Asking questions to engage students in discussions

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 23 seconds

Have you ever been in the situation where a professor is interesting and teaching an interesting subject, but when they ask questions, no one answers? Why do you think that is? What are they doing wrong, or is it just the students? Also, and you’ve likely encountered this a LOT: a situation where in a particular class, there is always a good conversation going… among 4 or 5 “usual suspects” while others barely participate? It feels good enough (often) to the professor,  but I think we can do better to engage the entire class.

I’ve had a couple of situations recently where I noticed the ways people lead their classes and ask occasional questions and in my mind kept thinking of better ways of asking questions and engaging students, and so I found myself wondering if there were some broad guidelines on how to do this well in order to engage more students. So here goes (and please share in comments any other strategies you think would be useful).

Ask a question related to their lives, that even an unprepared person can respond to. This can be something very directly related to course/workshop content, or something to just warm them up. But more importantly, help them apply the material to their own lives. Everything must have some relationship to a real life application, no matter what it is. Find those relationships and help students make those connections until they start making them independently. 

Ask something controversial or at least that does not have a straightforward answer. There is no need to ask students to “discuss” something if they all already agree on it, or if one person’s answer might be “correct” and if they raise their hand first and say it, you’re done. If you ask an open question and invite them to find controversy and they don’t, be prepared to suggest a particular example that shows the controversy. In more scientific or quantitative courses where a correct answer may be possible, find examples where the question can probe a misconception or showcase alternative pathways to the solution. Watch how Michael Sandel leads discussions in the course Justice.

Ask WHY and HOW questions not WHAT questions. Because why questions hold deeper meaning and we often forget to help students see why something matters. But we shouldn’t always TELL them what matters. We need to ask them what THEY think matters to THEM. How is also good because even if they don’t know for sure how, given some time or research, they can guess or start to imagine, which is a good first step, often.

Never stop at one response. If one student gives a great answer, don’t just stop and celebrate how great it was, ask immediately “what do others think?” and wait for at least one more response from someone who needed more time to think. Then you can go back and celebrate all the good answers!

To engage ALL students, poll them or ask them to think individually and respond in pairs first before sharing with all (think, pair, share). You may ask them to respond anonymously (or known to you but anonymous to others) via a polling tool. The polling can be used to see if the question is controversial: are students split in their answers? And it can be used for word clouds and open ended responses where we see everyone’s responses beside our own. You as professor can then pick out key things and ask students to expand on them.

Pause. A lot. At least long enough for students to think. Maybe give them 1 minute and play soft music while they write their answers. Maybe give several prompts in a row for them to reflect individually with something like Spiral Journal (I have recently started playing music during the spiral phase). Then invite them to share. Pause and let them know you won’t move on until someone says something 🙂 and remind them it’s a safe space.

Turn questions into questions. When one student asks “I don’t understand what this means or why this is done that way” don’t immediately answer. Ask other students if they have an answer. They can sometimes learn so much better from someone who just learned this than from you as expert!

Let them research! Sometimes you can ask a question that you don’t expect them to know the answer for, but it can be Googlable. Give them time to Google it and respond, instead of answering it directly. 

Get them to move! In a face to face context, you can get them to stand up and move to different sides of the room depending how far they agree or disagree with something, a kind of physical polling (called human spectrogram).

Mix it up. Don’t always ask a straightforward question. Sometimes show a controversial or interesting picture or play a brief video or share a joke or meme. If you’re more serious, share a quote worth discussing. Don’t just ask “any comments or thoughts on this” but actually ask them something more specific: do they find things in this they agree or disagree with? Can they find concrete examples to support or challenge the author’s point? How does it make them feel? Or even bring physical objects for them to reflect on or ask them to bring them.

Notice their hands. This one seems obvious but isn’t. We don’t always see the hands that are raised and some students are shy to raise them high or take them down after a minute or two of you not noticing. Keep looking around while you teach. Sometimes our eyes go to one direction or we look away from students while we talk or think or as we look at the board or screen. When you ask a question, make eye contact with students as you look at them all, and as one person finishes talking, let your eyes wander around the room slowly so you can catch the raised hands.

Outside class. Things we can do outside class, before or after, is to have students submit reflections or annotations of readings ahead of time where they reflect on a prompt we offer or they just point out favorite quotes or key questions. And then we bring these to class and call on the particular people who said certain things to expand on them. Or we can do a one or two-minute paper at the end of class to collect what they learned, what questions they still have, what they enjoyed,  and then next class session start with the questions they had.

Adapt. Pay attention to how students respond to particular strategies and adapt in the moment. Have a plan B, or ask them how they’re feeling or why they are not engaging with a particular question/topic.

I hope these help! I am sure there are others that just didn’t occur to me just yet. I will share one recent example of a keynote I gave that does some of what I mention. It’s not a class with students and it is fully online. But you will get a sense. This was my Open Oregon OpenEdWeek keynote. Slides: recording here

Featured image of 3 giraffes “discussing” from Pixabay

And I made a graphic version (first draft on Google slides, feel free to adapt with attribution). The image below is not accessible but slides are text. The icons are not necessary but will add ALT text for them when I have time. Was rushing. And the blogpost has the deets anyway

A summary of the above blogpost, accessible version on Google slides

5 thoughts on “Asking questions to engage students in discussions

  1. Oh gosh, at the beginning of my teaching career I tended to rely on a few strong and/or extroverted students in a class (although I always had activities where I had all the students respond orally). I suspect many foreign language instructors like myself fall into this trap because we’re so grateful we have students with the language skills and/or confidence to just give it a go when speaking in the foreign language. Maha, these are all totally doable tips that really enhance class discussions☺. Thank you!!! Here are a few variations:

    – Think-pair-share: Give students time to think about a prompt, then exchange their ideas with a partner, and finally debrief as a full class. During the full class debriefing, instructors can ask quieter students if they’re willing to share what they and their partner discussed.

    – jigsaw reading/listening: Prepare different texts for students to read or listen to and then discuss. For example, divide one text into three parts (a, b, c). Divide students into groups of 3, and have each student read/listen to one of the parts (can be done for homework before class). Get students together in groups of three (a,b,c) to exchange information and discuss.

    – Personalized conversation cards: I just learned this neat classroom activity from Scott Bowyer: . Pass out blank cards. Students jot down topics that are interesting for them. Have students pair up to talk about their preferred topics. Do multiple rounds so that students discuss topics that interest them with different partners.

    1. I like this last one as I had never heard of it before. Are you willing to contribute it here I am interested in trying it out in my own class with an adaptation within a theme. E.g. I teach digital literacies and I want to know which sub-themes they are interested in, without really even mentioning what themes exist! Maybe they will come up with alternative themes!

  2. Lots of great tips, thanks Maha! I did the get the students to do their own research one yesterday, to see what resources they could find, evaluate and use, using Wikipedia, looking for flags and any discussion

  3. This is a brilliant post Maha. Thank you for writing it. It really resonated as I am studying for a coaching qualification and one of the questions I have been asking is ‘what else?’ and then waiting. Yesterday in a class it worked really well with 3 more students speaking.

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