The Role of Questions in Online Teaching

One of the most common mistakes I see among online faculty is to misuse questions under the guide of teaching by “Socratic dialogue.” Faculty will drop comments such as “Why did the author take this position?” into the margins of a student's assignment thinking that it will get the student to contemplate it. But the student is not clear as to how to interpret the comment. Does the instructor expect the student to answer the question? If so, then where is the student to answer, since the assignment is already done? Maybe the student's work is so interesting that it has raised a question in the instructor's mind about the issue, and the instructor is just expressing it? In this case the question does not invite an answer.

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One of the most common mistakes I see among online faculty is to misuse questions under the guide of teaching by “Socratic dialogue.” Faculty will drop comments such as “Why did the author take this position?” into the margins of a student's assignment thinking that it will get the student to contemplate it. But the student is not clear as to how to interpret the comment. Does the instructor expect the student to answer the question? If so, then where is the student to answer, since the assignment is already done? Maybe the student's work is so interesting that it has raised a question in the instructor's mind about the issue, and the instructor is just expressing it? In this case the question does not invite an answer.

Often faculty use questions as comments to point out an oversight in a student's work. The question “Why did the author take this position?” is really a statement meant to tell the student that he or she should have covered the issue in the assignment. But the student may not be able to tell whether it is a question or a statement posed as a question, and so misses the whole point.

Faculty often ask questions fishing for a particular answer that leave students playing a game of “read the instructor's mind.” Because students don't want to get it wrong in front of their peers, they just defer to that student who always seems to answer the instructor's questions. After all, why try to answer if the right answer will just come out one way or another?

Faculty feel that they should teach via “Socratic dialogue,” but none of these forms are genuine examples of Socratic dialogue. Socratic dialogue was never designed for an asynchronous environment because Socrates asked questions with the expectation of getting an immediate answer. He would then reply to the answer, leading to a back-and-forth inquiry into an issue. In this way Socrates knew how the student interpreted the question, and could lead the discussion based on the student's thinking. This is why Socrates never wrote. The concept of a written dialogue would make no sense to Socrates because a dialogue is fundamentally a live back and forth session.

Despite the limitations of the asynchronous environment, there is a place for questions in online teaching if the instructor follows a few simple principles:

Just say it
Socratic dialogue is not “teaching by reading my mind.” Teaching is about producing enlightenment, and often the fastest way to enlightenment is just stating your point. If a batter is missing balls because she is dropping her elbow, a good coach tells her that she is dropping her elbow. Thus, don't make comments in the form of questions. If you want to tell the student that he or she missed something, then just say it. Now the student can reply with his own clarifying question: “But weren't we supposed to…?” This provides you with insight into the student's thinking and what sent him astray. From here you can provide an answer that clarifies what the student should do and that helps him avoid the same error in the future.

Questions should be answered
Only ask questions in situations where students can answer. You don't know how a student interprets a question, or even if the student tried to answer it, when you drop it on an assignment that does not require response. If you want the student to actually reflect on the question, then you should ask the student to resubmit the assignment with the question answered, or perhaps answer it in the next assignment. But either way, questions should be asked in situations where you can get an answer and respond to it.

Of course, discussion is a more suitable vehicle for asking questions. But make sure that they are not just “final thoughts” or “wrap up” posts that do not invite response. Ask questions with the intension of getting answers.

Ask genuine questions
The best questions are genuine questions—the ones where we are puzzled about something and looking for an answer. We have a variety of questions about the ideas and authors that our courses study, but we often do not express them to students because we do not want to appear to not have an answer about something in our field.
But genuine questions interest students the most because they show respect for students as coinvestigators. Maybe something in an author's work has always puzzled you. In that case, state why you are puzzled and ask what the students think. Asking students questions about things that genuinely interest you starts a much richer dialogue with your students than you might have thought possible.