As an online tutor, my job is ostensibly to help students with any questions they have while they’re taking online courses. We often communicate by chatting, and students complete a short survey before the chat begins that allows them to submit their question. They’re given lots of space to type out their questions, and can be as specific as they’d like.
It rains more in Arizona than a question appears in question format.
Students make statements. They write, “I am writing a paragraph,” or “I can’t figure out this equation.” Occasionally, they copy and paste the actual question they’re working on, which is helpful but doesn’t specify what issue the student is having with it. Most commonly, students simply state, “I need help,” and don’t say what they need help with. Thus begins the game of 20 questions familiar to teachers the world over. It can be frustrating for the instructor, but I’m sure it’s even more frustrating for the students who don’t know how to ask questions to get the answers they need.
When we teach students how to ask questions and, consequently, make demands of their education, we are helping them play a more active role in their own education, as well as helping them grow personally. We all recognize the importance of empowerment, but what are some ways we can lessen the social barriers and the stigma of admitting you don’t know something, and just plain teach students how to ask better questions?
Clear the Pathways of Communication
Give students clear permission to ask questions, and establish clear systems for how students can seek help. And don’t just do this by telling them to raise a hand in class. Make sure students have a clear understanding of your office hours, tutoring sessions, and how to reach you by email, text, and/or phone. If they have access to outside resources, make sure they know how to use them. If your school is lucky enough to have a librarian, introduce him or her to your students and make sure they know the librarian’s name and how to access the library. Try to provide multiple methods and people for students to turn to for help and guidance, and have at least one way for students to ask their questions without an audience of peers. Incentivize asking questions or being engaged in tutoring sessions, maybe with extra credit or by letting students re-do an assignment for a better grade.
Create an Environment of Self-Advocacy
Many students feel like asking a question is tantamount to admitting they’re stupid. Head this off by establishing an environment where it’s clear that the best students are the ones who aren’t afraid to ask questions. We as teachers already know that the students who actively ask questions are the ones who are engaged, so make this apparent and encourage students to participate. Do this by giving positive feedback every time you’re asked a question, like, “Juan is clearly paying attention!” or “That’s the kind of question I love to hear.” Turn the student who’s willing to ask the question into the hero: “Great question June. I bet a lot of your classmates were asking themselves the same thing. Thank you for helping them out!” Set the expectation that no one would take a class if they already knew everything, and that you expect everyone will need clarification at some point. A student who can comfortably ask a question is free of their inhibitions about being wrong.
Pull Back the Curtain and Teach Students How to Ask Questions
With all that rides on testing, why on earth would we hide how we ask questions on tests or in class? Here are some tips to help you teach students how to ask questions by unveiling how YOU do it:
- Remember that teacher’s 20-questions game? By empowering students to do this investigation before reaching out to someone else for help, you’re teaching them to evaluate their own comprehension, and pinpoint where they’re struggling. Teach students to ask the following questions of themselves before coming to you for help:
- What was the last part of this lesson I understood?
- Was it this new material that I don’t understand (for example, slope) or have I forgotten an old skill (like how fractions work)?
- What’s an example of a problem I can’t solve from my homework?
- How do you, as an educator, prefer to be asked a question? When and where? Set clear expectations for inquiries, and be consistent.
- Explain the different types of questions, like whether a question is open or closed.
- Teach students how tests are written, and let students try their hand at writing a test. Teach them all the tricks of the trade, like how multiple-choice questions will have a distractor or how units of measure might be labeled in a strange way to see if students are paying attention. You can relieve test anxiety and teach students how to ask questions at the same time.
Taking the time to work with your students to develop self-advocacy and empower themselves is rewarding for both teachers and especially students. Doing so also helps out their future teachers (and bosses, coworkers, and more!), so let’s all find ways to teach students to ask good questions!
Bowker, M. H. (2010). Teaching students to ask questions instead of answering them. Thought & Action, Fall, 127–134. Retrieved from https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/sites.udel.edu/dist/2/719/files/2013/06/bowker-2010-teaching-students-to-ask-questions-16echtl.pdf
Schwartz, K. (2018, May 21). How helping students to ask better questions can transform classrooms. MindShift. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/51186/how-helping-students-to-ask-better-questions-can-transform-classrooms
Winner, M. G. (2014, April 1). Thoughts on encouraging students to ask for help. Social Thinking. Retrieved from https://www.socialthinking.com/Articles?id=037c3becf85a45b0878e3172722c3459