Students who are reluctant to ask questions
Summary: What do you do when you find that students are reluctant to ask questions about the class or their homework?
All teachers have experienced students who obviously have questions about the class or their homework but don’t ask even when given the opportunity, and the same can be true for whole classes. For teachers of some nationalities and age groups, this can be more common than students who are happy to stick up their hands. Signs that they have questions they aren’t asking include:
- Reading the instructions on the worksheet after you have finished explaining what they should do (sometimes meaning not following your instructions when the two are not the same).
- Asking each other questions.
- Waiting until the other students start and following their lead.
- Frantically searching for the right exercise when the activity starts, e.g. the CD begins.
- A student who is not such a high level and so must have questions but never asks about anything.
- Many changes when they corrected their own work (e.g. with the answer key or during self-correction of writing) but no questions afterwards.
- Things they haven’t changed when being asked to correct their own written work in the places you have underlined.
- Spending a lot of time doing one thing, e.g. one grammar question or one place they should correct their own written work, or skipping it.
- Reaching for their dictionary or grammar book.
- Quickly scanning their book or flicking through it, e.g. to the grammar section at the back.
- No questions about what you have written even when your handwriting is difficult to read.
- Questions always coming from the same few students.
- No questions after an explanation of a difficult point, an explanation that contradicts what they have been told elsewhere, or an explanation the teacher thinks is probably not the best.
- Many errors and few questions.
- Body language and facial expressions, e.g. looking around hoping someone else will ask a question or fingers lifted off the table as if they were going to raise their hand but couldn’t quite do it.
Reasons why they might be reluctant to ask questions are mainly connected to shyness, language problems, relevance, and the teacher’s and students’ roles. Examples of these and other reasons include:
- They are afraid of asking a silly question.
- They don’t want to be the first person to ask a question.
- They are hoping someone else will ask about the thing they have questions about, or that the teacher will just answer the question anyway.
- They’d prefer not to ask in front of the other students.
- They don’t think they will understand the answer.
- They can’t say their question in English, e.g. because of a lack of grammatical jargon like “adjective”.
- They can’t say their question in correct English and are afraid of making (public) mistakes.
- They need time to think before they can formulate their question.
- They’d prefer to get an explanation in L1.
- They missed a lesson or part of it and are afraid of asking something that has already been covered.
- They think they should already know the answer.
- They want to get student questions stage out of the way quickly and get on with the lesson.
- They have the impression that teachers who ask “Any questions?” are usually just killing time.
- They think they can find answers to all their questions elsewhere, e.g. on Google or in a grammar book, and want to spend class time on other things.
- They aren’t sure if their question is relevant to the topic of the class or the interests of the other students.
- They are only interested in things that are on the test.
- They think they are the only one with that question.
- They are not sure if it is a point that is too trivial to be worth asking about.
- They have too many questions and can’t decide which to ask.
- They are worried that it is too tricky or too big a point and so maybe will take up too much class time.
Teacher’s and students’ roles
- They think that students shouldn’t ask teachers questions, or at least are used to that classroom atmosphere.
- They think that the teacher should anticipate and answer all questions without needing to be asked.
- They want the teacher to decide what they should and shouldn’t know.
- They want to spare the teacher embarrassment of not being able to answer a question.
- They expect the teacher to nominate who should ask questions.
- They are simply not in the habit of asking questions in class.
- They had a negative experience when asking questions before, e.g. a brush off by the teacher, being told the question would be answered later but then it was forgotten about, being laughed at, or other students looking bored while their question was being answered.
- They think they dominate too much and so are waiting for questions from others.
What student questions we want and why
As we have seen, there are many reasons why student might not want to ask questions, and some of them are legitimate (e.g. wanting to spend class time on other things) or connected to intractable things like personality. It could therefore be argued that students who don’t want to ask questions should just be given that choice. However, there are plenty of reasons why we might want all our students to ask us questions:
- The questions we are asked give us information about our students and how they are receiving the classes, so it helps us tailor our classes to their level, interests and needs. It can also help us give them individual self-study tips. If questions are mainly coming from a few students, we get a distorted view of what students are having problems with and need.
- Classroom questions are the most real kind of classroom communication.
- Classroom questions bring up language they will need to find answers to their questions elsewhere, e.g. questions like “How do you spell…?” that they can use in their real life and the kinds of jargon they will find in monolingual self-study books like English Grammar in Use.
- Asking questions could help make them less shy about speaking out in English more generally.
- Getting into the habit of formulating questions should help train them to think more carefully about the language that they are being taught.
- Classroom questions save classroom time, e.g. students checking their own work and then asking questions is quicker than going through all the answers as a class.
- Explanations in response to questions are likely to be more understandable and memorable for students than those which the teacher chooses with no prompting from the students.
