“How do I find out what questions students have about what we’re doing in class? In class, I ask for questions, but only a couple of students – and often the same students – ask questions. I don’t want to wait until the exam or project to find out that students didn’t understand something adequately.”
That was a question I was asked by a colleague who was teaching a course for the first time.
If you’ve taught, you know the experience of looking at your students in the classroom and wondering how they are processing what you’re saying.
We may make a decision about what they are understanding based on non-verbal cues. We conclude that they understand because they are nodding or smiling or taking notes or laughing at our jokes. But does that mean they really understand the key points?
We also may think some students aren’t following us because they aren’t giving us direct eye contact or seem to be doodling. But in some cultures, giving direct eye contact is perceived as being rude or confrontational. Those who doodle may be using that strategy to focus on what you’re saying or are creating doodles to connect with the course content.
You can ask for questions, but if no one asks a question that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone understands. Students may be embarrassed to ask a question with the whole class listening. Or you may not allow enough time for students to process their questions before you move on.
Finding out what questions your students have about the course content can be done in a number of ways. For this post, I’ll suggest one strategy – the Paper Tweet.
I discovered this technique when I observed a 100-student lecture course taught by a graduate student.
About 10 minutes before the end of class, each student received a colored slip of paper. The instructor directed the students to write a “tweet” responding to two questions related to that day’s class. The questions were on the slip of paper.
The students were given about two minutes to write their answers. The instructor reminded the students that the answers should be specific and concise.
The slips were collected, and then the instructor continued class.
After the class, I asked the instructor about her use of Paper Tweets.
The Paper Tweets were used to award class participation points as well as help her determine the students’ perceptions about the course and determine what questions they had. I could tell by the students’ response that they liked the social media connection of the activity. Just calling the activity “Paper Tweeting” made it more interesting.
I thought the Paper Tweet was a clever idea and have incorporated the strategy into my classes.
Here are a few suggestions in using the Paper Tweet.
1. You can design specific questions for each class, or you can use general questions as I did with the sample Paper Tweet I’ve included in this post.
2. You can use Paper Tweets at one of several times in a class period.
- Early in the class period — You can have them write their responses early in the class period to help them think about what questions they have regarding a homework assignment or content from the previous class. You can address those questions and then make the transition into that day’s content.
- During class — In the big class I’ve taught, I typically have a teaching assistant working with me. So we can do the Paper Tweet activity and my TA can quickly read through the students’ questions and then raise the major questions before class is over, enabling us to clarify issues right then.
- Near the end of class period — If you use the Paper Tweet near the end of class, do so as the graduate student did whom I observed. Have the students respond, collect their responses, and then continue with the rest of class. If you do the Paper Tweet as the last activity of class, many students will rush their response in order to have class end sooner.
3. If possible, you want to provide the slips of paper rather than asking students to use their own paper – as many students don’t carry paper to class. By providing the slips and varying the color each time, you make it more difficult for students who missed class to arrive in the next class session saying they forgot to turn in the Paper Tweet and giving you responses they wrote on other paper.
4. You may decide that you want to modify the Paper Tweet to be done during class in the course management system rather than on paper. As you know, there are advantages and disadvantages to paper vs. online activities.
5. Remember that many new class activities require some coaching on your part. For example, after you use the Paper Tweet for the first time, in the next class session, you may want to read a few to illustrate some do’s and don’ts. Then the next time you have students write Paper Tweets, remind them of the directions.