How to Get Your Students to Answer Questions in Class

So we’ve learned by now that students can only be engaged during a lecture for maybe 20 minutes at a time.  Therefore it’s important to break up your lecture and include some student engagement.

The easiest way to do this is to stop the lecture and ask your students verbal questions like:

  • What’s the next step?

  • Any ideas on how we should approach this problem?

  • Does this idea look familiar?

However, a lot of the time, your students will respond with blank stares.  This just happened to me on the first day of class.  Maybe it was too early in the morning.  Maybe they were intimidated by the math.  It doesn’t matter what there issue was, I still found a way to get them to answer my questions.  Because, like I told my students, I don’t want to stand up and talk for a full 50 minutes by myself!  They need to be involved too!

I’ve come up with 4 tips on how to get your students to answer questions in class.


How to get your students to answer your questions in class for grad students and new faculty | The Academic Society

Make your expectations clear on the first day of class

It’s important to set the tone on the first day of class.  If you expect your students to answer your questions throughout the semester, you must ask them questions on the first day.

It doesn’t even have to be deep or related to the subject of the class at all.  Start with low stakes questions.  Let them ask questions about the syllabus.  Ask them about their previous classes from the same subject.  You can even ask what their major is.  I’ve made a list of questions that you can ask your students on the first day of classes.

Download the Icebreaker Questions!


I like to start with an icebreaker activity to get them up and out of their seats to meet each other.  I go more in-depth about this icebreaker in my free e-course about implementing group work as a graduate student.  

After setting the foundation of some type of exchange between you and your students, they will have meet me and each other (if you tried my icebreaker) and loosened up a bit.  Now you can ask them any question and they will be less nervous to answer.

Answer every question seriously

It may be annoying to repeat something that you’ve already explained.  But sometimes students miss it.  Maybe they were writing notes or maybe they just spaced out.  But for some reason they missed it.

When this happens, you should answer the question fully and make sure that your students understand.

This shows that you care about them and want to help them as much as you can.  It also shows that you won’t embarrass your students if they answer something incorrectly.

Students really appreciate that!  It has been mentioned many times in my teacher evaluations that I never make my students feel bad for asking questions and that they can tell that I care about them learning.

Remember, teaching evaluations can be a big part of your job applications if you want a job in academia.

Embrace the awkward silence

Because it will happen.  You will ask a question and no one will answer.  When this happens, the best thing you can do is wait.  And after a significant amount of time has passed (30-45 seconds), if you can tell that they do not know the answer, prompt them.

Ask them a leading question.  You know, one that will lead them to the correct answer without giving it away.  A question that will put them on the right train of thought.

When you ask leading questions, you are training your students to think that way so that they can get themselves to answers to a question (when they are working alone) and don’t know where to begin.

Here’s what happened to me on the first day of my precalculus class, even after we had such a great time getting to know each other:

We were learning about the distance formula and started to work this problem.

Find the set of all points that are 4 units away from the point (2, -3).

I plotted the point on a graph so that they could get a visual.  Then I asked, “any ideas on how to get started?”


So I asked, “can anyone find one point 4 units away?”


So then I chose a random point at least 10 units away and asked, “is this 4 units away?”

Finally, a few people said no.  And then someone said we could add and subtract 4 units from the x and y coordinate.

And then we were well on our way to getting to the answer to that problem.

After we went through all of that my students realized that I would not accept silence as an answer to any of my questions.

Call on students

I don’t really like to put students on the spot to answer questions, especially in a lower level math course because people have real anxieties about math and I don’t want to traumatize them; I want them to love it as much as I do.  At least that’s the goal.

Also, being called on is something I hated as a student and it gave me anxiety!

I like to call on students to ask them how they feel:

  • “How do you feel about this topic?”

  • “Do we need more practice?”

  • “Which part is the most difficult?”

  • “If you were working this on you own, where would you have gotten stuck?”

That last one is my favorite.  It really makes the students look back at the problem to make sure they really understand it.

Extra Tips

Along with those 4 tips, I wanted to give you a few other small things you can do to get your students to answer your questions.

  1. Smile

  2. Look like a nice, approachable person.

  3. Be relatable and tell them about when you learned the topic.

I hope that you enjoyed this post.  Let me know which tips you plan to use in your classroom and please share any other tips you may have in the comments section below.  It could really help other grad students struggling with getting their students to answer their questions.

Download the Icebreaker Questions!

6 Tips For Getting Good Teaching Evaluations

As a graduate student wanting a career in academia, you need good teaching evaluations for your job application packets.  These evaluations become even more important when you are a new faculty member.  Evaluations can play a role when you go up for promotion.  However, you are often thrust into a classroom to teach without any teaching experience or training.  And when you ask people how to be good at teaching, the answer is usually, “experience”.

This is true.  But as a graduate student who has never taught before, you don’t have that!

This post is about how to be thoughtful about your teaching strategies so that your students learn, like you, and give you great evaluations.

Download the Mid-Semester Survey Questions!

6 tips for getting good teaching evaluations for graduate students and new faculty members in Math and STEM | The Academic Society


Relate to your students

This is where your experience level is a HUGE asset!  You know, more recently than any professor, how it feels to be a student and how you felt when you took the same course yourself.

