teaching question #1

How do you ask questions that guide a student discussion? I realize I’m a little old to be asking this question, but I’ve realized this is a teaching skill I don’t have. I know how to lecture and tell students what I want them to know. I know how to respond to student questions in interesting ways. I know how to run a class so students are comfortable talking and asking questions. I know how to facilitate and organize a discussion pulling together questions/comments initiated by students. I know how to ask good questions of someone who has just presented a paper in process. But I don’t know how to think about planning discussions in advance for a class session. I don’t know how to prepare to ask questions that elicit somewhat predictable answers that will help students “discover” the point you want them to learn or lead them to talk their way into a point you want them to get to, or that will encourage them to dig more deeply into a topic. I get the impression that some teachers do this. Is that right? I don’t think I learned this by watching when I was young because I did not go to that kind of schools. Can you recommend “how to teach” resources for this particular skill? Do you have tips or techniques?


Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

16 thoughts on “teaching question #1”

  1. I’m probably a little young to answer this question as a first-year grad student, but we are required to take a teaching development class that is all about leading discussion sections. One place that has good ideas about leading discussions is Teaching Sociology, the journal. I’ve found a lot of great ideas to initiate student discussion. I haven’t done a thorough search, so some more seasoned folks may inform me that it’s really crap, but from what I’ve read, it makes me feel a lot more comfortable about planning to lead a discussion section.

  2. I ask things like:

    -How would you respond to someone who argued/ said/ believed X? X can be as extreme or convincing a position as you like, depending on how things are going.
    -To someone who has ventured a position, I might say: How do you know that? What would it take to get you to disavow this?
    -Sometimes I take my hands off the steering wheel altogether, saying: Well, what do you think? If silence ensues, we revel in it, and try to avoid asking further questions.

    I agree that it’s important to guide the discussion, gently, while avoiding the “guess what I’m thinking” problem. It’s also good to practice your poker face, to avoid conditioning the respondents, until you want to make a claim of some kind.

  3. Well, let me add my $0.02 since I actually get good ratings from my discussion based classes. On general technique:

    – Start with easy questions.
    – Pick on individual people, but rotate a lot (which is hard in a large class).
    – Don’t accept “I don’t know” for easy questions. Give them lots of hints.
    – Don’t let people hide in the back of the class. Have them sit up front.

    For content,

    – Start with simple cases or examples. (“Hey, which country is really big and still follows Marx’s teachings? Hint: It’s in Asia.”)
    – Throw in some unusual cases.
    – Use cases that violate concepts.
    – Add a good story or two.
    – If you can mix in popular culture, that helps a lot.
    – A lot comparisons help as well.

    After you’ve done a course a few times, you’ll have a repertoire of neat examples and cases that stir discussion. One of my favorite is using the issue of Iraq to talk about Max Weber. It goes something like this:

    “Hey, everybody, what’s the definition of state for Weber?”

    Mumble… mumble…

    “You, in the Raiders shirt, what does it say on page 88?”

    “Ummm… monopoly of force…”

    “Ok… you, back there with the mohawk haircut, would you say that Iraq is a state?”

    “Ummm… sure… I guess…”

    “Who has a monopoly of force there?”

    “The US?”

    “Ok, are they only ones who use violence?”

    “Ummm… no… these other terrorists use violence all the time… whoa…ahhhh….”

    Light bulbs appear.

  4. It is easier for students to hide/ avoid when you don’t know their names.

    With respect fabio, it sounds more like cross-examination than discussion.

  5. I’m not sure it’s the best idea to ask questions with predictable answers. I run classes with a lot of discussion and whenever I’m organizing a discussion, I use the following rules to determine whether a question is useful or not:

    1) Will the students have the confidence to answer the question (or will they feel unqualified to answer)?

    2) Does the question have multiple answers (or just one “correct” one)?

    3) Am I interested in the answer?

    If there aren’t multiple answers, the students wouldn’t feel knowledgeable enough to answer, or I’m not interested, I don’t ask the question. Seems to me, if you already know what you want the students to say, why not just tell them?

