What they really, really want (to know in sex ed)

https://i1.wp.com/s3-ec.buzzfed.com/static/enhanced/web05/2012/8/10/18/enhanced-buzz-1090-1344636530-8.jpgInspired by Hillary’s post, I would like to share one of my favorite teaching tools – anonymous question cards!

What are anonymous question cards you ask? Well, they are pretty much exactly what they sound like – cards where students write their questions, without revealing their identity. This is a popular tactic used by many sexuality educators (and educators of other disciplines) as a way to enable students to ask questions, without having to feel “awkward” or “embarrassed” in front of their peers.

While there are a couple of different ways to execute this, here is the method I prefer:

  1. After providing the outline for the lesson and going over ground rules, pass out blank index cards (and writing utensils – optional)
  2. Ask students to write down any questions they have on the subject. For instance, if you are teaching about puberty, ask them to write down any questions they have about puberty, or any questions they want to make sure are addressed by the end of class.
  3. Tell students if they do not have any questions, to write down “I do not have any questions” three times on the index card. This part is key because it makes sure all students are writing something. Doesn’t it kind of nullify the whole point of anonymous cards if everyone can see who is writing questions?
  4. Ask students to fold their index card in half when they are finished. You can then either ask them to raise their hand and you will come and collect it (so that they can’t look at the students who are still writing as they walk past them) or have them bring it up. You can also wait until everyone is finished and pass around a container for students to deposit their question cards in.

https://i2.wp.com/treasure.diylol.com/uploads/post/image/561465/resized_all-the-things-meme-generator-answer-all-the-questions-833915.jpgOnce you have collected the cards, there are a couple different options as to how you address them. Some educators prefer to take them home to sort through and then answer them at the start of the next class. This option allows you to sort through and discard all of the “I do not have any questions” cards, as well as any that are inappropriate (in a way that is disruptive and not relevant) and/or looking to test boundaries. That being said, it is very important to keep in mind the legitimacy of a question that could be considered inappropriate, but I will get to that in a minute. This method is also good for researching any questions you might not be able to answer off the top of your head ahead of time, so you are fully prepared to answer them next class.

Some educators may only have access to their group of students once, so taking the cards home might not be an option. In this case, they have the choice of immediately answering questions or reserving some time at the end of class to answer the questions. I prefer the latter for a couple of reasons:

  1. Many questions tend to be on things that were addressed during the lesson, so reading the question and asking if someone is able to answer it is a good way to assess student learning.
  2. If the students can be engaged in an activity without a lot of supervision on your part, you can take this time during class to sift through the cards, setting aside all of the ones that say “I do not have any questions.”
  3. You can use answering their cards as an incentive to keep the class on track (e.g. “if you guys keep talking and not listening I am not going to have time to answer the question cards“). This is usually not as useful when working with adults.

If you choose to address the question cards at the start of class (before the lesson), make sure you budget your time accordingly – you don’t want to devote the entire class time to answering questions and miss getting to the lesson. As mentioned above, many questions tend to be on things that will be addressed during the lesson, so you can defer these these by saying “this is a great question! We will be discussing this when we get to ____ (reference the outline you previously provided) so if we’ve discussed _____ and the question is still unanswered please remind me and I will answer it.

Things to keep in mind

  • Yes, the “sometimes my penis becomes hard while I am sitting in class – what should I do?” question may be in there for laughs or to fluster/embarrass the instructor, but there is no reason why this question cannot be used as an opportunity to talk about erections.
  • Related, never laugh at or shame a student’s question – no matter how ridiculous it might seem (also keeping in mind your facial expressions/reactions!). Sometimes questions are phrased in a certain way because the student has no other language for it, or is just genuinely confused.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, be transparent. If you are going to see them again, tell them you will look into it and get back to them (and follow through!). If you will not see them again, try to give them some resources so they can find answers on their own.
  • Let them know that you won’t be able to get to every question, and if they have a pressing question you will make yourself available after class.
  • Tell students you will only skip over a card if it says “I do not have any questions.” If you do skip over a question because you think it is inappropriate, make sure students do not see – otherwise that diminishes their trust (this is the benefit of sorting through questions ahead of time).

Why I love this method

  • It is a fantastic tool educators can use with a vast array of student populations. It is appropriate for students of different age groups and learning styles.
  • It is a great tool for getting a sense of what your students want to know for future curriculum development and revisions. Similarly, it can serve as a visual representation to administrators and school boards as a way of advocating for more/different sexuality education curricula.
  • By giving them time and discrete space to ask any questions they have, disruptive or off-subject questions that might shouted out and distract from the lesson are reduced.
  • It helps elicit questions from students who may not otherwise ask questions or participate due to fear or embarrassment – it gives all students questions equal value.


  • Requires that students be able to write/write in the language of the instructor.
  • There is usually not enough time to answer all the questions.
  • Handwriting can indicate who wrote the question – not completely anonymous.
  • Handwriting can be hard to read or the question could be vague, making it difficult to understand and answer the question with no opportunity for follow-up.

