Rather than a traditional roll merely asking students whether they’re present, I pose a different question to each student to begin class.
“What’s something you’ve learned so far this semester?”
“What was your favorite breakfast as a kid?”
“What’s something that helps you study?”
I call it, “Question Roll” and have found it to be a simple and powerful pedagogical tool.
And since it has garnered a lot of attention in student and faculty reviews, I wanted to write about its potential for adding social benefits (like building community among students) and pedagogical benefits (as Question Roll can become part of the lesson) to traditional roll. I’ll leave the pedagogical benefits to another post and focus here on three sorts of social benefits: I) student-teacher connection, II) building community, and III) facilitating student engagement.
The Social Benefit I: Student-Teacher Connection
Lately, I’ve been opening class by answering the Question Roll question myself,* whether about a class I think they’d like, my dad’s prolific pancake-making, or a coffee shop I enjoy. Student course reviews cited this specifically as something that helped them connect with me as an instructor and set the stage for a much more comfortable learning space: “I like that he asks a question everyday. I think other teachers should do this because it makes you feel more important and like you know things about your teacher.” (emphasis added)
As such, the first social benefit: it helps students connect to their teacher, which in turn makes the classroom a more comfortable learning space (especially important for subjects like philosophy which can feel quite foreign to students).
The Social Benefit II: Building Community
While the student-teacher connection helps, it’s not enough for students who feel uncomfortable around their classmates (an especially difficult issue for students who have struggled in traditional learning environments, a common issue for community college populations). Question Roll affords students opportunities to connect to each other as people by adding content unique to each student. It helps each student think of their classmates as individuals they can connect to beyond simply being in the same classroom. Further, Question Roll helps students bond together by signaling the start of class, reminding students of their common connection and thereby bringing them into the collaborative space of the class.
The Social Benefit III: Facilitating Student-Engagement
The final benefit: it helps students talk (especially important in disciplines like philosophy where discussion plays a central role). The Question Roll question is answerable by anyone, and it is low-stakes enough that teachers can pester each student for an answer (and resort to coming back to them at the end, if they can’t think of something the first time around) since it’s not dependent on, e.g., having done the reading or understanding the previous lecture. After students have spoken once (and heard their own voice in the class) it simply makes it that much easier to speak again. And with the precedent of playful creativity (I make it a point to mention enjoying creative answers to the question every so often during a semester) students are able to see speaking up in class less as an assessment (where they might FAIL) and more as a safe space to practice engaging course material (where they can find out if they’re more or less on the right track).
I’ve found the social benefits of Question Roll are great: it helps students connect with teachers. It helps students connect with each other. And it helps students engage in the classroom space through their comments and question.
Check back soon for a discussion of integrating Question Roll into Pedagogy!
*-In one sense, answering the question before they need to is modeling: showing them how to substantively answer the question. It’s part of my “Model it for them before I Practice it with them before I Expect it from them”.