Up until course websites, instructors kept copy machines blasting out paper handouts to students. Even as late as 2006, my file cabinet was loaded with manila folders full of assignment prompts and exercises. Then came blowing in fast the “course shell,” known on our campus as BlackBoard. Assignments could be posted electronically.
Another fading entity was oral instructions. Why go through those, and expect students to take notes when note taking was dropping away, and stragglers mounted in number, making for too much repeating of things? A good assignment prompt could now be posted in step-by-step detail, with only minimum oral review necessary to get an assignment rolling.
However, some students still ask questions that can leave an instructor ready to say (scream?) “Have you read the prompt?” All kinds of emotions and retorts come to mind in these situations, and thankfully the poker face is possible – or at least the spirit of restraint. At times, a tart bit of humor is in order.
An old cliché says, “The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.” Students may believe this, and instructors may believe it part of the time, but the cliché isn’t blanket permission for students to skim written instructions without absorbing key details.
However, sometimes after initial feelings of mostly non-expressed frustration, it becomes apparent that what a student wants is to communicate conversationally in order to process an assignment prompt. The sense of bonding and “shaking hands on a deal” is what the student is after. A mere written prompt lacks the dynamics of body language and the emotions of a nurturer. When a student has a low quotient of certain in-person feedback, that student might unconsciously choose not to process the written instructions meticulously in order to seek a personalized and living expression of what’s to be done.
When I suspect that, it’s a lot easier to relax and carry on a pleasant interchange with a student asking questions that ordinarily would tighten my eyebrows and bring a grimace. Dumb questions can become the occasion for connections that shouldn’t have been needed but which may greatly enhance the experience of a course on both sides of the podium.