In The Prince, Machiavelli famously wrote that a great prince must “certainly be a great asker of questions” (ch. 23). This is certainly true of great teachers and engaged learners. In the vast majority of our AGS online courses, discussion forums are a significant part of the course grade. In the face-to-face courses, while class discussion may not be as heavily weighted, it is nonetheless an important part of the learning environment.
While there are different ways to adapt these kinds of discussions to each teaching mode, good dialogue is essential in any learning context. However, asking good questions is both an art and a science that takes some work to master at a high level. You don’t have to be a master teacher to recognize that good dialogue can be hard to bring about, especially in online courses. It is one thing to throw dialogue questions out there for the class to tackle. It’s quite another for those questions to be great questions that really stimulate deep learning and understanding.
Disciplined dialogue is one key to effective learning through class discussions. According to Brookfield and Preskill (Discussion As a Way of Teaching, 2005), dialogue is disciplined when students remain focused on the selected topic, explain or support their arguments, critically synthesize multiple points of view, connect new and prior knowledge, and demonstrate how the discussion has changed their thinking.
How many of us have struggled with watching students, whether it is in class discussions, online forums, or in written assignments, struggle to think critically, defend an argument, synthesize their previous knowledge with new information from the class, or apply new concepts to real situations in an in-depth way? This struggle is partly where our ability to ask the right kinds of good questions becomes of critical importance to both faculty and student success.
The path of least resistance is to ask students to merely summarize or describe basic knowledge. This is the lowest level of cognitive learning in Bloom’s taxonomy. Using the suggestions from Brookfield and Preskill that I have summarized here, you as the instructor can push your students to higher orders of critical-analytical thinking, engagement, and, ultimately, understanding and wisdom.
Brookfield and Preskill offer the following sets of questions that you can use to more effectively facilitate this kind of dialogue.
CONNECTING DISCUSSION TO MAIN TOPIC
- What is the connection between your comment and what was just said?
- Can you explain how your idea is helping us make sense of this subject matter?
- We seem to have wandered away from the main topic. What do we need to do to get back on track?
- Who has a comment or question that can help us regain our focus?
MAXIMIZING CRITICAL THINKING AND REASONING
- How do you know what you say is true?
- What evidence do you have to support this claim?
- What is the source of that point of view?
- Whose work that have we studied confirms what you are saying?
- By what process of reasoning did you reach that conclusion?
SUMARIZATION AND SYNTHESIS
- How has this discussion changed the way you are thinking about this topic?
- What is the most memorable thing you have heard here today?
- What question(s) does this discussion prompt you to ask?
- What is something that you learned or relearned here today?
- What do you know now that you did not know before this dialogue began?
- What assumptions you had about this topic have been confirmed or questioned for you by this discussion?
The next challenge from here is helping students learn to be great askers of great questions. But the first step is in modeling that for them in the kinds of questions we ask.