Leading Discussions: About Asking Questions

By Peter Connor

Stick man image with question mark head How do I kick off a classroom discussion? Is there a correct way to word questions: A formula? Can I toggle back and forth between “lecturing” and “leading a discussion? How do I shift gears?

All good questions: Teaching being highly individualized you’ll have to discover what works best for you. But here are some thoughts and useful suggestions from the Program for Instructional Innovation at the University of Oklahoma.

Regarding Questions

The number of responses you receive is quite often inversely proportional to the number of words you use in asking the question. The shorter your probe, the less likely it is to be confusing; the the greater chance of attracting more students to the discussion.

If “what you’re getting at” has to be deciphered before it can be addressed, your response rate is going to decrease. Fewer students will be willing to “take a stab at it.” To spark a productive discussion, your questions need to be easily understood and put forth decisively, followed by some measure of wait-time—silence on your part as your students shape their responses. Not too short: Not too long.

Stimulating Thinking

If your goal is to encourage your students to shape personal opinions, ask them to respond to leading “yes" or "no” questions: “Are you in favor of _________________?” followed quickly by the proverbial “How did you arrive at that position?”

To prompt a more objective pattern of thinking, you might ask: “What are some of the problems with that line of thinking?” or “What else could lead you to the same conclusion?”

Asking students to draw conclusions from data sets will stimulate diagnostic thinking; challenging them with "Who?" "What?" "Why?" "Where?" "When?" "How come?” questions regarding the conclusions they’ve drawn will stimulate independent thinking.

Posing questions that involve making predictions about future events, or what the data will eventually show, encourages imagination and creative thinking.

Having your students propose solutions to problems currently being studied—or investigated—stimulates problem-solving, and all its attendant skills.

Shifting Gears

Toggling between lecture and discussion can be signaled simply by a change in your tone of voice and some accompanying body language. Coming out from behind the lectern, for instance, to ask students a question: “What happens next?” or “What might be the next point in the argument?” signals the beginning of class discussion. Physically moving back behind the lectern and turning your head to the PowerPoint behind you while speaking signals a shift back to the lecture.

Sources:

Lowman, J. (1995). Mastering the techniques of teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

University of Oklahoma Program for Instructional Innovation. (n.d.). Leading Discussions. In Ideas on teaching. Retrieved August 27, 2008, from the University of Oklahoma Program for Instructional Innovation Web site: http://www.ou.edu/pii/tips/ideas/discussions.html

Copyright and Permissions:

This Teaching Tip was adapted from material developed by the Program for Instructional Innovation at the University of Oklahoma.

Contributors:

Peter Connor - TILT Web Content Writer and Editor