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One of the major uses of my classroom time is for lab work. This is both a requirement of the AP Computer Science curriculum, and also nominally a benefit, as it allows me to walk around and answer questions.

In practice, however, I have found that the students work on their tasks, and whether they are doing well or not, they don't ask questions, even when prompted individually with a "how's it going? Do you need any help?"

This eventually results in me going to sit down at my own station to do other work for about 10 minutes, and then making the rounds again.

This feels like an underutilization of myself as a resource. It's not as if I don't have students who struggle, and there are always students who fall behind and submit their labs late.

So, how can I better utilize the lab time? Are there techniques to get kids to ask questions when progress slows? Or is there something else that I should be doing altogether?

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The problem you describe doesn't exactly fit this answer, but it might be useful to some with a similar problem.

In some such labs it has been observed (and filmed) that students working alone at a station get into some difficulty and raise their hand for help. If the instructor and/or assistant is busy with another at the time, the student with the new problem waits. Then maybe another, and two are waiting, etc.

The solution to this is to have students always working in pairs in the lab, doing things like pair programming, pair research, pair writing (very creative), etc. This has been observed to reduce the waiting to essentially zero as the students solve their own problems. When one student gets "stuck" it is unlikely that the partner is stuck in exactly the same way so they can move on. This is a well known effect in professional pair programming also.

You still need to wander about asking if you are needed, as a pair will sometimes queue a question till you come around while they work elsewhere.

Sorry, I don't have a link to the study on this. I assume it came out of the Agile Community's educator forum.

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I, too, have felt exactly the same during lab periods. Walk around, ask questions, sit, repeat. I've come upon two things that help improve productivity: goal-setting and reflection.

Releasing students to work as soon as class starts for more time can be counter-productive. Instead, I found it helpful to frame the focus for a particular lab session with a clear objective. That goal may stretch over multiple days, but every class should start with a review of the goal, a discussion of progress made if relevant, and a re-focusing for the day. It does not need to be complex; a simple, manageable goal is effective. Even having multiple small goals rather than one big goal may help students spot their own struggles as they do or do not make progress. Comments can go from "I'm stuck" to "I'm having trouble implementing x." Their involvement with the creation of their own plan for a lab session will also increase their ownership of their work. Plus, it's essentially another way of teaching decomposition. :)

To follow that, a goal that doesn't get assessed for progress may as well not be set. I find exit tickets to be an absolutely invaluable tool (thank you, Google Forms!). Even 1 or 2 simple questions at the end of class like "How did today go?", "What went well today? What didn't?", "Do you have a questions for me?", etc., will help you see their progress meaningfully, spot trends among student perception of the lab session, and provide a way to start the next class.

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Students eventually ask questions if someone else is doing it, so the key is to get that first person to make the leap. If no one is currently asking, perhaps you could recruit someone to act as a 'confederate' and ask a question now and again.

Another idea I was told about is to ask, "What questions do you have?" This is better than asking IF they have questions, for some obscure psychological reason. A mentor who was helping me with lecturing and running training sessions told me this.

I learned to leave long pauses when lecturing or even just conversing, because people often need time to come forward with something that is on their mind. During Lab time this is not an issue, but it might rub off if they start asking more at other times. ("Questions only lead to questions.")

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A scattering of ideas:

  1. During your very first labs section of the year/semester/whatever, set the tone by explicitly telling students lab periods are times for them to ask questions and have (brief?) one-on-one interactions with you in addition to working on their labs. This probably will help only in a limited sense, but your students may be more willing to ask questions if you straight-up tell them that questions are not only encouraged, but expected.
  2. Shift to doing more group-work. If everybody is working individually, being the only person to speak up and hold a conversation feels awkward. If there's some ambient background chatter, asking a question will feel less "awkward"/more "private", which might encourage your students who are shy or embarrassed to speak up.
  3. Make your labs harder. The idea is that now everybody is going to struggle and therefore ask questions. And if your more confident/talented students are asking questions, the students who are falling behind might feel encouraged to do the same. This pairs well with the previous suggestion: if your students are now working in groups, they should theoretically be capable of working through more material.

    You should probably do this by making the problems trickier and twisty, not by adding more work.

  4. If you do the above, and notice that everybody's struggling with the same problem, consider interrupting and going over some core points as a class/working through the problem together. This gives you more opportunities to engage with your students, albeit as a group, not one-on-one.

  5. Switch your question from "do you need any help?" to something more like "any questions?". (See @nocomprende's answer for reasoning).

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Like other answers have said, you should make it clear that asking questions is a good thing, and not something to be embarassed about. You might encourage this by asking specific questions:

  • "Is anybody stuck on part two of the assignment?"
  • "Does anybody have any questions about for loops?"

Another thing you might consider is setting milestones within a lab, and then checking whether students are meeting those milestones.

  • "Is anybody still working on part one of the assignment?"

Or you could make it work the other way:

  • "After you finish part one, come get part two."

The second approach would let you know who is working on what, without making students call attention to themselves for being slower than their classmates.

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