(Mostly) Anonymous Questions

(Mostly) Anonymous Questions

By Julie Vander Meij and Tasha Richardson

Students’ questions are a vital part of our teaching practice. Students’ questions help teachers know how students are connecting to the material, how students are feeling in class, and what misconceptions students may still hold. As such, inviting and welcoming questions from students is part of our usual classroom routine. For those students who rarely or never ask a question, there can be many reasons why this is the case: they feel unprepared, they think their question is less important than others, or they feel discomfort speaking in public. 

In an effort to create a “brave space” we need to think about how to move beyond the general call “are there any questions?” This approach often has the same students participating while other students sit on the sidelines. Below are a few alternatives to consider for your classroom.  

  1. For the digital free zone:
    1. Introduce a mid way check-in when you collect students’ questions in a box/hat and then draw questions randomly. The permanence of the question slip also allows you physically put the question into a later pile if you know that question will be addressed in the future.  
    2. Using “Question groups” can encourage students to participate while also feeling supported about the questions they are asking. Having good leaders within the groups will be important, both as they support question asking, solving, and may assume the role of bringing those questions forward to the larger group. 
  2. With technology on hand, there are numerous apps that allow for the collection of anonymous questions into a digital “parking lot”. Students are able to post their questions when they arise, which in turn you are able to answer either in real time or during a routine parking lot sweep. Similar to the question box, you can also defer until a later time to answer the question while at the same time respecting the question by allowing it to be collected.

There are numerous benefits of increasing the number of students asking questions. Not only does the inclusion of diverse perspectives lead to a more community feeling in the room, for those students who do not feel they are part of the normal discourse in science, the anonymous question can help to level the playing field in the classroom. As well, when students have opportunity and routines to generate questions with classmates, it communicates to them that questions are valued, and a key part of scientific discourse.

A designated location to collect questions communicates to students that questions are invited. These may also be collected with a question box. 

A digital tool like Jamboard, or the built-in Q&A function in Google slides allows the students to add questions anonymously without worry of ‘interrupting’ or ‘imposing’

References

Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. L. M. Landerman (Ed.) The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Parson, L. & Ozaki, C. C. (2018) Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education, NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education, 11:2, 171-190, DOI: 10.1080/19407882.2017.1392323

Williams, A. T. (2019). Imposter Syndrome in the classroom. The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University. https://www.brown.edu/sheridan/impostor-phenomenon-classroom

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