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Encouraging Interaction in Science and Engineering

All of us tend to get the most out of classes in which we are interested, engaged, and in which we participate actively. Setting up problem-solving/discussion sessions in science that meet these criteria can sometimes seem challenging. Below are several strategies that instructors may find helpful in setting the stage for good student interaction in science precepts.

  • Set a relaxed, welcoming tone from the first. Share a bit about yourself and have students introduce themselves. In general, students will trust your competence. What they may feel less sure of is who you are as a person and their ability to form a successful student/teacher relationship with you. Assure them of your desire to help them learn.

  • Be prepared, plan ahead. Know the course material, including reading assignments and what’s going on in lecture. Work out their assigned problems, and anticipate student questions. Come prepared with a short summary that connects and clarifies key ideas from the lecture, and additional problems that illustrate main principles. Think ahead about how to involve the students in the discussion, and plan time for student questions in addition to covering important issues/concepts.

  • Ask students what they most need or want from the problem solving/discussion session. Students vary in their background understanding of skills and concepts in science. Rather than “covering” all the problems they were assigned or lecturing on the class material, find out what material they find most challenging. Concentrate initially on those concepts or problems that concerned more of the students.

  • Track progress and set goals . Once you and the students have decided on the goals of the session, make a list and keep track of the goals achieved as the session proceeds. If you and the group are brainstorming a strategy to use to solve a problem, for example, keep a record of ideas as you go and compile a final summary on the blackboard or overhead. If the session seems to be stalled on a particular planned item, keep things moving by altering your approach as needed. For example, if there is more than one solution or method associated with a problem or question, divide the students into groups to address different angles.

  • Talk less, listen more. Our natural desire when teaching is to tell students what they need to know. But students understand more deeply when they articulate ideas on their own. Have students share strategies in problem solving either with the whole group or by working in pairs or small groups. When students ask questions, be aware that their questions about one topic may hide a more basic misconception. Probe their understanding by asking background questions that lead them through fundamental ideas. For example, if a student asks a question about an experimental result, before you answer the specific question asked, pose questions that elicit the student’s conception of what the experiment was designed to discover and any inherent restrictions on its usefulness or interpretation.

  • Encourage students to listen to one another. Avoid questioning in ways that set up a series of dialogues between you and another student and allow the bulk of the students to disengage. Rather, whenever possible, open up a question from one student to the whole group. For example, “John has a very good question about experimental evidence for this assumption. What ideas do the rest of you have about that?” Or, “What experiment could we devise to test that idea?” Validate the importance of students’ listening to each other by having students comment on and build upon one another’s comments. For example, “Ellen had a good strategy. Phil, can you explain her strategy in your own words, and show how your approach was similar (different)?” The caveat to this approach is to make sure that you don’t appear to be pitting students against each other, but rather, confirm their contribution to the session.

  • Facilitate future discussions by assigning students questions to think about for the next time. Students often feel more comfortable speaking if they have been informed about this expectation. Either at the end of one precept, or by email exchange prior to the next precept, assign questions to specific students to think about and address with the class the next time. This strategy can be particularly helpful to engage quieter students who may feel less comfortable speaking extemporaneously.

  • Be enthusiastic. Education doesn’t have to be dull. Show your excitement about the subject—enthusiasm is contagious.

Special thanks to Rebecca Jordan, Maw Lin Foo, and Richard Hooley for their help with these suggestions.