Jeremy Côté


Finishing Sentences

One of the classic methods of teaching I’ve witnessed in a science classroom is the “finish the sentence” method. Essentially, it involves the teacher saying a sentence and trailing off at the end while raising their voice in order to make it sound like a question, which prompts the students to answer. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad strategy. It engages students and makes them participate in a class discussion instead of having a teacher lecture the entire class time.

However, there is a fundamental issue with the strategy: the teacher wants this interaction to go smoothly. Said another way, the teacher wants the students to be right the first time they answer. Consequently, I’ve witnessed teachers unconsciously bias this process by giving cues to the students about the answer they are expecting. This is not ideal, because it takes away the sense of reflection that the student is supposed to take. It encourages efficiency over deliberation, which can lead to stupid mistakes. Worse, these cues can end up giving the students the answer the teacher seeks, allowing the students to faithfully reiterate it back and satisfy the teacher’s expectation.

Personally, the most nefarious cue I’ve seen is when a teacher basically finishes the sentence that they were planning to allow their student to answer. It will usually take the form of answer, followed by the question, “Right?” As a result, the student will most likely say that they understand, even though they might have no clue. With the answer being supplied for them, they grasp onto it, even if they have no clue what’s happening. I know this because I’ve seen it happen to other students, and I’ve done it myself too. The end result is an interaction that looks like the student is engaging with the content, but really the teacher is just supplying the information.

On the other side of the equation, I’ve found myself guilty of committing this error in teaching as well. When I tutor students and ask them questions to make sure they understand what I’m talking about, I’ll often nod my head or finish a thought for them that seems easy to me but what very well may have been a struggle for them (something I unfortunately tend to notice only when it is too late). I’ll then hit myself mentally, because I know giving my students the answer will only make things easier in the short run.

Therefore, I try to avoid asking the “Right?” question, and instead try to give more substance to the question so that the student has to actually think about the question. Furthermore, I do my best to not make students finish my sentences, because it puts them on the spot and makes them embarrassed if they don’t happen to know the perfect answer I am looking for when I ask. I know this happens because I’ve experienced it myself when a teacher asks a question and I can tell they expect me to know it. Worse, I may actually know what they are asking, but I can’t answer because the wording of their question may be strange to me. That’s why I believe trying to “guide” students along the right path while they are learning something new is not something to be done by making them finish my sentences.