Most of us have experienced the dreaded quiet class. Typically, it’s the class where only a few students speak and it’s always the same three or four. Everyone else sits passively and waits out the clock. For those classes and others, I’ve found a question of the day an effective method of promoting participation.
It’s an approach that gets students thinking and speaking on a course-related topic. The expectations are that everyone speaks and all answers are accepted and welcome. Sometimes the question of the day assesses student’s prior knowledge of the topic; sometimes it asks for an opinion, and sometimes it asks for an application of a course concept. Typically, the class session starts with the question of the day. I use it to set the day’s learning purpose. Each student provides a brief response, typically taking no more than 20 seconds.
The method doesn’t need to be used every class session, but it could be. It works best if you let students know that you are interested in their thoughts on a topic and are not asking questions that have a single right answer. I recommend asking divergent questions related to the topic of the day. If that is not possible, the question should relate to course objectives or outcomes. I provide the question in writing (on the board or projected) to help students who process information visually. It’s also important to give students some think time after you’ve posed the question and to remind them that they should offer a concise response. You may want to ask in advance if a particular student would lead off with the first answer. I start with a different student each day. After the last student has responded, I thank students for their participation and summarize key ideas. If you keep track of the questions you’ve asked, you can use them the next time you teach the course.
The method has numerous applications and can be used in small and large classes, with some adaptations. Here are a few variations that I have explored.
- Provide the question in advance by sharing it on Blackboard or through your course management system. This helps students who feel pressure to speak when they aren’t prepared, are anxious about speaking, or need more time to think.
- In large classes, have partners share with each other. This variation still meets the method’s goals and creates an intimate sharing space. Encourage students to share with a different partner each class session.
- Decide if it is permissible for students to pass on a question, perhaps limiting the number of passes. Interestingly, no student has ever passed on any of my questions after two years of implementing the method.
- Decide if students can repeat a response already presented by someone else. This may depend on the question and how many different responses are possible. If duplicate answers are acceptable, then students should focus on explaining their answer.
- If time allows, pose a question at the beginning of class and a different (or the same) question at the close of class. If the question asks about students’ level of knowledge or confidence on a certain topic, the same question can serve as a pre- and post-assessment after a class discussion, lecture, or other learning activity.
- Rather than having students share in a predicable order, randomly call on students, but be sure that all students are asked to participate.
In my courses, the impact of this method has been significant. Students have indicated that they look forward to seeing the question of the day written on the board when they arrive. Several students have mentioned that the question of the day lets them know that I care about them and am interested in their thoughts and ideas. It’s a method that creates a safe environment for sharing. I noticed typically quiet students volunteering more frequently after I started using this method. I also learned a great deal about students by just asking a question. In small classes, the question for the day doesn’t take long, and the time it takes has numerous payoffs.
Greg Conderman is a professor in the Department of Early and Special Education at Northern Illinois University.