One way of letting my students know that I had high expectations of them was by requiring them to send in two discussion questions based on their reading assignments the day before class. I was a bit hesitant to implement this policy because it forces students to get their reading done almost a day earlier (so that I could review their questions and plan my class around their discussion questions), and of course it adds to their workload. But as both an undergrad and a grad student I found this exercise very worthwhile because it forced me to be an active reader. It required that I not only take notes, but formulate thoughtful questions based on whatever I was reading.
When I was a freshman in college one professor I had set us the task of sending her three discussion questions the day before each class. The following day she would pass around copies of what she considered the most productive questions and use them as a springboards for our lesson. I remember that at first the assignment seemed daunting because we weren’t allowed to ask questions that had only one correct answer (e.g., What is the definition of X?), but something that opened up a dialogue about the text at hand (e.g., What is the significance of the author’s definition of X? Or, how does this author’s definition of X compare with another author’s use of the same term/concept?). But after finding my questions on the discussion sheet a couple of times, I began aiming for getting one question highlighted in every class. I also took this practice with me in all my other courses, where I set the goal of asking one thoughtful question during each class to help me overcome my natural shyness and get in the habit of being an active participant in the classroom.
This pedagogic practice has multiple benefits: As I hint above, it is a great way of building students’ self esteem. Like my college professor, I pass out a sheet of questions that includes students’ names next to them because it is a nice way of recognizing their intellectual contributions to the class dynamic. (Of course teachers have to make the effort to rotate the students highlighted, so that everyone gets featured at least once or twice during the semester.) Reading their questions also gave me a regular means to tap into what students were thinking, so I could better weave their interests into every class discussion and make them feel like they had a real stake in the course. Their questions furthermore gave me insight into how they were thinking. If a student struggled with framing conceptual questions on any given day, I could start a conversation over email to determine the nature of the problem (either the text was difficult to understand or the student didn’t have a facility for abstraction) and invite him to my office hours as needed. Lastly, as an intellectual exercise, assigning discussion questions also forms an integral part of the writing process. What tends to happen over the course of the semester is that students’ questions get longer and longer as they learn to contextualize their questions or expound on the problems they raise. Knowing how to ask a productive question lies at the root of all academic work.