Faculty Focus


What Are Students Telling You by the Questions They Ask?

A few years ago I had a student, one of the best in her high school class, who told me she hadn’t completed an online college-credit course because she was afraid of the “system,” which she thought was too anonymous and impersonal. Online instructors have to be able to spot such worries and spot them early, and then help students overcome their fears.

This can be tricky. Problems, like people, are all different. How do you know when a student is intimidated? And how do you know what worries him or her? How do you know which students need what kinds of help?

How do you do it? Listen to the questions they ask. The questions students ask often tell you the real problems that have to be addressed.

Higher-order questions. These questions demonstrate that the student already has a good grasp of academic content and is trying to find ways to develop this knowledge into deeper understanding. Moreover, this student is confident in the online environment. Give encouragement and ask reflective questions. Request that the student analyze, synthesize, and evaluate academic content. Push the student to even higher levels of achievement by way of ongoing engagement.

Content-specific questions. You really have to interact with this student because content questions are calls for information. Probably in many cases, this information could have been found in the text or electronic resources. You have to wonder why the student didn’t find it. Was it lack of interest or insufficient time to do the work properly? Was it due to reading problems or was the student confused about the assignment or procedure? On the other hand, the student may be trying to engage you in a conversation, which would be a good thing. So which is it…a problem or an opportunity?

The goal with this student is to keep the conversation going. The questions you ask must be those that require the student to actually use materials. That is, they should be application questions that require understanding of facts, not just knowledge of them. If a student cannot reply appropriately, then chances are good that he or she is struggling, and knowing this, you can work to understand and respond better to help this student succeed.

Process questions. This student is puzzled and is really asking for you to do some hand-holding. He or she is lost…and it may not be due to challenging content. Maybe the student doesn’t know how to move around in the electronic environment; how to use important program features; or how to submit materials, questions, or attachments.

The “process questioner” can take a lot of your time because he or she doesn’t really know how to use the system and might be trying, without success, to submit materials, join chats, or otherwise navigate the online environment. Depending upon the program involved, this may require some reteaching, which may or may not be your responsibility or area of expertise. Nevertheless, it is important because this student will soon become discouraged and take a negative attitude, saying essentially, “This is too hard; no one can help me—I can’t do it.” So it is important to identify this issue quickly and then address it before the student becomes a dropout.

Silence. This is a problem. The student who is essentially silent, asks nothing, and communicates little is hard to know. Is this silence because the student is brilliant or bored…or is it something else? How can you tell? Sometimes this student is doing just fine, but sometimes is struggling without knowing why. You don’t know either.

Do everything possible to start a conversation. Ask questions, directly, addressing the student by name. Ask the student to ask questions in return. It’s hard to do this in an online setting because students are not sitting in front of you in a classroom. But you cannot know these students until they speak, and only when they do will you know how to address their needs.

It may seem strange, since teachers are used to asking questions, but one of the best ways to help in the online classroom is to listen to students ask theirs. What they ask can tell you what help or encouragement they need and what will help them best succeed.

James R. Keating is an English instructor at Butler University in Indianapolis.

Excerpted from Keating, James R. “Listening to the Questions They Ask (Embedded in the Questions They Ask Are the Real Issues Students Worry About).” Online Classroom, July 2010, 1,5. Print.