  6. I usually start my classes with small group discussion. The students feel much more comfortable talking about the readings and ideas in smaller groups than they do with the pressure of everyone’s eyes on them, including those of the instructor. I prime the discussion groups with two or three open-ended questions (posted on a slide at the front of class; it’s the only powerpoint slide I use for the entire class) that relate to the main points I’d like them to understand that day. After they’ve had a chance to go over those questions for 10 minutes or so, we start class discussion, going over those same questions again but this time with me as the moderator. It’s amazing how much more likely they are to voice their ideas in class after their pumps have been primed in small groups. In some classes, where the readings were particularly interesting, I find that I have to do very little prodding to get a discussion going.

    This technique has worked better with some classes than others, but I attribute the variance to my own diligence in sticking to the method. When I get lazy and start answering the questions for them, the students figure out that they don’t really need to come up with the answers on their own and they just wait for me to kick in to lecture mode. But in the classes where I’ve been more careful to stick to the practice of letting them answer the questions (even if it means occasionally sitting there in silence for 20-30 seconds), they eventually train themselves to be involved in discussion. I’ve also found that class discussions improve over the course of the semester.

  7. As a variation on what Brayden does, I’ll often have students write responses to a question (or select from a series of questions) on the board at the beginning of class. Once they’ve written it down, they’re more likely to feel like it’s formulated enough to share. The times when they don’t write something right off (once again like Brayden, when I don’t stick with the method) and I ask something and hear crickets chirping, I’ll stop lecture and have them free-write.

    There’s an old chapter I use in my social psychology class that I’ve just moved from the end (when we talk about stages in the lifecourse) to the beginning of the semester (when we talk about the social significance of mundane behavior, and when students might actually use it) called “Why College Students Don’t Participate” (from Karp and Yoels. 1976. “The College Classroom: Some Observations on the Meanings of Student Participation.” Sociology and Social Research 60:421-39.).

    Students love to read it because most of it resonates with them and they begin to understand why they don’t participate. The most important take-home point for me is that in a Gladwell “Blink” sort of way, students know from the very beginning of a class how much a professor really wants them to a) read and b) participate in discussion. You need to set those standards high at the very beginning for students to live up to them.

  8. I am really glad to hear these great ideas. I have been struggling with this of late, and trying a lot of techniques that have not exactly bombed, but haven’t been as good as I had hoped.

    I am particularly struggling with getting students who are participating by telling stories to move in the direction of thinking through the concepts. Follow-up questions that are too direct shut down the discussion altogether, but more gentle questions don’t work to help them move from “at my cousin rachel’s wedding” to “social rituals create and reinforce gender norms.”

  9. Mondoman: You’d be surprised. It works pretty darn well with me – check my evaluations, way above the dept average. They love it.

    The issue with a lot of students is that they like to hide in many ways. Even with obvious questions, they will toss out “I don’t knows.” The readings are hard and they feel like giving up. It’s only compounded by the fact that many instructors just lecture at students, not require them to actually think.

    So when you actually require them to rummage through the knowledge that they have, it helps a lot. And yes, it is a cross examination, but it shows that you are willing to make them think, as long as you aren’t making them too uncomfortable. Ideally, I’d love to directly jump to open, free flowing discussion without cross-examination, but you really have to push sometimes. Also, don’t push them too hard. If they truly don’t know something, even something simple, let them off the hook. But come back to them.

    PS. I do memorize names eventually, but in the beginning I am more than willing to pick on students with non-embarrassing visual characteristics. In some cases, with lecture size > 100, I’ll never know all the names and I have to stick with cross examination. If you pick on people in very gentle ways, it lets people relax.

  10. Funny that there’s more responses to the split screen laptop question than the getting students to participate question. This will even it up!

