Wall of Questions – Simple Student Involvement

Teaching an intensive mode class can be challenging. Talking to anyone for 6 hours in a row (however you try and break it up) requires you to try and maintain engagement with student, but the student has to want to become and stay engaged! We’re humans so we’re always more interested in things when it is relevant to our interests – the question now becomes “How can I make students care about what I’m teaching because it is relevant to them?”

I’ve learned a lot from looking at the great work coming out of CS Unplugged, so I decided to take a low-tech approach to getting the students involved in the knowledge construction in the course.

On the Friday night of teaching, I gave my students a simple homework question: “What is your big question about networking?” This could be technical, social or crystal-ball gazing. The next morning, I handed out some large sticky notes in a variety of garish colours and asked them to write their questions on the notes and stick them on the board. This is what it looked like this morning (after about 6 hours of teaching).

The Big Network Question Board

The blue, orange and pink rectangles are questions. The ones on the left are yet to be answered. The ones on the right have been answered. (The green post-its are 2D bit parity as an audience participation magic trick.)

I’ve been answering these questions as fill-ins, where I have gaps, but a lot of them address issues that I was planning to cover anyway. The range is, however, far wider than I would have thought of but it’s given me a chance to address the applications and implications of networking, to directly answer questions that are of interest to the students.

Here are some (not verbatim) examples: What happened to the versions of the Internet Protocol that aren’t 4 or 6? What would happen if we had a human colony on Mars in terms of network implications? Was the IPv4 allocation ‘fair’ in terms of all countries? Could you run WiFi in the underground train network and, if so, what is the impact of the speed of the train? Will increased WiFi coverage give us cancer?

Every student has a question on the board and, now, every student is (at least to a slight degree) involved in the course. A lot of the questions that are left are security questions, and I’ll answer them as part of my security lectures this afternoon.

If you like this, and want to try it, then I am not claiming any originality for this but I can offer some suggestions:

  1. Give the students a little time to think about the question. It’s a good homework assignment.
  2. Get them to fill out the notes in class. As they finish their notes and pop them up to the board, it appears to encourage other people to finish their own notes to get them up. The notes are also shorter because the students want to get it done quickly.
  3. Once the notes are up, quickly review them to see how you can use them and where they fit into your teaching.
  4. When you can, group the notes by theme based on what you are teaching. I left them unordered for a while and I kept having to exhaustively search them, which is irritating.
  5. Be bold and prominent – the board is an eye-catcher and it clearly says “We have questions!” It’s also dynamic because I can easily rearrange it, move it or regroup the notes.

I’m still thinking about what to do with the notes next. I am planning to keep them but am unsure as to whether I want to ‘capture’ answers to this as I may have a knock-on effect for the next offering of this course.

What pleased me was the students who recognised their own question, because their faces lit up as I spoke to their concern. For a relatively low effort investment, that’s a great reward.

Could I have used an electronic forum? Yes, but then the focus isn’t in the classroom. The board, and your question, are in the classroom. You can go up and look at anyone else’s to see if it’s interesting. Rather than taking the application focus out of the classroom, we’re bringing in the realities and the answers as I go through the teaching.

Is there a risk that they’ll ask something I don’t know? No more than usual, and now I can sneak off and look it up before I answer, because it’s on the board. Being an honest man, I would of course have to say “I had to look this up” but I did warn them that this might happen. If a student can ask a question that has me scratching my head but I can develop an answer, I think that’s a very valuable example and it’s probably a nice moment for the student too.

I’ll certainly be doing this again!


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