15 responses to “What they really, really want (to know in sex ed)

  1. I use the anonymous question cards either as an ice breaker at the beginning of class or as a final thought to the end of class. I remember the activity from HSED:588 that we did involving how to answer the anonymous questions and how difficult it was for some of us! Another strategy that may work while implementing this activity is after each student writes a question to pass the card to the person to their right and then pass it again. Each person would end up with a card that is not their own and have to answer it. My favorite strategy that we used in 588 was to nod our head after reading the question and smile and say,”that is a great question” which hopefully will buy you more time in deciding how you will answer the question!
    I also agree with getting a consensus of what your students already know or want to know in order to develop a curriculum that is tailored to their specific needs rather than what you are supposed to be teaching from a textbook.

  2. I agree with Molly. I like this as an ice breaker or a final thought. I think I would lean towards more of an ice breaker because it can potentially get all of the tension out of there and get the ball rolling on more serious topics. I think it’ll also allow the class to relax and hear that some other classmates have some of the same questions they have.

  3. I love all of your suggestions for how to use this activity correctly. I think it’s a huge mistake to just try to field random questions without any preparation, so having the opportunity to have questions written down and to look through the cards beforehand is so important. It also gives you the chance to think about how to use what may be inappropriate questions or questions intended to inflame/instigate in a positive manner, rather than being caught off-guard.

    As I mentioned in another response, CHOICE in Philly has a text message hotline that I think is a super awesome resource to share, particularly if you don’t have time to answer all of your students’ questions. Why not end with…”And here’s this great hotline you can TEXT your questions to if I haven’t answered them all or if any other questions arise”? 🙂 That’s one way to do away with at least one of your listed drawbacks!

  4. I absolutely love this idea of the question cards. I like the way it has been created so that all students have to write three separate things. I wonder what age such question cards would be appropriate. How would a similar idea be executed with those who cannot read or write? Is there a way to address this same situation by asking people to draw their questions or concerns? Initially I was thinking about children who may have plenty of questions but may not have the language to adequately express these questions. But this also begs the question about how we are handling sexual education for those who cannot read or write. “Teenage girls ages 16 to 19 who live at or below the poverty level and have below average literacy skills are 6 times more likely to have children out of wedlock than the girls their age who can read proficiently” (dosomething.org). While ‘wedlock’ is not the word I would have chosen, I do wonder if these numbers could somehow be improved with alternate curriculums geared toward those with reading deficits.

  5. Pingback: Questions from “The Book of Romance” | Sandra M. Urquhart·

  6. A slight alternative that I have seen used in a college class was to have students write something down about themselves rather than a question. Then the instructor collected the cards and came to the next class with categories of what students had shared. The objective was to provide students with enough information about each other to challenge their assumptions about the experiences of others in the classroom. This is ideal with a larger class to increase confidentiality and with adult students. – SSR

  7. This was a very well described, step-by-step plan for this activity and the different ways to implement it! Confession: This has never gone well for me and now I know why! I have struggled with using this activity where I only see students one time, and it has usually been more about managing the attention seeking questions, my frustration and fending off embarrassment. Thinking that taking the questions home and answering the next time would be better, I then struggled with the questions from the last workshop not really having to do with the next workshop, and making a difficult transition into a new topic. This provided several strategies and solutions for how this activity could go a lot better. I think the next time I do this I will have folks engaged in an activity while I sort through, weed out the shock value ones, and use the questions that relate to future topics as a way to generate excitement for what’s to come. Thanks for this!

  8. I have seen an interesting twist on this activity, that was lead by and invented by peer leaders. The leaders knew their peers very well and they knew that even though the questions would be anonymous, that some persons would not write anything, even if it was a burning issue they needed to be addressed. Before the workshop, the student leaders actually wrote down questions they knew their friends/peers wanted to have answers to, but would be embarrassed to ask! The opportunity to do the activity was still given to the entire audience, but in order to make sure that some questions were asked, part of this activity was done pre-workshop. The workshop was confuted by myself and another facilitator and while one was teaching, I would collect and sort the questions into priority areas, based on the goal of the workshop and the interest of the students.

  9. I really enjoyed this blog, probably because this is one of my favorite tools as well. I always use the anonymous questions! I like the idea of having the learners write something even if they don’t have a question. I handle tripping questions, questions meant to get a rouse out of the educator and class, by saying, “I already answered that one.” I normally answer the questions the same day I receive them. I also used the questions to play Ask the Sexpert! I recently used them to assist me in developing a lesson for my learners, based on what they want to know.

  10. I have found this to be an amazing teaching tool when discussing sexuality and I appreciate the considerations you have included that will improve my future implementation of anonymous question cards. Many times I have attempted used this tool as an informal assessment or icebreaker and had it turn into a disaster. While it seems obvious now, it had never occurred to me to make sure all students are writing something on the cards. Simply having students write, “I do not have any questions” is enough to increase the anonymity this activity is looking to achieve. This may alleviate some of the low participation I have had when trying to implement this before.

    Keeping in mind the legitimacy of cards that the educator deems inappropriate is so critical to the success of this activity. In the past I have found myself quick to dismiss questions that seem crass or offensive, only later to realize the student used crass language because it was the only language he/she/ze was equipped with. Thank you for the reminder that some questions may require reading between the lines to figure out what the author is really asking.

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