This post does not apply to liberal arts classes where discussions are encouraged, or any class where there is more than one answer to a question. The majority of my schooling has been in math & science, and there is only one derivative to any trigonometric function.
The room falls silent, the last syllables to drop from his lips echo across the lecture hall, finally absorbed into desks and paneling. He looks around expectantly – no one raises their hand, no one meets his eyes, no mouth opens to utter more than an awkward cough. Shuffling sounds fill the silence, sounds of bodies rubbing against chairs, paper rustling along desks, pencils tapping onto any available hard surface before quickly falling silent, embarrassed at their loud intrusion into the stillness. He looks around, heart in his throat, waiting, waiting, hoping there will be just one, just one student who will lift their arm and vibrate their throat to say an answer, a wrong answer, a question, a snarky question, an insult, anything. He would even welcome a request to go to the bathroom, the silence has gone on so long, gone on beyond the point of reason, gone on beyond the point where he can assume no one knows, yet his pride will not allow him to speak just yet. He must give them a little more time, a little more chance to redeem themselves, to distinguish themselves from the classes that have gone before them, from the bodies which hours before, days before, years before, sat in these same chairs and did not answer. Silence fills the hall.
Anyone who has made it up to the 3rd grade has experienced this, the awkward tension which follows when a teacher asks a question to the class. Very rarely does this actually elicit an answer, even a wrong one, because all students can be classified into these categories during those times:
Let us look at the possible scenarios involved here were a student actually to speak:
- Someone answers with a right answer.
- The class learns the correct answer, and the teacher moves on with the lecture.
- The answerer is identified as a brown-noser by the rest of the class.
- Someone answers with a wrong answer.
- The teacher corrects them with the right answer and moves on with the lecture.
- The teacher tells them they’re wrong and continue waiting. (loop and evaluate again)
- The student who answered has just been embarrassed in front of the entire class.
- Someone answers with a clarifying question.
- The teacher answers it, then answers the question and continues with the lecture.
- The teacher answers it, then continues waiting. (loop and evaluate again)
- Someone says something else, usually irrelevant.
- The teacher, annoyed, will give the answer and continue teaching.
- The teacher is pissed for the rest of the class, spoiling his mood for the day.
You will note that one of the results of all of these situations is that the teacher gives the correct answer and continues teaching. Also note that this is the same result that would have occurred if the teacher had never asked the question in the first place. Not only that, but the negative consequences that follow from every above scenario are avoided. Asking questions and getting answers only causes problems, asking questions and getting no answer wastes time and causes embarrassment for all parties, so why do they continue to do it? Why, from elementary school to graduate school, do teachers ask questions to their students? I can think of only a few reasons, all of which I will now demonstrate as futile.
To Keep the Class Engaged:
Easy. If you’re sleeping through class already, you’re not going to wake up to the sound of a question being asked, much less the silence of it not being answered. If you *really* want to keep your students engaged, either say something genuinely interesting or vary the tonality of your voice so no matter what you’re talking about it sounds interesting.
Prompt Them to Learn Through Guilt and Embarrassment:
(Note: This tactic not guilt-inducing in all students)
These are college students. Friday night they will get wildly drunk, pass out, and wake up with a penis drawn on their face. The mild embarrassment induced from asking questions is not enough to overcome the mighty power of laziness.
They Don’t Know the Answer and Hope the Students Do:
This one is actually 100% valid, but reserved only for cases such as high school gym teachers being forced to teach advanced mathematics. (for reasons I’ve never understood, all K-12 gym teachers must also teach one academic class)
Identifying Brown-Nosers for Future Ridicule and/or Sources of Worship:
Also valid, but in a selfish, malicious way.
I am obviously approaching this from a biased perspective, and even though I stand firmly with my opinion expressed here I cannot help but wonder if there is something else they hope to obtain by this. I have been taught by some of the most brilliant people in their fields, yet even they cannot logic through what I have expressed above. Perhaps I am missing something, or perhaps it’s just something taught in teacher-school, a relic of olden days when children were beaten with a wooden stick if they didn’t answer promptly. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” still applies if you don’t remove the actions which prompted a need for said rod. How ’bout we just ditch the system all together, and use neither rod nor spoilage – neither answers, nor questions.
I suppose I should have titled this “Teachers Who Ask Questions and Expect Answers,” since some of my all-time favorite professors use questions often and effectively in their lectures – because they don’t expect any answer. In fact they often give it themselves, right after they ask the question, thereby instilling curiosity into the student’s minds and satisfying it immediately, creating a pleased sense of fulfillment in the students allowing them to enjoy and (dare I say) look forward to lectures. Imagine, teaching in such a way that your students actually want to learn – genius!