Things teachers might want to encourage questions about include:
- If the answers which students have written are also possible, e.g. if there are options which are not given in the workbook answer key.
- Why their answers are wrong.
- Explanations of the language used, e.g. what words mean.
- Language they could use, e.g. in speaking tasks.
- If there is an error, e.g. in the book, on a worksheet, or on the board.
- What they are expected to do, e.g. the rules of the game or how to do the homework.
- Tips on strategies, skills and self-study, e.g. recommendations for reading, ways to approach a test task or the best summer school abroad.
- Language they have encountered outside the classroom, e.g. a word they heard in an underground announcement or a grammar explanation they had in high school.
- Justifications, e.g. for what is being covered in class or for homework and how.
- Their strengths and weaknesses and priorities.
- Their progress.
- Parts of speech.
- Pronunciation (number of syllables, word stress, homophones, vowel sound, silent letters, how well they just pronounced something, etc)
- Requests to write something on the board.
- Meaning and things they can write in their notebooks to help remember it (definition, opposites, synonyms, translation, etc).
Obtaining more student questions
Perhaps the simplest way to get more questions out of your students is to give them examples of the kinds of questions they might want to ask. For example, if they check their own answers with the answer key after a workbook homework, you could suggest the questions “Is this answer also possible?”, “Why is this wrong?” and “What’s the difference between… and…?” These questions can also be put on the board, on a poster or on worksheets.
Another way of encouraging them is to tell them how important this point is, e.g. “This point will be in the test”, “I’m going to ask you to use this language in a minute”, “The rest of today’s lesson/ the rest of this week/ this unit/ the next homework is about this point”, or “This is a particular problem for Japanese speakers/ for people studying abroad/ in this class/ in the IELTS test”. A related method is to tell them “This is your last chance to ask me questions before…” or “If you don’t have any questions for me, let me ask some questions to you”. This in turn is connected to the important tip of making sure that they will be able to use what you tell them after (preferably straight after) you answer their questions.
The other major tip for making students ask more questions is to teach them the language they will need in order to do so, mainly meaning typical phrases like “Can you write it on the board?” and language to talk about language like “adverb” and “syllable”. Practice of these phrases can be combined with vocabulary revision by getting them to test each other on the spelling, word stress, different parts of speech etc of a list of vocabulary from the course up to that point. They can then use the same language to ask the teacher about any words and phrases they aren’t sure about. It may be possible to tie this kind of practice in with language points on your syllabus. For example requests and question formation can be tied in with typical classroom questions like “How do you pronounce this word?”, and determiners and giving advice can be tied in with self-study tips, e.g. “If I was you I would learn as many new words as possible”.
A good way of making sure they do make the leap to using those questions in front of the whole class is to ask them the question you think they probably should be asking you, e.g. “What is the difference between ‘last week’ and ‘in the last week’?” If they can’t answer, get them to ask the same question back to you before you answer it.
It may also be possible to change their attitudes about asking questions, e.g. do a lesson on cultural differences in education that includes the willingness or not to ask questions in lectures in different countries. This is particularly useful if they are likely to face that situation themselves, e.g. when studying abroad. A more basic way of trying to change their attitudes is simply by telling them when something, e.g. not following your instructions or doing badly in a test, is a symptom of not asking questions.
There are also certain classroom and homework activities that are likely to prompt questions. One is giving them the answer key in the next class rather than with their homework exercises, so that they can call you over and ask you questions as they are checking their answers. A more unusual one is to give them a test and tell them after you take it in that they will be able to make changes to their answers in the next lesson. This should make them very motivated to study the relevant points at home and then ask questions before their last chance to get the answers right.
Other useful things to say when inviting them to ask questions are:
- “Don’t worry, I’m sure everyone else has the same questions”
- “No questions? Does that mean it was too easy??”
Despite all the nice tips above in some cases you might want to actually almost force them to ask you questions, e.g. by telling them that you expect one question each by the end of the class and you will pick on people in the last five minutes if they haven’t all asked you something by then. You can also do this by giving them all two pieces of card that represent questions and telling them they all have to use at least one of them by the end of the class, getting them to pass them to you as they do so. You could also allow them to pass them to each other for questions to their partners as long as their questions are in English.
In other cases, you might want to assume that questions in front of the class are not likely to be forthcoming in the near future and find other ways of making sure you find out what they want to know and of answering their questions. Tips include:
- Making yourself available outside class, e.g. telling them that you will be in the classroom or in the teachers’ room outside class time to ask questions and when.
- Allowing questions by email or other internet forums such as a Moodle.
- Going round and offering to answer questions while the other students are busy doing something else.
- Getting them to ask each other questions in pairs or small groups and going round helping them with any questions they can’t answer.
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