learned a thing?”
In the beginning (and sometimes later) the conversations feel a bit awkward. Students are clearly uncomfortable. The teacher is in their space. They are sitting and the teacher is standing—that reinforces the power differential between teacher and student. The two are known to each other only in these roles, teacher or student. They aren't (and shouldn't be) friends in the buddy-buddy sense. So the conversations aren't all that natural. The onus is definitely on the teacher to initiate and carry the exchange. Students don't dive right in with “Oh, I'm so glad you're here. There's something I've been wanting to ask you.”
I was delighted to find a short article in a recent issue of College Teaching that offers teachers some help with these conversations. The author, Tony Docan-Morgan, has also found that these exchanges advance a number of important learning-related objectives. But what's most useful in his piece are his very concrete suggestions about what questions teachers might ask students as they seek to “mingle” with them before class. He organizes the questions into three areas, listed below with some of the questions he recommends.
General greeting questions—“How are you?” “What's your major?” “How's the semester going?” “What's new?” “What activities are keeping you busy on campus?”
Course assignment questions—“What questions do you have about upcoming assignments?” “How are you doing on assignment X?” “What kind of progress are you making?” “What help do you need with this assignment?” In this category, I liked to ask about assignments after the fact. “So, what did you learn from this assignment that you think you'll still remember next year?” “Did you learn anything about yourself as a learner doing this assignment?” “If I use this assignment next time I teach this course, would you recommend any changes?” “What made the assignment easy?” “What made it difficult?”
Course content review questions—There is need for caution here. If students feel as though you're grilling them on the content, they aren't going to be willing participants in the exchange. Docan-Morgan explains his approach. “When asking these questions, I do so in a non-face-threatening and/or humorous manner.” (p. 117) Examples: “If someone paid you $100 to explain what you think is the most important takeaway point from the content in our current unit, what would you say?” “Let's pretend you're creating fortune cookies for our class—if you have to write a fortune based on content we've been learning about this week, what would you write?” “In a nutshell or two, what did you take away from our last class period?”
Reference: Docan-Morgan, T., (2014). Mingling with students before class: What to ask. College Teaching, 62 (3), 117.