A Practical Introduction to College Teaching

All sections of this handbook, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, are in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.

For comments, questions, suggestions for improvements, and so on, please contact Ian Johnston.

[Table of Contents]

Section 5: Some Basic Techniques: Questions and Audio-Visual Aids

College teaching, as I have repeatedly observed, is, in part, a performing art.  Hence, the instructor needs to give some thought to more than simply the verbal content of the lecture.  The style of the delivery and, above all, the nature of the interaction with the students have a direct effect on the learning quality of the experience for the students.  Virtually all instructors are aware of this point and make some attempt to use questions and visual aids in their classes in order to assist the students (although some instructors continue to place far too much emphasis on their own speaking voice as the sole element worth attending to).

The first general observation one might make about both questioning and audio-visual aids is that instructors frequently (perhaps generally) soon fall into routine habits using these techniques and (as with other things) rarely reflect in detail on those habits or experiment with alternatives.  In most cases that may not present any immediate problems if the techniques are working effectively.  But the mere existence of a set routine which rarely wavers can over time diminish the usefulness of these important elements of a class lecture.  The following paragraphs may help inexperienced instructors recognize and deal with potential problems.

Questioning Techniques

Listening and responding to questions and asking effective questions are among the most important instructional activities which can decisively affect the quality of a class.  And so any instructor who wishes to address potential or real difficulties with what is going on in a particular class might well start by examining how he is dealing with these activities.

Permitting students to ask questions regularly and providing useful responses are an obviously important part of almost all classes.  Most instructors realize this sufficiently well and routinely solicit questions to clear up any misunderstandings or confusion.  But, as mentioned before, it does happen that an instructor keen to cover as much material as possible can allow insufficient time for such moments, particularly in formal lectures which proceed without a break for questions from time to time.  Such a practice should not develop into a routine habit.  Make sure you regularly permit students to ask questions.  And don't rush through such a moment.  Students often require a long pause or a second invitation before they will respond.

Responding to Students' Questions

Students in your classes will have to be told how you expect them to ask questions.  Do you want them simply to blurt them out when they have the urge?  Should they put their hands up?  Do you prefer them to hold their questions until you have a pause to solicit enquiries?  And so on.  Different instructors have different styles, and the students will be expecting you to let them know.  If you establish what you want in the first couple of classes, then the class should quickly adopt the style you wish the students to follow.  

In dealing with students' questions about the material, the instructor should be careful to listen attentively, respond directly, and make sure that she has, in fact, dealt with the student's query adequately.  If necessary, do not hesitate to ask to student to clarify a question or to indicate whether a particular difficulty has been cleared up by the instructor's answer.  Don't finish off without giving the person a chance to ask a follow-up question.  If there's any chance the entire class did not hear the student's question, then get him to repeat it (you might want to make sure that everyone heard the question before responding to it).

In some cases, a student's question will demand a long answer which the rest of the class does not really need to hear or will require the instructor to digress from the subject at hand for too long.  The instructor can deal with this situation by commending the student for the question and asking him to see the instructor at the end of the class for an answer.  If answering a particular question is not immediately germane to the matter at hand, the instructor should not take up important class time to answer it, but she should not brush it aside as irrelevant.  Ask the student to discuss it with you after class.  Similarly if a student asks a question which you are going to deal with later in the lecture or in a class later on, inform her of that (and make sure you remember to deal with it).  There is no imperative to answer all questions every time they are posed.

If a student asks a question which you cannot answer, then don't try to hide the fact.  Inform the student that you don't know but that you will find out.  Then remember to provide the information later.

Asking Questions

All this is clear enough.  A more complex issue is the nature and style of the questions the instructor asks the students to think about and respond to.  These can take a number of forms and serve different functions, and they are often the most immediately useful way of keeping the students alert and engaged in learning the material.  However, students will quickly detect any routine habits in the instructor's pattern of asking questions and will respond accordingly.

For example, an instructor who only calls upon volunteers for answers to particular questions will quickly indicate to some students that they don't have to worry about being asked to answer if they don't want to.  Hence, they may well allow their attention to wander.  If they know there's a good chance they may be asked to respond, however, their attention will remain much more closely focused on the material.

