The question I’d like to know when it is really being asked

I can handle “when will I ever use this?” fairly smoothly and don’t angst over it too much.

The question I’ve been having difficulty with lately is–

I don’t know how to do this.

or alternately

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here.

For older students it is not much a problem, but for roughly half the time with my freshmen it is an excuse to stall. I cannot always tell which half; sometimes even the most basic of sentences can cause a English language learner to stumble.

Anyone have a litmus test or clever way of handling this that doesn’t waste too much time?

8 Responses

  1. Follow in Polya’s footsteps.

    Prepare a list of “starter” questions: like “Have you seen anything similar before? What is given? What is to be done/proved? Can you reformulate the problem in your own words?” – the are many more in the framework of problem solving.

    • I do quite a bit of Polya-esque questioning.

      That’s not answering my question though, which I can rephrase as: how do I tell if they’re “faking it” and are just trying to be distracted or pretend they can’t do the work? (This is a age/maturity issue.)

  2. say “… yet!”

  3. Jason,
    This is a little indirect, but you might try asking such a student whether they could change the problem a little so that they would be able to do it, or come up with an easier version of the same problem that they would be able to solve. My idea is that a student who was stalling would be more likely to give push-back or putz around to such a prompt, whereas a student who is genuinely stuck would be more likely to try to meet your request (and help themselves at the same time).
    Does that seem like it might work?

    • That’s more along the lines of what I’m thinking.

      The other issue is this doesn’t always occur with straight problem-solving — often it’s just directions along the lines of “solve for the equation”.

  4. I usually go with, “Well tell me what you do understand.” I like it because I can tell what they’ve thought of already and that they’re actually trying to understand the problem.

  5. When faced with, “I don’t get it.”, I will respond with, “Ask me a question.” This forces kids to really evaluate for themselves where the problem is. As stated before, most students can do something with the problem. I’m trying to get them to self-evaluate and narrow the problem down. Half the time, if they really think about it, they identify and solve the issue themselves. Win/ win for me. They become more independent and better critical thinkers.

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