Handling Student Questions during Lecture

During my recent visit to the Center for Teaching and Learning in Economics (CTaLE) at University College London I had the pleasure of sitting in on Marcos Vera-Hernández’s class on economic development. I learned much about taxation in developing countries (which was great), but I was very pleasantly surprised to get a master class in handling student questions and responses to his own questions.

The Wrong Answer: Marcos asked the class why governments in poor countries tend to get a much higher proportion of their revenue through taxes on imports than on personal income or business profits. Several students raised their hands (a sign he’s created a culture of participation) and the first student gave an answer that was just plain wrong. If Marcos had given a quick “No” and moved on, that student might never speak again in class. Instead, Marcos identified a piece of her answer that was right and re-formulated his question with a hint: “What I’m looking for is an explanation related to the physical logistics involved.”

The Fuzzy Answer: The next student’s answer was fairly convoluted but had the right idea. Marcos nodded his head and said “So what you are saying here, which is completely correct, is ….” He gave them positive feedback and rephrased the answer more clearly for the rest of the class.

The Soft-spoken Student: There are some shy students that want to participate but just can’t bring themselves to speak above a whisper. Marcos moved close to the student, gave her his full attention, and repeated the question for the class before answering.

The Good Question: At one point Marcos was talking about consumption goods that are privately purchased and goods that are provided by the government. He used “private goods” and “public goods” as short-hand for these ideas and a student asked if he was implying that government provided goods were all “public goods” in the more traditional economic sense (non-excludable and non-rivalrous). Great question! While governments often provide these kinds of goods, that’s not what Marcos meant. He thanked the student and explained to the class why that was a critical distinction.

The Correction: At another point, a student pointed out that a graph that Marcos was showing to the class was mislabeled. Instead of being defensive, Marcos acknowledged the mistake, corrected it, and moved on. I think there’s huge value in showing students that we are fallible and that it’s okay to make mistakes.

At UCL most of the classes are about two hours long with a ten minute break in the middle. It’s a great opportunity for students to come up to the front and ask questions they were too shy to ask during class. The picture at the top of the page is the crowd of students around Marcos during this break. When the class started up again, Marcos repeated a few of the questions and answered them for the benefit of the whole class. It made a nice transition back to the lecture.

A few people I met during my visit told me that UCL students students rarely ask questions during class and it’s like pulling teeth to get them to answer any questions. That was certainly not the case in Marcos’ class, and I think it speaks to the power of a great teacher to create their own classroom culture regardless of what happens outside that classroom.