As mentioned before, the pattern of the instructor's questioning will decisively shape the students' behaviour.   The form of the question is equally important.  There's a big difference for example between saying "John, would you please clarify for us the meaning of the term normal distribution?" and "All right, I need someone to clarify the meaning of the term normal distribution . . . (long pause) . . . John, why don't you offer us one?"  In the first form, you have already designated who is to answer, so all the others can relax and focus on what John is going to say or on something else.  In the second, they will all be thinking about what they might say if called upon.  The first form might be appropriate if you want to wake John up from an apparent slumber or if you suspect he is doing some other work and needs a mild slap on the wrist.  The second is much more appropriate if you want to get the whole class thinking about a particular matter.  But it will not be truly effective if the students can take refuge in the knowledge that the instructor asks only those with their hands up or routinely directs questions only at certain students.  Moreover, the instructor needs to make sure the pause is sufficiently long to allow them to think about how they might answer.

This matter of pausing can be important.  If you want an answer to a question you have posed from a volunteer, you will eventually get one.  But you may have to be prepared to let the pause lengthen until a student speaks out at last.  If the class knows you will eventually step in if no one speaks out, then they'll feel no urgency about framing a response (and they'll just sit there looking down at their books).  So the instructor will have to wait such pauses out.  Such a practice is fairly common in classes which feature a great deal of discussion (e.g., seminars).

It's particularly important, especially in any review question period at the start or end of a class, to involve as many students as possible and not to let some students know you are never going to ask them.  In the first few classes of a semester, when I don't know the students' names or their abilities, I like to ask a question, let them all think about an answer, and then pick a name at random from the class list.  This practice enables me to get to know their names much more quickly and provides a sense of the range of abilities and interest they bring to the class.  It also quickly establishes the expectation than anyone may be called upon to answer.

The habit of being selective in whom one asks to answer a question is very difficult to avoid, and sometimes it might be useful.  For example, if you know a student is having a particularly difficult time with the material or is very shy you might want to call upon him only when the question is relatively easy (so as not to embarrass him too much and to give him some practice at speaking in public).  At other times, when you want to kick start a discussion of something more complex, you might want to have one of the better students offer the answer to an initial question.  But it's important not routinely to exclude certain students from your requests or always to invite one of the better students to respond (knowing that she'll probably get it right) or, in general, to create a situation where certain students know they will never be asked.

In many ways, an instructor's response to a student answer is just as important as the initial question, if not more so.  The first important point is to make sure everyone heard the response.  If there's any doubt about that, ask the student to repeat the answer.  Don't get in the habit of repeating a student's answer.  If it needs to be repeated, get the student to do it.  This business of insufficiently audible responses often comes up if you are calling upon a student who is sitting very close to where you are standing.  To force that student to speak up, you might stroll away from her as she is giving her response, so that she needs to pitch the answer across some distance (be careful, however, of getting into the habit of strolling away before you call upon her, or the students will soon learn which students are likely to be asked to reply).

If the student provides a perfectly satisfactory answer, then, before moving onto the next question, you might still ask "Does anyone wish to add anything to that?" or "Is that clear?"  If the response is an important for what is to follow, make sure the whole class understands what the responder has said.  If the student's answer is unsatisfactory, then appeal to the class for a comment (rather than correcting it yourself): "What about that?  Is that all that needs to be said?" or "Is everyone happy with that answer?"  Try to get the the students to provide any revisions, additions, or corrections.  The value of this exercise is that it will keep them all involved in the process and will provide you with useful information about just how much the class remembers or understands something.  If a student has no idea about how to answer, then pass the question along: "How about helping Ambrose out with the answer . . . (pause) . . . Frieda?"  Unless you have a special reason for doing so, don't leave a totally flummoxed student hanging out to dry or try to force a correct answer from someone who is obviously unprepared.  But don't just ignore the student every time because you suspect he may be unprepared.

Getting into the habit of inviting the class to respond to student answers may help to curtain any tendency you have to respond adversely either verbally or physically to a student's answer.  Let the reaction to a response emerge from the group and, if you want to editorialize, do so on the basis of that group reaction.  The practice of bringing your own opinions to bear immediately and obviously on every student response may create in them a sense that they are being badgered (e.g., if you habitually bring a fairly standard feminist or left-wing or neo-conservative or secular humanist critique to bear every time they respond).  If you wish to expose the limitations of a student's response, it's often a good idea to ask that student a follow up question and get him (or the class) to expose any problems with the answer he has offered.  Try to act as the moderator of a discussion rather than the leader of a counter attack squad (a point which does not mean, of course, that you cannot introduce your own views).

