Enabling students to understand and analyse contemporary issues in science and technology

Questions to a speaker from a large group

Why not just ask, “Hands up if there are any questions”?

There are occasions when students are being given presentations in a relatively large group. Typically, a visiting speaker is addressing a large number of students in a relevant ‘general studies’ session. Or you may have invited several other classes to join yours to make the invitation to a local ‘expert’ worthwhile.

It is usual to end a presentation by a visiting speaker with the opportunity for questions. This should be the opportunity for all the students in the audience to consolidate their understanding of what has been presented to them and integrate what they have understood into the framework of their course. If possible, you will have prepared your students with some introductory or background material so that they are ready to put the input from the speaker into the relevant context. Questions well handled provide the opportunity to round off the whole process.

Acknowledge the potential for disaster if at the end you simply say “Right; any questions?” — an open invitation for everyone to stare silently at the ceiling, the class joker to take everyone off task, the bright student to develop an individual discussion which loses the rest of the audience, the shy or unsure to feel that everyone is waiting for them.

Outlined below is a simple method of eliciting questions that has the major advantage of giving everyone an equal chance to be heard. The brave and the shy, quick thinkers and slow, high-minded intellectuals and mickey takers are all treated with equal seriousness and respect.

The responses by the speaker will respond to the questions set but by ordering and grouping them the overall response can be structured. The ultimate intention is to validate every audience member’s own ideas and feelings, and to encourage an active search beyond extremely specific or “yes/ no” questions by everyone present.

It is important that you let the speaker know how you intend to deal with questions so that you are not pre-empted. Your visitor will usually appreciate the fact that you have structured this, sometimes awkward, part of the session. The procedure outlined here also gives an opportunity for a short respite before tackling the points raised by students.

The instructions assume that you are ‘chairing’ the session and that one or two other staff are present. If your situation is different, for example if the speaker is happy to deal with the questions directly, you will need to make the appropriate adjustments.

1. Following, or in leading, the applause make any appropriate comment (“Thank you, those insights have given us a lot to think about…”) but keep it very brief. You want to allow students to build on any brief comments they might have made to one another in, and the energy and movement created by, the applause. So move straight on to…

2. Invite the students to talk to one another about what they have heard in informal huddles where they are sitting and to write down any comments or questions. They don’t need to identify themselves. Anything they want to share is written down — index cards are easier to handle and can be included in a ‘conference pack’ if it is that kind of event.

3. Colleagues should move about among and around the audience offering further blank cards, and collecting questions/comments as they are written. This helps both to keep students on task and also to diminish the distance between the ‘presenters’ and the ‘audience’, which is often significant if you are on an assembly hall stage.

4. The cards are collected in such a way that no-one knows who has written what (so that everyone can feel they had an equal chance if not all are dealt with) and passed to you as they are collected. Writers can also be hurried along so that energy is not lost and the minimum time is spent on this task (typically ten minutes or so).

5. As the cards are passed to you to group and order them. You can also introduce your own prepared card to the pile if you have a particular point you wish to ensure is made.

6. Bring the attention of the audience back to the front (see Gaining the attention of a large group) and read the cards out, either singly or in small groupings, and allow the speaker to respond. It may occasionally be necessary to leave one or two cards out. It is best to acknowledge that you are doing this by saying in a general way that you’ve left out a few very irrelevant comments rather than ignoring the issue or reading something you would find embarrassing.

7. You might have to restrict the number of questions used due to time pressure. If at all possible make arrangements for further response later (in class or maybe your speaker will be willing to respond in writing) and let your audience know that you will do this.

8. Time permitting you might at the end invite verbal comment from the audience as well. You should resist any temptation to do this before all the cards have been read. It is virtually impossible to get a genuine discussion going in a very large group.

But I can’t do that…
If you do have open questions – through lack of time, because someone else is responsible for the session, because this is part of a series with fixed format – it is important to resist the temptation to ‘get the questions going’ by asking the first question yourself. You are likely to be better prepared and will be much more conscious of any period of quiet that your students are needing to formulate questions. The resulting dialogue may thus come too fast and at the wrong level for your students and be even less likely to help in consolidating their understanding.