Ask the Right Question

Last term I instituted a new scheme in my intermediate level courses: require short presentations on pre-assigned discussion questions from every student and recycle those questions as essay fodder for the tests and exams. It’s done a fair bit of what I want: ensure that even in a class of eighty, students were speaking every day without my resorting to picking faces out of the crowd. It also led to a lively culture on the discussion boards in our course software as part of the mark was not only for oral presentation, but for posting a polished version of that classroom comment and then responding to others.

I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from students who’ve appreciated this system, particularly that the questions are provided ahead of time so they can prepare for class with that opening theme in mind as well as know that can guide them in test preparation. I’m sure that there are others who’re not quite so happy, of course. I hope none of them are as disenchanted as this group of students at Utah Valley University but I do have tenure and a supportive administration behind me. (Of course, I accommodate students who can’t do oral presentations, say, for the student who has a nasty sore throat on the day – they can provide me a short paragraph, suitable to project via PowerPoint and I’ll share that in class with an invitation for the entire class to respond. But there were only 3 students who needed that accommodation in last term’s survey of eighty!)

I’m finding that the most difficult part of this is designing the best question that I can for each class session. I’m writing questions with the day’s reading in mind. Sometimes the text offers a great opening for interpretation and debate. Other times the ‘angle’ isn’t so obvious and I waffle for hours, reworking the question until I find something with which I’m happy. Because I’ve committed myself to not only using the questions in the class session, but also in the tests, they also have to be open for a broader, thematic analysis when it comes time for the quiz, midterm or semester final exam. So spending time on the questions pays off. That’s how I spent a great deal of time in the week leading up to course launch: tweaking with the discussion question list. Now it’s set in stone and I have a bunch of class sessions already full subscribed with students who’re excited to prepare for their turn.

They’re not magic tools but pre-circulated discussion questions with students presentations are definitely staying in my survey repetoire!



Filed under history, teaching

6 responses to “Ask the Right Question

  1. I’ve been loving this approach, but I’m wondering what you do if stu is absent on hir determined day. Stus at TTLAC are sometimes of the opinion that if the work isn’t done they will just skip class that day! Are you punitive? I’m considering having them post short podcasts ahead of time this year.

    • J Liedl

      If there’s an excuse for the absence that’s even remotely plausible, I offer them the option to orally present at the start of our very next class OR take a slot for a later topic. Otherwise, they forfeit the in-class part of the mark (5% of the total mark for the course).

      Since students know that this is all tied into the tests AND what I consider important, there seems to be a fair bit of peer pressure to play along. And because I’ve told them that the presentation is very low-stakes (they don’t have to stand in front of the class, they can read from a shorter version of their prepared notes since all of that counts for less than in a senior seminar presentation), students seem to take this pretty comfortably.

      Now, I’ve only done this in large classes where for pretty much every class meeting there are multiple presentations. I find that if a number of students are up for the day on the same question, there’s less perceived pressure than if it was a small class where only one went in a day. I might save up and do several presentations one day a week in a smaller class!

      • interesting because I have such small classes at TTLAC mine are usually only going with one or maybe two other people on the same day. I wonder if that may be a perceived issue. Also I do make them stand up and I don’t let them use PPT (for which they hate me but OMG if I have to sit through one more person READING me their ppt). WIll have to consider the deliver from seat option!

        mostly my sense is that the absent ones are full on slackers who didn’t do the work ahead of time. I don’t let them make up right now unless it is an excused absence (i.e. extended illness verified by college etc).

      • J Liedl

        With my seniors (classes from 15-30plus on rare occasions), they have to do a formal presentation. PowerPoint’s allowed but not text-heavy since, as you note, reading the slide is crazy-making. But with these being sophomore-level survey courses, I’m more about getting them to think about speaking up.

        It used to be frustrating in a class of 80-120, trying to get participation from more than a handful. Now, with assigned discussion questions, I’m getting a fair bit more. Mind you, it’s a modest amount since they have to give a short response for one question, but some start to volunteer comments about others’ answers or speak up at other points in the class so we have a bit more momentum going by the end.

  2. Ink

    It sounds like a great structure, Janice! (Btw, I return to comment after having become lost in the comment section of that article to which you linked…wow! I hadn’t heard about that situation before, and I feel for the professor. Also, I can’t believe that students would rather listen to a lecture than participate in a discussion.)

    • J Liedl

      I know with regards to that professor’s story! I mean, I have seen some students who want just the slides and the lectures and isn’t that enough (they’re surprised when you say that the readings and the thoughtful discussion are part of the learning process). And teaching students how to take useful notes in a class is a whole ‘nother ball of wax (I try to tell them not to take down every word I say but to think about and engage with my comments and their classmates’ input).

      So actually participating is hard because it requires preparation and interactive attention, not simply auto-pilot copying. That’s intimidating for good and indifferent students, I find.