This term I am teaching a very quiet precalculus class. I am having trouble getting students to answer questions or respond to verbal prompts, even questions I know they can answer. What I initially chalked up to first-day shyness has persisted into the 3rd week of class, so I'm reaching out. This is unusual for me, and all of my usual tricks are failing.
- Students will not answer basic questions from me.
- Students will not work with or talk to each other (they sit at tables of four), even when I give very clear instructions on that point.
Why This Matters to Me:
Creating dialogue is, at least, an educational habit I've long had. When I show an example, I am always asking questions of the class so they can take part in the work, laboring to understand why certain steps are taken and how to avoid common pitfalls. At their most basic level, these questions can involve recall of basic, level-appropriate facts ("what is the period of sin(x)?" or "which side of the triangle is the hypotenuse?"). On the other end of the spectrum, I will ask concept or open-ended questions, or try to play devil's advocate. I have now nearly ceased asking questions as I can anticipate a full 15 seconds without an answer from my class (I generally will not wait longer than this before giving the answer to a basic-fact question or just asking a different question). If my question was too hard, I will ask a simpler one to the same effect. I have relied on this verbal feedback from students so that:
- I can tell that someone is following the argument I'm making.
- Hearing fellow students answer basic questions sets an expectation for the class about what things they should know or be learning.
- I can get the students' consent to make an aside comment or touch on tangential information.
- I can give students the opportunity to give their own ideas or pose their own questions about a problem.
- (maybe more important than I'd like to admit) I don't feel like I'm just engaging in mathematical performance art in front of an audience.
I want my students to learn to talk to each other, as appropriate, when they solve a problem. I also want them to take a basic direction from their instructor. I think my students (these are mostly engineering or science majors) should be discussing the work with each other, able to ask and/or answer questions about a solving process. When I pose an involved problem for them to solve, often my first direction (after I read the problem statement or ask them to read it for themselves) is for them to just talk together for 1-2 minutes about ideas for how to approach the problem. I want everyone on the same page so that nobody just sits there without any idea of what to do. I'll be very specific about what I want them to do. Example:
"Don't take out your calculator yet. First just try to correctly draw the situation from the problem, and label what what numbers you know. I will give you 1 minute to draw. Then share your drawing with your group and see if you can improve it in any way before we jump in and do any algebra."
After a minute, I'll say:
"OK -- that was a full minute. Now everyone take a minute to share your drawing with the group. See if you have all the important details or if you forgot something. Ready...go."
[Absolute silence. No sharing of papers. Maybe one person glances at the person's paper next to them without saying anything.]
What I want:
In a math class where you receive almost no verbal feedback from your students, how do you encourage it? I want to address this as pertains to a math classroom, so I'm looking for your experience -- that is why I'm asking this here (not at the general education stack exchange). I want to help foster communication in my class while still teaching the topic at hand.
Do you have any math-specific activities/strategies that encourage student/instructor and student/student communication? Have they helped you with a particularly quiet class?
Finally, this class is generally doing fine on individual assessments. Am I just asking or expecting too much from this group?