By Dhruva Karkada, Physics
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2022
Physics students often struggle to voice their confusion when presented with challenging material. In my experience, both as a student and as an instructor, this hesitation is often deeply rooted in a sense of shame: asking questions, especially in front of other students, feels like a sign of intellectual weakness. As a result, students from all levels of achievement tend to avoid it.
The reluctance to ask questions impedes learning for all students. Without a real-time gauge of student understanding, I risk losing my audience by failing to address misunderstandings. On top of that, a quiet discussion section is self-reinforcing: students are even less willing to risk a public injury to their ego if they’re the only one taking that risk. In my experience, these factors compound throughout the semester, causing struggling students to adopt an apathetic attitude towards learning physics. As a result, many students perform poorly.
Academic research regarding physics education tends to focus on improving curriculum and assessment. Not much is known about the effect of psychological and social factors in physics learning. In the absence of strong scientific consensus about encouraging student questions in physics, I relied on my personal experience to create an environment where expressing uncertainty was seen as a normal part of the thinking process. I felt that this would pay large dividends for students. To encourage students to express confusion, I employed a suite of simple strategies falling into two broad categories: reactive and proactive.
I use reactive strategies when I respond to student questions. At their core, reactive strategies are simple: relate and empathize with the student’s confusion without patronizing them. One way is to acknowledge the difficulty of the course material and reassure students that their question is a common one. Even a sincere “That’s a good question, thanks” goes a long way in making question-asking feel more natural. In addition, I try to openly accept responsibility for poor explanations; this prevents students from feeling as though experiencing confusion is a shortcoming on their part. I’ve found that these simple expressions of solidarity encourage students to express their confusion.
I use proactive strategies to help students feel comfortable asking questions in the first place. One approach is to recount anecdotes about the misconceptions and confusion that I experienced when I first learned the topics at hand. Similarly, when solving problems, I’ve found it useful to point out the places where I’ve made mistakes in the past. By proactively relating my past personal struggles with the course material, I’m hoping to reduce any sense of shame students may feel from not understanding the material. The simplest yet most effective proactive strategy I use is pausing for questions multiple times during the problem-solving process, especially after difficult steps. This signals that I’m expecting students to have questions, and it provides an opening for them to do so.
These strategies are neither groundbreaking nor elaborate. Nonetheless, I observed a marked increase in student participation and engagement, as measured by the number of different students who consistently ask questions during group problem-solving. (After covering one of my shifts, a GSI texted me “your students are good, asked me HELLA questions lol. It was great”). In addition, students expressed satisfaction with their performance on subsequent assessments. The most convincing evidence for the success of these strategies comes from anonymous student testimonials: students described me as “very approachable and open to being asked questions” and felt that I “encourage[d] student participation” and “relate[d] to students as people.” Many students wrote that they found this environment “very effective” and “really helpful,” stating that it helped them “fully comprehend [the course] material.” One student stated they “always learned a lot [from my answers to] other students’ questions.” These outcomes indicate that students felt comfortable asking questions during discussion, improving the quality of their learning as a result.