Effective Communication

Author: Dalhousie University, Centre for Learning and Teaching

How often have you heard the following? “Professor Wye sure knows a lot about his subject; I wish he could communicate it better.”

Communication is inseparable from many of the recognized qualities of a good teacher. It has an impact on the way you present your material, create rapport with the students, and establish your credibility in and control of the class. And remember, communication involves receiving as well as sending – in other words, a good communicator is also a good listener.

Once you are comfortable with your knowledge of the material you are about to teach, here are some skills to help you communicate it effectively:

  • Know your students. If you know your audience, the whole communications process will be much easier.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence – take a moment to think before you talk.
  • Use clear and precise terms.
  • Avoid using jargon; if you must, give a definition to ensure everyone understands. Listen carefully to student responses.
  • Be sensitive to student behaviour and non-verbal communication in the class. A lot of chattering or restless shuffling could indicate that the class does not understand something. Stop and ask for an explanation.
  • Create a gender-sensitive classroom environment. Use language which is inclusive and examples which are appropriate and comfortable for everyone in the class. (See “Responding to and Preventing Harassment & Discrimination” on p.55).
  • Use humour, by all means, but make sure it is neither tasteless nor malicious.

Question and Answer Techniques

Questions and answers are essential components of teaching and learning. You will ask questions of your students and answer questions from them. Asking a good question will help you motivate students’ curiosity about the topic, and it will help you assess how well they understand the material.

There are two kinds of questions: closed and open.

A closed question (sometimes called a “lower order” question) is usually used to check student comprehension. It requires a factual answer and allows little opportunity for dissent; e.g., “What does `x’ equal in this equation?”; “Which of Henry VIII’s wives survived him?” The answer will be either correct or incorrect.

An open or “higher order” question offers the students much more opportunity to speculate, draw inferences, extrapolate from data, or contribute their own opinions; e.g., “What do you think would happen if we reduced the temperature by 25 degrees?”; “Which of the two short stories provides the best description of adolescence?” Open questions are frequently the springboards for lively class discussion. You might want to think of some possible answers to an open question before you ask it in class.

Answering student questions can be unnerving at first. If you do not know the answer, say so. It is better to be honest than to give an inaccurate answer which will have to be retracted later. Tell the students you will find out for them by next class; better still, invite the questioner to find the answer and report it at the next class.

Further guidelines for answering student questions include:

  • Take a moment to think carefully before you respond to student questions.
  • Listen to the question carefully. It may indicate that the student is having difficulty with the material. You may wish to answer with another question until you discover where the student’s misunderstanding begins.
  • If the question requires a very lengthy response or demonstrates that the questioner has missed some classes, you may wish to ask the student to stay behind after class or come to see you at another time to get the answer.

Remember these points concerning questions addressed to the class:

  • Ask only one question at a time.
  • Wait at least 15 seconds for a response.
  • If there is no answer, rephrase the question and ask it again. Asking a different question will confuse the students.

Rapport in the Classroom: Responses and Respect

Students are often very hesitant to speak out in class. Questions go unasked and unanswered, students remain silent because they are afraid to lose their self-esteem by being put down in front of their classmates.

Here are some hints for creating a more open, rewarding, and responsive classroom environment:

  • Listen to what students say without comment. Use eye contact, non-verbal cues such as a nod, and facial expression to indicate that you’re interested.
  • Don’t dismiss student comments with a vague phrase such as “uh-huh,” or “okay.”
  • Don’t interrupt student comments or responses.
  • Try to incorporate student comments and responses into your material.
  • Encourage students to respond to each other by inviting them to comment on a remark a classmate has made.
  • Write good responses or comments on the board to emphasize the value of student contributions to your class.
  • If you are not sure what a student is asking, ask some questions which will help you clarify. Don’t say, “I don’t understand what you mean.”
  • If you cannot answer a question, be frank with the class. Ask for help; maybe one of the students can give an example to help you out.
  • Repeat and paraphrase student answers. This shows that you were listening, helps you check that you understood what the student meant, and ensures that everyone in class hears what was said. Never try to capitalize on students’ confusion by ridiculing or joking about incorrect responses. “Humour” of that kind is bound to backfire and create the very kind of inhospitable climate that you are trying to avoid.
  • Never deter questions by saying, “Well that was really straightforward. I don’t suppose there are any questions, are there?” You can bet there won’t be.