Share your experiences with your students.  Explain where you struggled and give them tips on how to succeed in the class.

My students always perk up when I say, “Oh, I remember learning this.  A lot of my classmates (or just me) found it difficult but I’ve come up with a good way to explain it.”  Students love when you are relatable like this.  And it also shows that you care.  And those are the things students mention in teaching evaluations.

Make your students feel comfortable

I always greet my students with a smile.  I also smile throughout the lecture…but that’s just who I am.  And my students always mention it in my teaching evaluations.  They always say that they could tell that I loved the subject (because math is awesome!) and that I was happy to be there.

You can also ask them how they are doing.  Especially before and after class.  Then ask them how they are enjoying the class so far.  If you’ve asked your students what their majors are, you can also incorporate relevant examples throughout your lectures.

I highly recommend a mid-semester survey.  This will tell you how your students really feel.  I like to also ask what they would like to change about class…and actually make some changes.  They love this and will share these things in your teaching evaluations! 

I’ve made a list for you of my mid-semester survey questions for the class that gave me all positive evaluations.  Give them a try and see how they work for you.



Understand Time

Time goes so much slower than you think when you are writing on the board.  One minute to you feels like 30 seconds to your students.  You have to give them time to absorb what you have written.  Even if it feels like you are just standing in silence for an awkwardly long amount of time.

Note:  Nothing you do is too awkward.  The more awkward the better is my opinion (I’m a mathematician…awkward is our default), as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously.  It makes you more approachable to your students.

Another thing.  It’s important to realize that students have a jam packed academic schedule as well as social engagements.  I’m not saying to give them less work.  But try to seem a little sympathetic.

Group work

In class group work is my favorite.  It gives your students a chance to ask each other questions.  It also forces engagement.  When I get to a problem in the notes that takes just a little more thought to come up with a game plan for solving it, I like to break my students up into groups of 2 or 3, give them a starting point, and let them talk it out and work it out together.

Coming up with strategies on their own helps them remember the process so much more than just watching me do it!  If you would like to learn how to get started with group work, try my free 4-day email course, Student Engagement for GTAs.  In this course I show you how to set your class up for group work starting on day one of the semester.


Over-prepare for class

Make sure you have prepared more than enough information, notes, and examples for each class.  Use resources other than the class textbook for alternate examples and explanations.

It’s important to actually work the HW problems that will be assigned.  That way you will know exactly what topics and ways of thinking should be discussed in class.

Check for understanding every 3-5 minutes

It’s so easy to get caught up in beautiful mathematics and then you look up 10 minutes later and your whole class either looks lost or has zoned out!

Not good.  I like to check for understanding at every step.  Here’s what I like to ask:

  • “Does that make sense?”

  • “What should we do next?”

  • “What’s the overall goal of the question?”

  • “If you were working on this problem by yourself, where might you have gotten stuck?”

  • “Any ideas on how we should approach this problem?”

  • “Why?”

If you ask these questions, your students will say that you really cared that they understood the material in your teaching evaluations.

Remember, teaching evaluations aren’t everything and you do want to be genuine when you teach.  So just be yourself and try to remember how it felt to be a student.  How would you want your professor to address the class?

I hope that you enjoyed this post!  If you have any other tips or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below.  Also, share this post with other graduate students and new faculty members.

Download the Mid-Semester Survey Questions!

How to Prepare for the First Day of Class for Grad Students and New Faculty Nervous about Teaching for the First Time

I remember being told that I had to teach in my 3rd year of grad school.  I was terrified.  I’m quite shy and hate speaking in front of people.  I felt instantly overwhelmed.  I had never taught a class before.  I was not an education major in undergrad.  And my GTA Teacher Training happened 2 years prior and was not discipline specific.


I had so many fears and questions about that first day of class:


What if my students don’t listen to me?


What if I’m a horrible teacher? Poor students.


What if I make a mistake?


How to Prepare for the First Day of Classes as a Graduate Student Nervous about Teaching | The Academic Society | for graduate students in Math and STEM

You’ve probably had these same questions.  And that’s why I’m here.  I survived my first day of class and discovered that teaching was my passion.  So I want to give you some tips, tricks, and encouragement for your first day of class.


Who is this article for?

This post is for any graduate student or new faculty member preparing for the first day of classes.  It will be particularly helpful for students who have never taught before.  I hope to relieve some of your fears.  This post is also for graduate students who have taught before and want to check that they have everything set for the first day of class.



In my opinion, it all starts with coming into class on the first day with the right mindset.  Have you heard the saying, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”?  While it’s good to be prepared, I think that quote sends a negative message.  I like to go into my first day of class with a positive attitude, expecting that it will be the best class I’ve ever taught.  And if it is your first time teaching…it will be!  So no pressure!


It’s not about you

All of those fears and questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post were all about me.  But when you are teaching a class, it’s not about you at all.  It’s about the students.  You are there to help them learn.


Yes, you are busy and have other, more important things to focus on.  But those things are only important to you.  They are not important to your students.  They have no idea what it means to be in grad school.  But they do deserve your best effort.