As mentioned before, try not to fall into the pattern of re-interpreting or re-stating the student's answer to fit what you want to hear.  If there's something you don't understand about the student's response, then ask her to clarify or expand on her answer.  Keep the students' attention focused on the need for them to frame acceptable answers.  Remember that an important part of your duties is providing students opportunities to frame intelligent responses and communicate them in public.  In some cases, that may be the most important skill they need to learn.

Paying attention to such matters (and others) should be an ongoing concern with all instructors.  And one of the best ways to explore possibilities for improvement is to visit other instructors' classes and pay particular attention to how they frame questions and cope with student responses (that exercise will provide lots of positive and negative examples).

An instructor whose classes are not generating as much discussion as she would like to have would be well advised to reflect a great deal on the nature of her questioning.  Before blaming the class for suffering from terminal inertia, she should examine carefully the extent to which the problem may be the way the interaction is being defined by her style of soliciting students' opinions.  There is plenty of help available on the web, with sites offering a wealth of suggestions.  If you want one to sample, consult this link: Questions.

Audio-Visual Aids

Almost all instructors routinely make use of audio-visual aids to supplement their lectures, from blackboards, to overhead projectors, to computer presentational software, special displays, flip charts, and more.  These can provide valuable assistance to the students, but, as often as not, they can be used badly and interfere with the learning that is supposed to be going on.

One important principle here is that such audio-visual aids are meant to encourage learning among the students not simply to provide something for the instructor's convenience.  In many cases, for example, a certain machine may make things easier for the instructor in his delivery of the lecture and yet be of only marginal help or even a major distraction or anodyne for students.  There is no inherent value in using audio-visual material in and of itself.  It becomes useful if it promotes what is meant to be happening in the class and only as long as it is serving that function.  And different technical possibilities have different purposes and different effects.  So it's worth thinking about which ones to use or not to use and when.


Blackboards or green boards (or the increasingly and unfortunately popular white boards) are the oldest and still the most useful aids for a great many classes, especially for those in which the instructor wishes occasionally to write down key terms or simple illustrations to clarify a lecture or those in which the purpose of the class is to take the students through a process (like solving an equation, carrying out a statistical analysis, reviewing the formulas for related organic chemicals, punctuating a compound sentence, constructing an essay outline, and so on).  

Such a visual aid is valuable for two main reasons: it provides clear, logical, and lingering information which the students can use in their notes and the instructor can use for a quick review, and it forces the instructor to move around (and hence brings some visual variety to the delivery).  The fact that the material remains on the blackboard fully visible until it is erased is a really important characteristic of blackboard notes, and thus this form of audio-visual aid is particularly relevant where students are expected to follow and note down the stages in a process.  Other forms of offering similar illustrations (e.g., outlining the solution to a mathematical problem or a series of chemical formulae by a sequence of overhead projections or on a continuous roll of cellophane) are far less effective (although often much more convenient for the instructor) because the illustrated material is soon replaced by the next stage in the process.  Remember that the students taking notes may be a step or two behind the present illustration.

Instructors who appreciate the above point and who intend to use blackboards frequently should make sure that the classes they will be using are adequately equipped (this is especially the case with instructors in mathematics and science classes).  No one should attempt to teach a mathematics class in a setting with one inadequate moveable blackboard which she will have to erase frequently in order to continue with the demonstration of a process.

Using blackboards effectively, however, may need some practice.  Many instructors are not particular adept at some techniques this visual aid requires if it is to work properly.  Here are some things to think about on that score.

First, the instructor's writing should obviously be clear and, if there's going to be a lot of it, easy to follow, with horizontal rather than oblique lines of writing, a cursive script large and legible enough from all parts of the room, and a logical order from the boards on the left to those on the right in the students' line of vision.  If the visual material is going to take up a lot of space, then start at the extreme end of the board space (if necessary along the side wall) and move logically from board to board.  Where you have lots of board space, don't keep writing on and erasing the most convenient blackboard.  Lay out the notes in full.  What's on the blackboard is probably going to be an important part of the notes the students take to reinforce their learning for that class.  The instructor should make sure that the form in which such notes are presented is as useful and complete as possible.  The same point holds for white boards, which are often difficult to use well without some advance practice.

