It is commonplace in pedagogy that the teacher should create a friendly atmosphere in the classroom so that students feel comfortable asking questions. Questions are important for many reasons: they help the teacher to see what should be explained better, what topics students haven’t comprehended fully, what issues students are struggling with and why. At the same time, questions are equally important for students. Questions are always the result of some intellectual work, and by merely articulating a question, we come closer to finding the solutions to our problems. A good question contains half the answer.
I will go a bit further. I not only invite my students to ask me whatever they want to ask, but I also dedicate an entire one-hour lesson to questions and answers. I ask my students to write down all the questions that pop up in their minds between our lessons. Our one-on-one lessons go like a ping-pong game–students shoot questions, and I try my very best to return answers quickly and straight to the point. It’s a challenge, and both sides enjoy that. Rather than imposing my agenda on my students and teaching them what I think I should teach, I listen to them and let them drive our sessions in the direction that they choose.
I started practicing Q&A lessons with some of my intermediate and advanced students, and that proved to work perfectly well for them. Of course, not every lesson should be a Q&A session–just some of them, once in a while. The best time for Q&A lessons is when my students read a book in Russian, or watch a Russian TV show, or write some letters, or maybe work on a Russian version of their website–in other words, when they work on a large and preferably meaningful project. Those projects keep them engaged with the language outside our virtual classroom. It is just natural that during the work, questions spring up like mushrooms.
When I ask my students to write down their questions, they start approaching their projects differently. They start paying more attention to grammar or word usage nuances that otherwise would go unnoticed. Usually language learners don’t strive for full comprehension. With some contextual clues, we can be happy with somewhat vague assumptions and guesses. And that is wonderful. That helps us to enjoy reading and eventually brings us to the next level. My Q&A lessons put that fast reading on pause and let students work deeper on details.
For me, those Q&A sessions are a kind of formative assessment. They are informal, but they show me how I should modify teaching and learning activities and tailor my lessons for the students’ specific needs.
Occasionally, my students ask me questions that I cannot answer. Well, not immediately. And I love those moments most. In this case, I honestly say that I need some time, and I prepare my answers for the next lesson. I grow together with my students, and this is the best outcome I can get.