Be clear and understandable

You should always try to speak clearly and be understandable.  This is especially important for teaching in a STEM field, math in particular.  Many students come in thinking that the class will be difficult so you want to ease some of their fears by, at least, being easy to understand.  If you know you have a soft voice or people have difficulty understanding you, reiterate important things you say by writing them down for your students.


Course evaluations

At the end of the semester, your students will be submitting course evaluations for you and your class.  It may not seem like a big deal now, but these evaluations can become very important for your future in academia.  If you plan to apply for jobs in academia where you will have teaching responsibilities, your course evaluations will be a part of your application materials.


Related Post:  How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluations


As you start thinking about walking into your class on the first day of class, set a positive mindset.  Come into the experience with a positive attitude and try to make your class a good experience for your students.



Download the First Day Checklist!



Prepare, prepare, prepare

It is so important to prepare for your class before you enter the classroom.  Yes, you will be teaching a class that you could do the material in your sleep.  But if you are unprepared, you will stumble and possibly make things more confusing for your students.  This is not good.  You will lose all credibility to them and they will stop listening to you.


Once you’ve shown your students that you know what you are doing and what you are talking about, they will recognize your authority.  Then, a mistake here or there isn’t a big deal.  It will serve to make you more human to your students.


How to prepare

  • I suggest writing out all of your notes ahead of time. Then 30-60 minutes before class, go back over your notes.

  • It’s helpful to point out “interesting” things. Try showing them something that they have never seen before. Maybe you will inspire a student or two to declare your subject as their major.

  • I also like to mark, in my personal notes, where I want student feedback or to get them to work on a problem themselves.

  • Try to estimate how much time each section of your lecture will take. This will get better with time. It’s important to respect your students’ time and end class when you should. You also don’t want to have to rush through examples because you are running out of time.


Enjoying this so far?  Feel free to pin this image!

How to prepare for the first day of class for grad students and new faculty who are nervous about teaching for the first time


Presentation Style

It’s important to decide how you will present your lecture and what materials you will need.  Are you going to write on the board?  Will it be chalk or dry-erase?  Are you going to make slides and present using a projector?


Personally, I like to use a document camera.  When I use a doc cam, I’m always facing my students and I can gage their reactions and interest level as I teach.


In introductory level math courses (precalculus), I like to prepare notes as handouts for my students ahead of time.  When I have those prepared for the students (they are responsible for printing them and bringing them to class), I don’t have to spend time in class writing long questions and definitions.  Also, it reduces the chance that students write incorrect notes.  (This happens more than you would expect.)


Download the First Day Checklist!



The First Day of Class

Materials to bring on the first day

  • Chalk/markers/erasers just in case your technology doesn’t work or isn’t what you expected

  • Roll: Go ahead and print out a class roll for your students so that you know who was there and who wasn’t

  • Syllabus: You are probably teaching freshman and they have no idea how college actually works. So it is important to print out physical syllabi for them and highlight the important parts.


What to do when you get in the classroom

Write your name on the board along with your email address, course title, and meeting time.  In fact, you should write your name on the board for the first 2 weeks of class.  It’s amazing but students will go through a whole semester and not know their instructor’s name, despite the fact that you sign all of your emails and will send at least one email per week.


Another reason to include the course title and meeting time on the board before class is to give students in the wrong place a chance to leave and make it to their actual class on time.


I also like to give the class something to work on at the beginning of class while you all wait for class to start.  Everyone gets to class super early on the first day and this time can be super awkward if they are just staring at you being nervous.  And you are trying not to make eye contact with them.


My tip:  Create some type of icebreaker worksheet.  Or you can give them notecards to write their information on for you.  This can be helpful for students who are not yet on your roll.  You can have a way to contact them.


How to begin class

When class starts, introduce yourself and tell your students about the class and what you expect from them.  This is a good time to go over the syllabus.  I wouldn’t read the whole thing but I would highlight key points.  Sometimes I actually bring a highlighter to emphasize the most important parts of the syllabus.


Then I like to do some kind of icebreaker to loosen everyone up.  During the icebreaker, I get to know the students, they get to know each other, and they get to know me.  If you are interested in more details about my icebreaker activity and how I encourage engagement and participation in my classes, check out the Student Engagement Email Course.


Related Email Course:  Student Engagement for Graduate Students


After class

After class, I send my students a follow up email to remind them what was discussed in class and list any homework assignments they have.  If you are interested in that email, check out 22 Email Templates


Related Post:  How to Write an Email


You should also use this time to check to see if your class roll has been updated.  It’s good to check this until the last day to add/drop a class.  You may even get new student in your class once word gets out about how great you were on the first day!


Tips and Tricks

  • Practice your teacher voice (it’s louder and stronger than your normal voice)

  • Don’t tell your students that this is your first time teaching. If they ask, you probably shouldn’t lie. But they probably won’t ask.

  • Remain professional with students but don’t be afraid to bring out your personality.

  • Tell them why you enjoy the subject that you are teaching. You may convert some majors.


If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, feel free to share it with your friends.  Also, for quick access to some of my suggestions, download the 1st day of class checklist.

Download the First Day Checklist!