Good Job! Responding to student answers in order to spur learning

Steve Volk, September 19, 2016

Me: In the chapter you were reading this week, Silverblatt argued that the Spanish inquisition as carried out in Peru in the 17th century was a “modern” institution. Would you agree and how does her argument fit with what we’ve been discussing in class?

Student: This chapter really made me think about what “modern” actually means in terms of what we’ve been talking about. I mean, the Inquisition seemed to have a whole bureaucracy that went with it and even thought it followed different sorts of rules than we have now, there still were rules and procedures for actions that seemed to treat everyone who got caught up in it equally. It makes me think that Spanish colonialism was attempting a new approach to control that brought it into new territory.

Me: Good job!

You: I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

Sheet Music, NY Public Library, 1896

Sheet Music, NY Public Library, 1896

The bread and butter of much of what we do in the classroom involves questions and answers. Whether the class is fully discussion-based or primarily lecture-driven, our questions – and the students’ responses – are a critical way to engage learning, assess who has done the work we assigned, discover what questions remain, and edge into new territory. The “Q&A” of a class is probably the prime argument for face-to-face, synchronous learning since it is in these question and answer exchanges that we often discover the most productive, and unplanned, learning opportunities.

In earlier articles (here and here, for example), I’ve written about ways to foster or organize discussions in class. But the casual, usually unplanned, questions we scatter about, and the answers they elicit, are a much more common occurrence in the classroom. They are like seeds to the soil, each with the possibility of germinating and growing into full-fledged discussions and greater insights.

We all employ a standard set of questions types that we use in discussions, some of which are more productive than others:

The question that we use to see if the students did the reading, were paying attention in class, or can bring in new information to help the conversation: “So, what else was going on in Europe when Stravinsky composed the ‘Rite of Spring’?”

The more unfortunate can-you-guess-what-I-have-in-my-mind question: “Remember what we were talking about at the start of the semester? How does that relate to today’s reading?”

The generative question that doesn’t have a single answer but can promote a fruitful discussion: “What would life on earth be like if our planet had a weaker gravitational pull?”

The time-to-move-to-a-new-issue question that is guaranteed to produce no answers at all: “Any questions at this point?”

For now, however, I’m more interested in how we respond to student answers than in how we ask questions. And so, my question to you:

Are there ways to respond to a student’s answer that can model the kinds of inquiry, discussion, and interactions that we see as an important part of their learning?

In this, I’m particularly interested in – can you guess what’s on my mind? Anyone? Anyone? – how we respond to students who give what we think of as the best answers to our questions, i.e., the student in the opening dialogue who was right on target.

Stewit – Flickr cc.

Stewit – Flickr cc.

When They Are Wrong

To begin: There are a lot of ways to deal with answers that are either factually wrong or otherwise off base, and we all know them. I don’t believe it’s ever appropriate to demean or embarrass the student in the Kingsfieldian mode of “Paper Chase” (“Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”) To my mind, such a degrading response is not a demonstration of “tough love” or hardening our “coddled” students for “the real world.” Such a response only reinforces what they already know: that we hold power over them. Correction should be about guiding learning, not deriding the learner.

You can simply say: “Nope, not right,” and invite other students to have a go at it. Depending on the nature of the question (i.e., something other than a simple fact), you can try to find out where the first student went wrong, which is almost always more productive than simply coming up with the correct answer. Such an approach embodies the assurance that the first student has the capacity to come up with the right answer, and that her misstep is a common one that can produce greater insight for the class as a whole.

You can move on to another answer without responding to the first (incorrect) answer, hoping that the next student will be able to provide the correct information, at which point – and, again depending on how important the issue is – you can ask the student who got the right answer to explain how she got there.

Hart Schaffner & Marx, Chicago, c. 1919, New York Public Library

Hart Schaffner & Marx, Chicago, c. 1919, New York Public Library

In domains where there really aren’t “correct” answers, your responses will be geared to the characteristics of the student’s answer:

  • That’s a good point, but it’s not what we’re exploring here (and either suggest you’ll come back to it or just drop it);
  • Interesting observation: can you tell me what evidence you used to get to that conclusion since I wouldn’t have gone there myself?
  • Nope: Voltaire died before John Stuart Mill was born, so it’s pretty hard to argue that Mill influenced Voltaire’s work. But what’s the connection you see between Mill and Voltaire?

