After fumbling and bumbling questions in my classes and failing to channel my inner Oprah and getting my students to just open up their intellectual inner landscapes to me, I started thinking about what makes good discussion questions. It occurred to me that the best questions are not the ones I ask students, but the ones I ask myself, because at least half of a good discussion happens in the preparation.
What is the point of this discussion?
Preparation begins with the question of why use discussion techniques to approach the topic. While I personally value discussion for the intellectual benefit of having deep conversation, exploring ideas, and am comfortable with not having a clear resolution, classroom discussions need to be more focused on the knowledge, comprehension and skill-based goals. I have found that students appreciate even a list of topics presented as goals for discussion. Our aim is to address certain subject matter in some fashion. However, we can also go deeper into the goals of discussion and bring to the surface ideas like helping students to understand the material and to make connections between concepts and historical events. With this set of goals in mind, then our questions should focus on the basics of knowledge and understanding. It is the work of stepping students through source criticism and content summarization. It is the work of cultivating a set of facts and definitions. At the next stage it is the work of facilitating skills of analysis, creativity of interpretation and application of insights about historical periods to other moments and to the contemporary time.
What do participants need to know to participate in this discussion?
Since the foundational questions—the source criticism and summary—are so important, they are also questions that students might be primed to answer from a guided reading handout. These directed questions can help students focus on the central points prior to coming to class. I have been a little bit ambivalent about steering students’ reading of sources and texts because I have worried about limiting their interpretation and unique insights. And it’s generally best to avoid W.I.M.P.Y (What’ In My Pocket?) questions. However, I have become less concerned as I have thought about this strategy as something that might be help avoid students coming to class unprepared to engage the texts deeply enough because these question establish my expectations of the level of engagement with the text they should have. Moreover, these questions are appropriate at certain levels. In introductory courses where students are starting to learn the lay of the land, students need to be directed to notice the important signposts and landmarks on which interpretations are built. Once once they have that down, they can be left to find their own ways through readings in the upper level seminars. Reading guides, however, help students to know what they should know coming into the discussion or at least try to know before they come in, so that the discussion can go to higher levels of interpretation and synthesis.
Where is this discussion going?
Having an arc to the discussion can be an effective strategy that mimics the historical research process. Opening discussion with problem or a central question to answer and then teasing apart the evidence that helps formulate a response and then returning to the question with new insights gained from a close engagement with the evidence is one strategy. (Here’s a great example.)
Within the arc, specific and directed questions can also facilitate the discussion by helping students to find their bearings. General questions like “how does the author’s discussion of this topic relate to other texts we’ve read?” are open-ended questions that leave room for a wide variety of responses. However, some students may be overwhelmed by this question unless the conceptual components of the question have been previously developed. The terms may be too broad and the variety of interpretations of words like “discussion” and “other texts,” too overwhelming a set of moving variables to pin down. But asking a question like “How does Alexander’s depiction of the role the Supreme Court played in eroding civil liberties compare to other discussions of court decisions regarding segregation and rights found in Blair, Wells-Barnett, and Somerville?” provides enough specificity while still allowing students to do the work of analysis and synthesis that the first question called for. I used to bristle at these kinds of focused questions as a student, not realizing how they were intended to help me discipline my thinking and focus on what, according to the professor, were the more relevant elements. Such focused questions can initially limit the range of responses, but they can also serve as springboard to more open-ended questions like, “what other authors or texts might be brought into this conversation?”
If the structured arc of discussion and specific guiding questions don’t establish a productive path for the conversation, make up one at the end of the discussion. Well, maybe not make up the path, but at least have a path and a destination in mind where the conversation was intended to go, what ideas were intended to be engaged and what imagined interpretations were out there. This is also an opportunity to incorporate the insights that did emerge from the discussion, even if they were not the intended ones. I have found that this approach helps the discussion have productive results. In my first year of graduate school history practicum, we used of the Australian rules format for discussion. Working in small groups we posed discussion questions, wrote responses and then facilitated discussion. It was all productive and interesting, but my absolute favorite part of class was the last 15 minutes when the professor would give a mini-lecture on the ‘purpose’ of our reading the text for the week. At the end of each session, he would explain some historiographic point or insight to be gleaned from the focal text. Sometimes the points were profound and eye opening and sometimes the concluding points left me cold. But they always helped me to place my own thinking and engagement with the texts. While I resist the notion that discussions have predetermined destinations, I can appreciate having a summary of the trip, a restatement of purpose, a clarification of goals and outcomes to help students make their own meaning of the journey.
The questions I ask myself establish the pedagogical value of discussion, prepare students for participation and create a space for disciplined and dynamic engagement with the course material. What do you think are the important questions to ask in order to generate a good discussion?