Instructors who spend a lot of time writing at the blackboard during the class may need to practise how to do that without spending all their time talking to the board with their shoulders parallel to it and their backs to the class.  There's a technique of writing on the board with one's left shoulder against the board and one's body at an angle, so that one can see the class and talk to the class much more easily (learning to do this fast is an essential survival tactic at junior high school).

Where following what's written on the blackboard is important for the students, instructors should make sure they are not routinely blocking the students' line of vision.  There's little point in offering such visual help if the students cannot see it (more about this later).

If an instructor is going to create blackboard diagrams to illustrate material in the lecture, then he should practise until what he produces is reasonably accurate (e.g., a bell curve, an outline of Vancouver Island, a sketch of the brain, the solar system, a circle, graphs, and so on).  Not only are very casual and messy diagrams less useful to the students, but they also convey a particular attitude towards the material and the situation.  If it's worth putting up a diagram, then it's worth doing it well (especially if it's one the instructor uses a great deal).  

If the instructor is going to use a particularly detailed blackboard diagram, it's probably a good idea to draw it before the class starts (unless the process of creating it is an important part of the class) and (for reasons mentioned later) to keep it covered up until he needs to use it.  It's not a particularly good idea to use up many minutes of class time to produce a complex blackboard diagram when you are not interested in the process of creating it.

A useful exercise is occasionally to inspect one's blackboard work at the end of the class, as the students are leaving.  If you were a student, how helpful would you think such notes were?  Is there any obvious way you might want them improved?

Overhead Projectors, Slide Projectors, and Digital Presentations

Overhead projectors, slide projectors, and computers are extremely useful for presenting accurate and complex illustrations (maps, graphs, flow charts, images, and so on).  They are also really convenient for instructors, because creating images with them is relatively easy and they enable the instructor to use such material without doing very much, while still facing the class (hence, they can encourage a certain laziness; an instructor does not have to go through the more laborious process of producing alternative forms of illustrations, like charts).  But they have two important and unavoidable limitations.  First, they tend to freeze the instructor into a particular position with some equipment or a table between him and students, often in a room with darker lighting, and, second, the images are available only temporarily, for they disappear as soon as a new image replaces them.  These limitations can be important, and an instructor who would like the material to remain visible throughout the class or who would like to interact with the students more fully would be well advised to think of other ways of handling the material (with a blackboard or with charts which can be displayed at the front).

It's perhaps worth mentioning here that the use of these visual aids in lectures has become so common in recent years that students have started voicing complaints about having to sit in the semi-darkness staring at PowerPoint or overhead presentations almost every class.  These complaints indicate, I think, a growing sense that the social environment of the class is being seriously affected for the worse by excessive reliance on technology (which tends to make students feel even more isolated than ever).

Two ways to cope with these complaints are to avoid falling into a pattern of using such presentational options excessively and to make sure that you use them in a class only for as long as they are essential, turning them off when they are no longer necessary.  Once the presentation has served its purpose, restore the classroom to its normal state.  If you're going to be using the machines later in the class, wait until you need them again before altering the restored normal situation.  Don't think that these devices automatically improve the student's learning just because they are there.  If they are not essential, don't use them and don't leave them running (or the image still projected on the back) once the visual presentation is finished.

Some Observations on the Use of Visual Material

Visual aids, if used ineffectively, can be counter-productive, generating more confusion than clarity.  Here again, there are some common sense precautions to bear in mind.

Learn the basic operation of the machine and how to fix any common problems (especially replacing the light in the overhead projector).  Make sure in advance any computer equipment is working properly.  Check carefully the appearance of the image provided by an overhead projector to see if it is excessively distorted or if there's a lump of snot on the glass adding interesting but unwelcome details to the image.  Learn how to stand beside the machine without blocking the view.  Make sure you sort out the relationship between the machine and your own notes.  And bring a convenient pointer (ruler or laser device).

When an image is first displayed (a map, graph, blueprint, and so on), the instructor will be quite familiar with what it represents, but the students will not.  They need some time to absorb what they are looking at.  So the first thing an instructor should do, as soon as a new image is offered, is take the time to explain to the students in some detail what they are looking at: "Here is a graph indicating the results of a correlation study between the consumption of alcohol and the ability to carry out a simple test of manual dexterity.  The X axis, these numbers here, indicates the number of drinks from zero to ten, and the Y-axis, this line here, indicates the score in the test, expressed as a mark out of 100.  These dots represent various scores by different individual in the trials.  You can see that . . . ." or "Here's a map of Paha Lake.  North is in this direction, West over here, East, and South.  The scale is indicated down hereone square in the grid is one hundred metres by one hundred metres.  Notice here at the south-west corner of the lake there's a river flowing in.  This shaded area here is marsh land.  Now, what I want you to notice in particular . . . ." or "Here a table representing crime rates in Canada in various income groups.  This column here indicates the different major categories of crime, and this one here different levels of income.  So, for example, this square here indicates the murder rate among those with a total income of over 100,000 dollars, this one here . . . ."

