Asking the right questions

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Itinerant teacher:
I will begin teaching full time in the fall. I haven't done much teaching up to this point, so I was hoping that this forum might help me with some questions that I have about pedagogy. First, how do teachers facilitate discussion? More specifically, how can I formulate questions for discussion that will inspire and encourage, rather than intimidate, students in the classroom? Asking questions that require right or wrong answers doesn't seem to work.

There are whole books written on this subject, with classroom activities that work well with college students all laid out for you to try. You might want to buy some, in addition to asking here.

Itinerant teacher wrote: "Asking questions that require right or wrong answers doesn't seem to work."

Exactly right, if you are trying to promote discussion rather than assess their comprehension of the text.  Right/wrong questions are only useful as diagnostic tools, as discussion hinges on the idea that the answer (or answers) is not obvious, but rather must be arrived at by trying out various competing interpretations of the data.

So questions that require students to play with the material are bound to be more productive, such as, "Do you think Frankenstein was wrong to make the monster?" After this generates some interesting ideas, it could then be followed by, "Would the author agree? What evidence from the story can you point to in order to back up your point?" The first question encourages students to think on their own about the topic; the second two ask them to think in a more focused way about the text and evidence.  

Note that any question you ask will require some processing time, so count to 10 to yourself very slowly before assuming that the question needs to be rephrased. In the initial classes, you may also need to call on students, or ask them to respond one at time to either the question or to a response made by another student in the class (I call this "going around the circle" -- sitting in a circle fosters discussion much more than having them sit in rows with you at the front, and also helps dispel the "teacher gravity well" that leads students to look at you even when responding to someone else).

Watching for visual cues (grimaces, head bobs, etc.) can enable you to say "Anya, I saw you had a reaction to what Keisha was saying. Would you like to share it with us?" if things get slow. Encourage them to talk to each other, rather than you always being the one to answer questions. Another student may have a good answer, but even a bad answer can lead to further discussion, as you andthe class try to work things out together.

I could go on, but I'm sure others have suggestions to add, too. One last one, though:

You might check out Mentor in a Manual -- it has lots of good suggestions about the theory and practice of effective pedagogy (and other aspects of academic life).

Marcus Welby:
Having run a number of tutorials and small lecture classes over the years, I found the following worked well for me:

Try to "read" the group early on in the semester and determine at what level they are capable of operating.  Adjust your approach accordingly. Some groups are heavily populated by students who do the readings, are inspired, knowledgable, and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, others are not.
Emphasize at the beginning of the term what you expect of the students (e.g., do the readings, bring knowledge and interest to the class, attend regularly, treat classmates and the instructor with respect, etc.).

Ask follow-up questions to encourage individual students to build on or re-consider their own ideas and opinions. This is a great technique to use with students at all levels and it keeps the discussion moving.

Be aware that participation and non-participation are contagious. Once a certain malaise/disinterest or feeling of involvement/excitement infuses a group, it is hard to break it. Participating or not participating (as well as attending or skipping class) can a become "cool" activity for students.

Start a taciturn class off with an "ice breaker'" -- something that is happening in the world and which any living person should know about. Try to solicit input on this and link it in some way to what you are teaching.

If stuck with a tutorial that is primarily populated by non-participants, consider having students give short presentations in which they respond to carefully structured questions (given out at least a week in advance) in a five-minute period.

It needs to be made clear that participation is an important part of the course. If there is no formal value to it (no grades are assigned for attending or participating), only the committed students will attend regularly and participate. Since oral communication and attendance are important in the work world, I also always stressed that it was important for students to build and demonstrate those skills in the academic environment.

Don't let one or two students dominate the discussions, as brilliant as they may be. If one or two students are dominating, say something like:  "Thanks, Bob, for those insights. Maybe we could get some other feedback on my comment."

Don't blame yourself for disinterested groups or take full credit for extremely active and inspiring groups.  There are limits to what you can accomplish as an instructor.

Good luck.


Discussion is one of those methods that doesn't have many hard-and-fast rules. In fact, there are no pedagogical panaceas in existence! Each method has its pros and cons. Discussion takes an enormous amount of energy on the part of the teacher because you are continually monitoring and keeping the flow of the conversation moving (it's akin to being a conductor). I have been teaching adults for about six years and currently I work with master's students, many of whom fit into the nontraditional description. Your group may be different.

If you want to utilize discussion as a method, you have to first start by feeling out your students. Find a topic, preferrably on the first night you meet (and after an introduction activity so people won't feel they are among strangers), and try out a short (say 5-10 minutes) session. Notice who your talkers are, who seems to hold back, who looks detached, etc. If you are lucky, you won't have to come back the next class period with a more structured discussion-format plan. However, if your classes are like most, you will probably need to put some structure into your format the next time around.
You are wise to notice the difference in results depending on the kind of questions you use in a discussion. I try to compose questions that will not allow for a yes/no exit strategy ... in other words, I like to pose a multi-part question (but a question that isn't beyond the reach of the group), randomly divide the class into smaller groups, assign roles to each group member (one is the note taker, one the summarizer, one the devil's advocate, etc.), and set a time limit of about 15-20 minutes.

My syllabus describes participation as part of the course grade, so for those who don't love learning for its own sake, that is usually the incentive. When people are placed into small groups, they have to talk, otherwise they stick out like a sore thumb! Also, if the groups know they are expected to have something to present to the entire class, they have a goal to produce quality work. A short time frame provides just enough stress to make sure the topic of conversation is the question at hand, not one's pet or favorite restaurant!  Plus, I tend to "hover" from group to group and may even participate in these mini discussions for a bit before I move on to the next group.
For a discussion to be successful, I let students know from the start that they are the main component.  Without their cooperation, discussion will not be lively.  In fact, if I am the only one talking, it will turn into a lecture. Discussion puts the responsibility onto the student, and some students will resist this at first, clinging to the idea of blending into the back of the class behind a newspaper. I don't offer this choice!

Another pitfall to discussion is only choosing "sensationalistic" questions. I want my questions to relate to the material we are covering, not to be interesting for their own sake. While entertainment is always a nice residual goal, it isn't the main purpose of using discussion. I also compose questions that allow the students to bring in their own experiences and tie that into the material we are covering. The questions also function as "insurance" that the students will complete their readings!

Good luck with your class!


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