How to tell if what I'm talking about is actually getting through
February 17, 2009 10:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm wondering if anyone who has experiencing teaching small groups has any advice on how I can better read my audience.

For the past two years, I've been tutoring full time (40 - 45 hours a week) at the local university in mathematics. I also tutored part time for several years before that. As a next logical step, I began renting a classroom about a week before final exams and holding exam prep sessions for groups of 30 or students.

When I'm tutoring, I spend a lot of time reading the student's facial expressions to gauge whether things are making sense. When I'm running review sessions in front of a group, I have trouble reading whether things are getting through or not. Sometimes I ask, "Is that making sense ok?", but only a few students actually nod or react in any kind of way. This makes it difficult for me to decide whether I should do a few more examples on the current topic or move on to the next topic.
posted by Proginoskes to Education (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It's very rare to get an honest response when you directly ask if you've gotten through to the audience, for a lot of reasons, including embarrassment for not understanding. Rather than do that, keep going with the body language. Posture is important. If they're leaning back in their seats, or arms are crossed on their chest or belly, there's resistance there, which may or may not mean lack of understanding. Watch for tilts of heads and perhaps widened eyes. If a student stops taking notes, it might mean either the lesson is too easy, or too difficult.

Rather than rely entirely on body language, though, or directly asking students if they understand, try engaging them by asking them to solve example problems. Choose students randomly (but try to get everyone involved) to "volunteer." Group or pair work is a fantastic way to get students to better understand what's going on. Put stronger students with weaker students, and have them run through the steps to the problems you've given them. The weaker students will benefit from one-on-one with someone who gets it, and the stronger students will benefit through learning by teaching, which is one of the best ways to study.

While you are doing review, it doesn't have to be straight lecture. Lecture isn't really conducive to participation or questions, and might not be the most effective way to help the students.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:17 PM on February 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Additional (possibly relevant) info that I forgot to include:

They review sessions are typically 4 - 6 hours in length.

I work independently from the school. It's not run through the university or anything like that.
posted by Proginoskes at 10:23 PM on February 17, 2009

Your students themselves may not know if things are making sense. I think the best way to find out is to have them do a problem themselves, or explain it to each other.

When you're doing a review session, however, usually the need to move on to a new topic is determined by the amount of material you have to cover before the exam. You're not trying to teach new material in a review session, you're simply trying to refresh everyone's memory about the material they've already learned.

If you're worried that some material isn't getting adequate recoverage, leave time for one or two extra problems at the end, and have the students vote on what kind of problem they want more practice on. This means you'll need to have several problems at the ready though!

I think it's probably more important that you ensure you pause long enough for students to be willing to ask questions; after important points within a problem, and especially after the example is completed.

Oh one more point: there are a few different styles of doing review sessions. Personally, when I've done them (for larger groups though), I like to pass out problems for the students to work out, ahead of time if possible, and so they can follow along even if they get the handout day of. Then I provide written solutions at the end, so students can ask me questions later.

(Short version of my answer: I don't think you can get accurate feedback as quickly on a group of 30. Work around the problem instead.)
posted by nat at 10:29 PM on February 17, 2009

Assuming you have regular breaks, ask students to jot down any questions they have or things they are unsure about as you go, and let them leave their questions on your table over the break. It's always hard to be the one person who doesn't get something, whereas by submitting something fairly anonymously it's easier. After a few sessions of this, they will realise that what they thought was a dumb question was actually something a bunch of other people were fuzzy on.

(I once had a lecturer who let us txt-message our questions to him during the lectures, and it was brilliant. He'd set aside time at the end to address them.)

A good standard method for each concept covered might be: introduce topic, ask students to say what they know (pick one who regularly contributes if there is one; others will add their own ideas), clarify anything that requires clarification, show an example, model how to solve it, work through another will class, then give them a couple to do solo and check each others' work. At this point, if they are holding someone else's work, they may be more willing to speak up and say, "In the work I am holding, why have they done x?"

It's a tricky environment to teach in because they are strangers to each other and expressing yourself freely in front of strangers can be daunting. By giving them a chance to provide anonymous feedback throughout the session, I think you'd get a better response. Maybe try giving them a continuum, a numbered scale 1-10 and they raise their hand for the number that corresponds to their level of understanding, just to give you a rough picture. Requiring a physical response might be more effective than asking for a verbal one.
posted by tracicle at 11:11 PM on February 17, 2009

When I TA, I ask if there are any questions and I normally get none... After class I get ten. People don't like to look like they are lost in front of big groups. On the other hand once one person starts talking, suddenly it's OK for every one... So, I guess you could kinda seed the discussion by calling out for numbers to go in the examples. Don't move on till you get the numbers. This way if when you turn around and ask if people have questions people are all ready in the habit of doing a little bit of contributing.
posted by magikker at 11:27 PM on February 17, 2009