In other words give the students a quick preliminary sense of what they are looking at.  Even if the illustration seems self-evident to you, they need time to focus on it.  Don't simply assume that they all understand immediately just what the visual material indicates, so that you can plunge into the specific details of interpreting the image.  Never move to your interpretation of an illustration until you have offered a general description of it. One of the easiest ways to confuse students is to show them a series of illustrations in rapid succession without giving them time to understand what each one represents.  Many instructors, even those with considerable experience, create confusion in this manner, usually because they mistakenly assume that the illustration will be as immediately familiar to the students as it is to them.  As a general rule, you should automatically slow down when introducing and dealing with visual material.

Don't confuse the students about whether they are supposed to be looking at the illustration or at you.  If you want them to attend to the illustration, then turn and look at it yourself.  Even when you're using an overhead and could work at the machine rather than at the screen, it's often better to step to the side and point at the screen, unless you're constructing the image or the equation as you go (for one thing, the students will have a clearer view of the image).  Use a pointer of some kind to indicate the relevant features.  So long as you are discussing details of the illustration, keep your focus on it as well.  And when you have finished pointing out these details and wish to move on, turn around and turn the illustration off (unless there's an important reason to leave it on the screen).  Never leave an illustration in place on the screen when it is no longer necessary.  And if that particular moment is over, put the lights back on to their usual setting.  Don't continue to lecture on new material with the old image still on the screen and the students still in semi-darkness.

Make sure you or your shadow is not blocking the illustrative material you want the students to be looking at.  In most cases that means you will have to move to one side, fairly close to the wall on which the image is displayed.  If you want to make sure, check the sight lines of the students at both ends of the first row.  If they have a clear view, then the rest of the class should, too.  Don't stand fixed at the projector or the computer in the centre, unless you have to.  Move to the side, and move back to the machine when you need to change the image.

Leave some time for questions before removing the image.  Ask the students if they have any questions about it or if they notice anything there they'd like to comment on (an important part of classes discussing illustrations of paintings or sculptures).

As a general rule, you should not have illustrative material visible before the moment when you intend to use it.  Otherwise it will serve as a distraction, and you will lose the element of surprise.  So the overhead or digital projector should be turned off until such time as it is going to be used.  Blackboard diagrams, charts, and displays of equipment or models should be concealed or covered until they are needed.

One Final Comment

One obvious point to remember, too, is that the instructor's most important visual aid is his or her own appearance, demeanour, gestures, and delivery.  As in so many things about teaching, there is room for enormous variety here, and nowadays students are used to instructors coming in many different shapes, sizes, and forms of attire (unless your institution has rules about such things).  So there's no particular need or advantage to wearing a suit and tie or appearing every day in jeans and a sweater or, for that matter, changing from one to the other.

It might be worth mentioning that students can take a particular interest in an instructor's appearance if she goes to the trouble of trying to introduce some variety.  I often succeeded in holding many students' attention over time by my huge collection of silk ties with bold designs, especially when I used to challenge them to catch me repeating one tie in a later class. 

Naturally, if the course has certain requirements for students to dress in certain ways (e.g., no cowboy boots in the welding shop, a safety helmet for the forestry field trip, white uniforms for cooking classes, lab coat in the laboratory, and so on) the instructor supervising or participating should follow the same requirements.

And whatever the particular dress style an instructor adopts, it's a good idea not routinely to offend students with extremely sloppy or dirty attire (jeans with rips in the crotch, sweaters with food stains, odiferous sweat suits, T-shirts with rude slogans, a lumberjack shirt covered in motor oil, and so on) or an appearance that stems from an all-night binge session.  And you might want to think twice before wearing any obviously partisan political messages (like campaign buttons or slogans) or garments advertising certain products.  Whatever the instructor decides, the matter is worth thinking about because his appearance will be interpreted as, to some extent, an expression of how he feels about the course and the students.


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