Teaching Today

It's All in the Questions

You can foster an engaging classroom and not disadvantage those who are uncomfortable raising their hands by getting students themselves to develop critical discussion questions, writes Sarita McCoy Gregory.

May 8, 2018

Often we as instructors look for ways to include classroom participation as part of our course design. Student participation can take the form of simply being present in class to actively discussing the assigned reading. Usually we measure participation by speaking in class. Yet that means extroverted students are advantaged in an environment that privileges those who are comfortable sharing every idea that comes to mind inside the space of the time designated for class meeting.

We should encourage students to be actively involved in their learning. But the speaking-as-participation model does not necessarily promote equity in the classroom. We can develop other ways to stimulate engagement in the classroom that does not privilege extroverts and disadvantage those who are not eager to or comfortable raising their hands in class.

Specifically, as professors, we can design lessons and structure classroom time to guide and encourage students and offer feedback as they promote inquiry-driven engagement -- which is significantly different and more effective than just participation. Using such inquiry-driven engagement provides more balance and equity in the classroom by assuring that all students can and will participate.

Discussions as Inquiry-Driven Engagement

Whether as a whole class, in small groups or online, class discussions can provide students with an opportunity to test their learning from readings or from instructor-provided lectures. Some instructors prefer a passive learning environment, where they lecture and students receive information. In an inquiry-based environment, students have several opportunities to display learning, including “low-stakes” (or ungraded) and “high-stakes” (or graded) discussions.

Discussion-as-engagement classes encourage students to process reading material through asking well-crafted questions, getting feedback from other students, as well as from the instructor, and from presenting ideas in real life (or in an online forum). If students are asked to submit questions in advance, instructors have an opportunity to gauge how students are processing an idea, a problem or an argument from the text and can create instructional spaces to address issues raised in those students’ questions.

Creating discussion questions as a point of entry to low-stakes and high-stakes assignments and as a way of structuring class meeting time expands ways that students can participate in class. Since every student has to submit questions, no one is left out of classroom participation. Instead, students engage with each other, and we teachers can use their questions to structure class discussions, even without each student speaking in class, enabling introverted students to still have a voice in classroom discussions.

Inquiry-based pedagogy focuses on posing quality questions rather than on memorization of facts and numbers. In college classrooms, as instructors, we can expect students to initiate and sustain discussion after seeing this model in a few class meetings. We can then scaffold the class meeting by setting the agenda for the day, providing an overview or a summary of the meeting (or both), and steering the direction of the discussion when needed.

How It Works

Students will prepare discussion questions before the beginning of class and submit them to the learning management platform. They will also write a short response to the questions the instructor and other students ask them, based upon the reading. Simply doing the reading should not be the goal. We should expect students to “engage” the reading and the author’s arguments. Bloom’s taxonomy can be a useful starting place to teach students how to write higher-order questions.

Writing critical questions for classroom discussion is a useful skill to develop, whether for a graded assignment or for more active engagement in the classroom. Such questions could include those that:

  • Compare and contrast ideas and arguments between and among readings.
  • Probe the underlying assumptions that an author uses to make his or her argument.
  • Illuminate the strengths, weaknesses and contradictions of an author’s argument. Assess the internal or observational consistency of a theory, argument or set of ideas.
  • Integrate or apply theory with/to practice and experience.
  • Invite students to think about the implications of an argument for themselves, other people, social systems or society at large.
  • Integrate and link arguments from current reading with those students may have read at a prior time or something they might have read outside the class.
  • Invite students to assess how the readings influence their sense of where they stand on issues and their role as participants.

While not an exhaustive list of types of critical questions, it should give you and your students some guidance as to the types of questions to ask.

Here are a few examples of questions that my former students posed:

What: “What is faith?” This question, although difficult to answer, is on the lower order of critical questions. It is overly broad and might not relate specifically to the text assigned. This question does not actually show the student’s level of engagement.

How: “How important is faith in the context of democracy?” This question moves the student and the class closer toward engagement with the author’s argument. How the student responds to this question reveals whether they have an understanding of how the author views faith and agree or disagree with that view.

Why: “Why is it so ‘hard to change a feeling about things’ once they are established?” This question incorporates a quote from the reading and asks students to engage with the quote. It is a higher-order question and can be quite useful for a vigorous discussion.

Analyze: “Is race a beneficial tool of identity when it comes to democracy?” This question prompts one to think about how race may or may not be beneficial in democratic society. It goes beyond simply asking what is race to getting one to think about the utility of racial identity in democratic societies.

Consider: “What should pragmatically be done to advance democracy other than write books?” Even though the question begins with “what,” it is actually a higher-order question that asks one to consider the options for advancing democracy. It requires analysis and comparison.

Evaluate: “Is there a lack of cultural identity among white people in America?” This question asks for opinion and for an evaluation to be made about white cultural identity. It is of the higher order of questions and can offer an opportunity for an examination of personal subjectivities as well as a structural analysis.

In summary, we instructors can promote and encourage more equitable engagement by adjusting how we think about and manage discussions in our classes. A student who might normally shy away from an opportunity to speak in class may show more enthusiasm if she knows that her instructor may feature her thoughtful discussion questions. Instructors can rethink participation by asking students to submit well-crafted questions in advance and then use their questions to guide meaningful and more inclusive class discussions.


Sarita McCoy Gregory teaches race, gender and urban politics at Kennesaw State University. She has over 15 years’ experience as a college professor and holds degrees from Tuskegee University and the University of Chicago (M.S. and Ph.D.) in political science. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her website is www.engagedprofessor.com.


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