Leading Questions

Now that my four outlines for the fall courses are finished, it’s time to get through all the assignment files and CMS set-up every course requires. Ya-ay? This includes the lists of discussion questions I circulate in advance for my undergraduate classes. As I explained in Teaching with Monographs, I find that providing discussion questions in advance helps students both focus their readings and have some confidence about how they can contribute to the class when we get started.

Over the years, I’ve honed my craft of questioning. Of course, we all know that leading questions are better than queries which are answered in short order with facts or yes/no responses. I’ve also come to value questions that are linked to the assigned readings for the day. Even if I don’t agree with the authors, perhaps especially when I’m at odds with them, it’s good to frame the question to encourage students to react to those same arguments and ideas.

This year, I’ve set myself an extra challenge by committing to reuse the discussion questions for both classes as essay questions on the exam. That’s going to be interesting: I normally formulate essay questions in western civilization that are more broadly comparative, asking students to compare social or religious elements over time or across places. Now I’m putting that model aside in hopes of enriching the discussion time in class as students perceive the value in answering these fully (because it’ll be “on the test”) as well as understanding that there are no “right answers” (so whatever answer they put forward needs to be well-supported).

We’ll see how that application works out. In the meantime, I’m tweaking my discussion questions and, as I’d promised a few weeks back, thought I’d share some of the current versions here. They’re relating very closely to the two books students will read for the course, Bucholz & Key’s Early Modern England and Barbara Donagan’s War in England, 1642-1649 but I hope they’ll still be genuinely interesting for the students. Any suggestions are still welcome as these examples are still in draft form only:

  • What is “affinity” and how was it important in the rise and fall of the Yorkist dynasty?

  • What were the three principles of medieval kingship that Henry VII revived and which do you think was the most important in cementing the new Tudor dynasty?

  • War, Catholic resistance, parliamentary grievance and noble unrest: which most transformed Elizabethan England?

  • Barbara Donagan considers the Civil War an ‘integrated war’. How did culture, technology and/or intelligence link British combatants?

  • Bucholz & Key describe the Commonwealth as “too conservative”, “too radical” and “too tolerant of the lower orders” – what do YOU think was its fatal flaw?

  • Characterize Britain in 1714: an ancien régime culture or a modern, middle-class society?

Now it’s my turn to ask you a question: what’s your advice for enlivening classroom discussion?

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