Yes, the only way to work out if you're getting through is to either see "aah, now I understand" moments - mostly body language or other involuntary responses, or to actaully assess their solution to problems.
posted by singingfish at 11:44 PM on February 17, 2009

FWIW I know when I am doing that thing where I am stifling little yawns, if I am in a learning situation, then the little bit of my brain that learns things is actually switched on. I just yawn a lot when it's not socially appropriate for me to talk.
posted by evil_esto at 1:52 AM on February 18, 2009

Could you set a task like going over an exercise in pairs - working it out between them, and then sharing what they did with the group. Somehow if there are two people not understanding something, they are happier to say (and it becomes more obvious if they haven't understood if the answer is wrong). I think it's also quite a welcome break, being able to split into small groups and then come back together again. Perhaps using techniques like getting small groups to lead a special topic of revision. Then at least you don't feel so much like you're talking into the void.

If you have one long break for lunch - you could always have a anonymous box and ten minutes before the break pass round a little a5 work sheet that says "I haven't understood BLANK", for them to fill in, and then they can put it in the box. Then you can address any questions after that lunch break.
posted by Augenblick at 2:36 AM on February 18, 2009

Don't ask questions that sound like, "Everyone get that?" You won't get a genuine answer.

The best way to figure out if the material is being synthesized is to question the class. Go around the class (not necessarily in any pattern) and ask questions about the material. Don't give answers is someone is stumped, but help lead them towards the answers. If you just give them the answers, they'll start getting lazy and expect that every time.

Questions like "Everyone get that?" are a trap, because the response is some sort of group think. Very few people (adults or children) have the guts to actually say, "Wait a second, I don't get that, could you try that again?" Most people would rather nod along, afraid of singling themselves out for misunderstanding.

Group exercises, as some have suggested, are good as well. People synthesize information in different ways, and the more learning opportunities you provide, the more people you're going to catch in your net. Simply rambling off facts and then asking "Everyone got that?" is going to provide you with plenty of the blank faces you've already seen.
posted by SNWidget at 5:16 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're looking for what are known as classroom assessment techniques (CATs), which are quick exercises for determining how well your students are catching on. Pick up a copy of this book. It is full of methods for doing exactly what you're asking about -- assessing student understanding. Some of the methods work better than others for quantitative fields, but there are some great ideas that have certainly helped my own teaching in there. Augenblick refers to versions of two of these techniques above, but there's a lot more out there, and the authors do a good job of explaining why these techniques work.
posted by amelioration at 5:19 AM on February 18, 2009

Lots of great suggestions above; I'll just add that (a) for the reasons Ghidorah mentioned, you may have better luck asking students to identify what they've understood, rather than what they've not understood, and that (b) it might be worthwhile to create some sort of stable and consistent framework for feedback rather than expecting ad-hoc questions from students in the course of the lesson.

One way of doing the former is by show of hands, which is easy and noncommittal-- "OK, so we'll take a poll-- hands up if you feel like you understand this material at a 7-10 level, where 10 is 'totally got it'.... now, hands up if you're at a 4-6... hands up if you're at 1-3." That way, the confident students tend to identify themselves, and even if nobody raises a hand by step 3, simple subtraction will tell you how many people are still confused. You could also take the anonymous-question-box idea and make it a regular, mandatory feature of the lesson-- at break, write down two things you've learned so far this lesson, and two things you're still confused about-- to ensure full participation and give you a fuller sense of everyone's experience.
posted by Bardolph at 5:21 AM on February 18, 2009

I second what SNWidget wrote: don't ask questions like "Is this clear?". One option is to ask a test question after dealing with a particular subject, for instance "So let's consider this function... is it linear or non-linear?". Don't jump on the first correct answer that you will get (which is probably from one of the smart, confident students), pause for a bit and try and get more students to voice their opinion.

Well, that's what they are trying to teach me in my "teaching skills" classes anyway. I admit that it is difficult.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 6:48 AM on February 18, 2009

In addition to all the good advice you've received here, a trick I've used when teaching ESL is to ask students to discreetly raise a finger in front of their chests (I mime this) when I'm talking too fast or generally going too fast for them to follow. I tend to be a fast talker, so it's pretty helpful for me and them.

I also really agree strongly with Ghidorah that straight lecture for that amount of time is probably not a good idea at all. Having students work in small groups for at least some of the time will be more beneficial, and during that time you can "float" and eavesdrop to see who's getting it and what the widespread sticking points or misconceptions are, so you can revisit those. You'll be a lot more in touch with the students' level of comprehension this way.
posted by wintersweet at 11:33 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

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