    1. Great topic, it’s something a lot of (if not most folks struggle with.

    2. A couple techniques:

    a) I do a variation on what Brayden does, in that for classes with 50-75 students, they have to come in with one well thought out comment and question for each reading. For the first 15 minutes, they break into small groups and I give each group another students comment and question (which I also use to mark attendance). These tend to be more thoughtful questions and comments, as they know there’s a chance other students will be reading them with their name on them, and also relying on them. Essentially they’re just conversation starters for the small groups. We then get back together, and a pick one of the groups at random to tell the rest of us about what they talked about. After a couple minutes, if the other groups haven’t self started and gotten involved in the talk, a simple “any similar topics or contrasting topics in the other discussions?” will get them going.

    b) It took me a long time to realize that the discussion stalls out when I answer student questions. Instead, a good tactic is the simple “great question!” or “yeah, huh?” followed with a “what do people think about that?”

    c) If students are hesitant to talk about the concept/theory, ask them for explanations of that thing in action in their personal life? Follow that up with other stories, combining how the stories relate, what other things might be happening, questioning what other concepts we could apply to the story, etc.

    d) When students simply won’t talk, get them up and moving around, engage them in activities that relate to the text. In one example, I’ve made a whole class (about 75 students get up from their chairs and line the walls simulating specified jobs in an industrial factory while we talk about Marxism. The lesson plan has developed into something too complicated to relay here (breaks every year, the exchange of money between the factory owner and workers, etc.) but it gets students up and participating even if they won’t speak initially. After that, they’ve all laughed a bit and are usually more comfortable with talking.

    Thanks for the link, Jessica. I’ve avoided calling on students in the past, but I keep on getting closer to doing it. I’ll try it for my next class.

  11. Just another few cents worth. I have a group of two or three students assigned to specific sets of readings each week, and they are in charge of offering up a few questions and thoughts on the readings and then posting them on a class wiki the night before class. All the students know that they can look at what their peers thought about the readings, figure out their own questions, and start critically examining the readings (even commenting on the other students’ thoughts) *before* class even begins. This way ‘First Contact’ of the readings is not in those awkward first mumbles of the class period. This worked well for a Foundations of Theory course.
    In other classes I assign ‘Speaking Notes’ for the class, in which they must (among other things) identify: a.) a key idea or two, b.) connect the reading to their everyday lives (a la Soc Imag.), and c.) offer a few questions that they were confused about.
    These things seem to work for me! Best of luck…

  12. Hi, folks, thanks for the responses. I particularly found the link @10 useful as it gave an example and because it is the most different from some of the things I have already been doing, which are similar to other suggestions. Similarly Fabio @3 gave me an idea of how to think about this. For folks who do teach with guided questions, my question is: do you plan them in advance? How do you do that? How much time does it take? Do you write them out? Etc.

    As I stated, I do know how to get people to “discuss” in a generic sense, where you are just interested in nurturing their opinions about issues or open-ended responses to the readings. And so I’ll share one tip that has not been mentioned. If your goal is to just get people feeling comfortable talking, the best thing is simply to restate what they have said in other words. This is rather like Rogerian therapy or what we educated parents do with our little children. It is almost guaranteed to get students chatting like magpies. Whether the chatter goes where you want it to go is another thing, but if you have a class that just isn’t talking, this is the way to open them up.

  13. I suspect that Naadir’s question about using technology in class and the effects on varied age groups is directed at me, so I’ll respond. (My apologies if not.) I teach at Smith College, which has a very robust program for nontrad students, and have a lot of experience teaching with mixed age groups from teaching at CUNY. I’ve found that it is daunting to some (regardless of age), but that most find that having some preliminary discussion on-line loosens up their ideas, and makes them more comfortable in class (e.g., “I read on the wiki that someone had a question about… and I did too”). This does two things.

    First, it gets their student’s experiences with the readings less dependent upon my framing of the reading, getting them to have the experience of taking a crack at primary texts. (This is perhaps, a good step prior to the ‘restating’ method olderwoman mentions, since you–the instructor–have an idea of where the class, individually and collectively, is at.)

    Second, it gives me yet another way to assess students who do not feel comfortable speaking in class (or who don’t do well on essays, or whatever), but feel comfortable in the virtual realm. These issues, of course, are not necessarily age-related but can intersect. Perhaps there is a relationship between the second issue and age, than the first…

    Just some more thoughts. Sorry I’m so long winded… You’ve caught me being pensive at the end of the term…

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