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An easy way to get students to ask questions

Posted by

Anonymous userMy best idea as of late

I’ve taught online classes for over 10 years and I’m still coming up with new ideas to help students. I don’t like to introduce new structure to the class once things have started rolling, but this seemed like a worthwhile idea and I wanted to implement it: I created a new discussion topic for my statistics students titled Ask your “dumb” questions here.

This is the description I gave to the discussion topic:

Your instructor says there are no dumb questions! You are learning, so how can you be expected to know it all? Students may disagree (because they can be hard on themselves). Use this topic to post your “dumb questions”, or even ask questions that you think you know the answer to, but want that extra confirmation.

Why? Your instructor wants you to get your questions answered, but she fears questions go unanswered because students think the questions is a “dumb question”.

Please be sure to post anonymously. (There is a little box to check.)

Why all the questions now?

Sure, anonymous posting had been enabled on all discussions topics in the past, but I like to think that it’s the title of the discussion topic that emphasizes that all questions are ok to ask. Or, maybe it’s the red highlighted text in the description that is doing the trick. Whatever the reason, it worked!

Now, part of me feels this discussion topic’s title is a little controversial. You’ll note that the word “dumb” is in quotes to show that the word could have a different meaning. I don’t feel there are dumb questions, yet occasionally students still apologize for asking me questions.

The results

Once the discussion topic went live the questions started rolling in! I’ve never had so many questions asked in a class before and I’m really excited about this. As an online teacher, it can be hard to know if students are struggling if they don’t tell you. I feel that my students are in a better place because they are getting these “little questions” answered so they are confident to complete what is asked of them. Personally, I think that building up the confidence of a student is almost as important as teaching them the material. Almost. :)

an anonymous crowdIdeas for you

Here’s how to implement this type of discussion in your class:

  • Create a discussion topic title that you’re comfortable with, and puts out the “right” message for your students.
  • Give the discussion topic a description that emphasizes that all questions are welcome. (The 8-week Summer Tune-Up mentioned adding descriptions to all your content, too.)
  • Explicitly state that students should check the box to post their question anonymously. Of course, non-anonymous (say that 5 times fast!) questions are welcome!
  • Make sure to check the box “Allow anonymous posts” in the Options of your discussion topic.
  • Subscribe to the discussion topic so you can answer the students’ questions quickly.
  • Make an announcement about the discussion topic near the end in the first week of class. Link to the topic in your announcement. Try not to tell students about the topic on Day 1 since they are already overwhelmed with information.
  • Link to the discussion topic on your Course Home, for easy access.

Ideas to share?

Do you have an idea that has worked to get students to ask questions in your class? If so, share it in the comments below.

About Jennifer Ward

Jennifer Ward has been a mathematics instructor at the Cascade Campus of Portland Community College since 2005. With her master's degree in Statistics from PSU and 10 years of training in online learning, she continues to create an engaging... more »

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x (Comment #31218) by Michele 4 years ago (Comment #31218)

Jennifer: I love this idea!

x (Comment #31226) by Nora Stevens 4 years ago (Comment #31226)

Brilliant! I have added this to all of my classes! Thanks.

x (Comment #31236) by Kara Colley 4 years ago (Comment #31236)

I am going to try this next term. Thanks for the idea!

x (Comment #31251) by Amber Lamadrid 4 years ago (Comment #31251)

Great idea! I have been doing something similar but couldn’t figure out why some students were reluctant to post… re-framing the context of the forum and allowing anonymous posts might just do the job. thanks!

x (Comment #31263) by Kris Fink 4 years ago (Comment #31263)

I have a “Line At the End of Class” Discussion Topic and I just allowed posts to be anonymous! I’ll be curious to see if I get more questions here next term. Thanks.

x (Comment #31291) by bryan 4 years ago (Comment #31291)

I’m a little nervous about doing this. Sometimes, even with people having to be accountable with their names attached, I get pseudo-questions that are more like passive aggressive jabs. For example, “Is anyone else having problems understanding this article assigned for this week?” Or even worse … the student who doesn’t read the syllabus or any of the helpful directions, but keeps asking question after question …
If I don’t know who is posting, I can’t send them a friendly reminder to read the syllabus, etc. The “dumb” wording that you discuss in your posting … I think depends on your on-line persona. Is it in keeping with your persona or not?

x (Comment #31299) by Teresa Wolfe 4 years ago (Comment #31299)

I’ve done this in online courses I’ve taught and it does work well. One problem I’ve had more than students not posting, is one student who is overly exuberant and takes over the discussion forum, posting on everything. This is akin to the student in a face-to-face classroom who is always answering questions or speaking up in class, to the point that other, more introverted students won’t speak up.

Any thoughts on how to get around this or to slow down the overly exuberant poster, to give time for others to chime in?


x (Comment #31314) by Jennifer Ward 4 years ago (Comment #31314)

I love the discussion that this has generated! :D

I’m excited for you all to try this now/next term. You’ll have to report back to me about how it went (good or bad!)

I do find some students just don’t ask questions and some students ask questions that have answers that can be found in the syllabus. I’m ok with “repetitive” questions because I can point back to the syllabus (“Check out the syllabus, under … to find the answer to your question. :D “). Other students will see my responses, too.

x (Comment #31315) by Allie Flanary 4 years ago (Comment #31315)

I applaud this innovative idea, and hope you will continue without using ableist language in the future.

I’m sure there are creative alternatives to “dumb” that could be used.

“Dumb. Refers to d/Deaf or hard of hearing people, people with speech-related disabilities, or people with linguistic or communication disorders or disabilities.” cite: http://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html