Question and Answer Sessions

Paul Gries-2

No matter how easy a question seems, for many shy or nervous students, it can still be to contribute a question in front of a class of their peers. When he began teaching, Paul Gries, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, decided to take a more direct approach to dismantling these perceived barriers. Instead of inviting general questions in class, he holds “Stupid Question” periods, in which he insists students only ask him questions they think are “stupid”.

The inspiration for holding “Stupid Q&A” sessions came from Gries’ early experiences where he was often told that no question was stupid. He later grew disagree. “I thought, no, they’re wrong, there are stupid questions,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked.” When he began teaching in the late 1990s, he decided to engage with the idea, and the Q&A sessions are now part of his regular routine. About once a week, when there is a break in the material, Gries pauses in lecture, sits on the desk in front of the chalk board, and simply asks for “stupid” questions.

Gries says the questions he receives most often are about logistical aspects of the course, such as when the assignment is due, where to submit work, or a request to review some lecture material.  Much of the time, Gries feels “the questions aren’t stupid, but students think they are. They think everyone else knows the answer.” Engaging with their fears helps to break the ice and pave the way for better discussion throughout the term.

Gries has noticed that, while demographics change over the years, there are always students who are afraid to admit they feel confused.  “Everyone thinks they’re in a minority”, he says, “but it takes warming up.”  While he offers Q&A sessions in all his classes, Gries finds they make the most impact for introductory courses, which attract students with a wider range of interests, backgrounds, and aptitudes. He notices that many students are already confident when they begin the course, but the concern is finding ways to encourage less confident students to speak up. For example, in the first week of CSC 108, Introduction to Computer Programming, he asks students who have programming experience to stand up in lecture, and then asks the same of those with no experience. The inexperienced group is always larger, and inspires an enormous sense of relief for students.

The benefit to positive discussions in class is that they contribute to better discussions in other class forums, such as office hours, email, and online discussion. Students tend to think “Computer Science is a solo activity, but they need to learn real world skills around sharing information,” Gries explains. He finds he is overwhelmed with students in office hours, and often calls in students waiting in the hallway to listen to another question a student has raised. “Students need the one-on-one time to ask questions about tests and marking,” he says. “As long as we can still do that, then it’s fine.”  He receives about 800 emails during a single course, and responds frequently to course discussion forum posts. Gries enjoys being able to communicate through many methods, and admits that even though Teaching Assistants could assist in responding to students, he “hates feeling left out”, and would miss it if he didn’t.

Gries feels “stupid Q&A” sessions work because “students have burning questions, and as soon as one person starts the rest come out.” They also enjoy the humour of the sessions. He emphasises the importance of simple things like not standing behind a desk. “You must change the atmosphere, and make it clear it’s important to you.” Even though Gries feels he has always been approachable (even taking his shoes off during lecture because he finds it comfortable), the perceived barrier between students and him is huge. “Anything I can do to break the barrier is important.” He finds that lectures without student questions are always worse because of the lost connection.

Most importantly, Gries has learned that engaging students in discussion increases their engagement with the material, and with him as their instructor. He finds “if you treat them like colleagues, they act like colleagues”, and a crucial part of that is knowing when to ask for help, he says. To succeed, “they need to be able to say ‘I don’t understand.’”