When They Are Unclear

A lot of times, I find myself unable to understand what a student is arguing (sometimes because I literally can’t hear them: Can you repeat that?). Probably more than I should, I’ll say “Uh huh” and move on to someone else. When I’m on my game, I’ll ask the student to repeat the answer, saying I’m not sure that I understood it, or ask if there are other students who can clarify the answer for the class. If it’s clear where the student’s “misdirection” is coming from, I’ll try to point it out. Or, if there are terms used in the answer that I either don’t understand or think the student is using incorrectly, I’ll try to focus on that. Often this is a way that students can bring knowledge gained in another class into your class, to everyone’s benefit.

When They Are Right

"Questions," Emily 2005, Flickr cc

“Questions,” Emily 2005, Flickr cc

We have a number of standard responses to answers that are “correct” (i.e., provide accurate factual information, present a strong analysis, accurately sum up an author’s argument, etc.). Most often, we’ll just give some affirmative confirmation: Yes! Exactly! Right! Good job!

But I would argue that how we respond to the student who provides an informed answer is even more important than how we respond to incorrect answers since our response allows us to model the kind of inquiry we’re interested in promoting. Factually correct responses can just be affirmed, often by repeating and rephrasing the answer for emphasis and clarity: yes, photosynthesis is the process used by plants (and some other organisms) to convert light energy into chemical energy.

For deeper questions, open-ended and analytical, affirming the correctness of a student’s answer with a “Good job!” doesn’t help the other students (or even the student who answered) understand why that answer is a good one, or, more generally, what makes for a good answer other than its “correctness.”. It’s important to take the time (again, when dealing with what you consider to be the most critical issues) to explain more: “Great. Here’s what I thought was important about your answer: you explained it on the basis of evidence from the readings and even noted what Katie said in class last week; you extended some of the arguments we have been making in class, and you even suggested some problems you had with Freud’s analysis, putting forward your own interpretations.” At which point you can ask others in the class whether they agree with the student’s critique of Freud.

What’s being modeled is that arguments are based on evidence, that evidence can be gathered from many sources, that it’s important for students to listen to each other in class as well as you, since good discussions are often at the basis of their learning, that insightful analysis can produce good critiques, and that it’s important to take a bit of a risk and challenge some of the ideas that have an authoritative standing.

Granted, not every response will be as thorough, and sometimes we’ll just say “Exactly!” when a student gives a thoughtful answer, but slipping in some of these more extended responses can be of great help for all in the class.

A Culturally Responsive Approach

Finally, one critical element of responding to students in class is the ability to listen deeply and with an awareness of cultural differences among our students. Culturally responsive teaching, as Pedro Noguera argues, recognizes that we need to be teaching the way that students learn, rather than expecting students to learn the way that we teach. Lisa Delpit, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Educational Excellence at Florida International University and a graduate of Antioch College, stresses that while the main resource we bring to the classroom is our own expert knowledge, this knowledge is layered on the skills and knowledge that our students have brought with them. The knowledge that is gained, say, growing up on the south side of Chicago may not be reflected in the text by a prominent urban sociologist we have assigned.  But when that lived knowledge is cited by a student as evidence for an argument it deserves to be heard and treated as important information to be considered seriously rather than dismissed out of hand.

John Dewey, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, New York Public Library

John Dewey, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, New York Public Library

In many ways this is an expansion of arguments that John Dewey introduced in The School and Society (1899). Dewey argued that school curricula (he was talking about younger students, to be sure) should be student-centered, based on students’ own interests. This doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t teach physics or economics if students aren’t “interested” in them, but that teachers can support more learning by connecting each student’s life experiences and interests to the existing curriculum. Raising questions and responding to answers in culturally responsive ways can help do this work.

And now, about the Spanish inquisition…

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