Designing Effective Discussion Questions

Designing Effective Discussion Questions


A good question is both answerable and challenging. It will inspire analysis, synthesis, interpretation, and critical thinking. Below are several types of questions and suggestions about when to use which kind.


Begin with material students are familiar with or feel comfortable with. This might be a question that can be answered with information from general experience or from basic data in the subject area. Learn to prepare a mix of questions—those that are easily answered, slightly challenging, or highly complex—that they can draw on as the discussion develops.


Analysis – Questions beginning with “Why…” “How would you…” “What is …”
• Example: What is the meaning of Madame X’s comment about Jacque’s activities…?

Compare and Contrast – “Compare…” “Contrast…” “What is the difference between…” “What is the
similarity between…”
• Example: What is the difference between the mother and the father’s attitudes toward…?

Cause and Effect – “What are the causes/results of…” “What connection is there between…”
• Example: What is the cause of Lea’s distress when she looks at herself in the mirror?

Clarification – “What is meant by…” “Explain how…”


Simple Yes-No – Produces little discussion and encourages guessing.
• Example: “Is the Aunt expressing a desire for Gigi to marry?”

Elliptical – Too vague; it is not clear what is being asked.
• Examples: “Well, what do you think about the Don Juan’s values?”

Leading – Conveys the expected answer.
• Example: “Don’t you think that Colette is condemning the…?”

Slanted – Closes down student who may not agree with the implied assumption.
• Example: “Why are Colette’s young women so corrupt?”


•Decide whether to ask questions of a particular individual or the whole group. Sometimes calling on an individual may help to get a slow class going, but it can release the other students from the responsibility of formulating answers for themselves.
• Leave sufficient wait time after asking a question before answering it yourself, repeating it, rephrasing it, or adding further information. Wait at least ten to fifteen seconds before making any change in your question.
• Avoid rapid reward for responding. Rapid reward means calling immediately on the first person who indicates an answer or approving immediately of a correct response that a student has given.

For more information about this topic, please contact the Coulter Faculty Commons Educational Development Team at 227-7196.

How to Lead a Discussion

How to Lead a Discussion


• Carefully consider your objectives for a discussion. Do you want students to apply newly learned skills, mull over new subject matter, learn to analyze arguments critically, practice synthesizing conflicting views, or relate material to their own lives? These goals are not mutually exclusive, but they require different types of direction.
• Use discussion to help students link concepts to their own lives; to encourage students to evaluate material critically; and to address topics that are open-ended, have no clear resolution, and/or can be effectively addressed through multiple approaches.


• Share your planning decisions with your students. Let them know what your focus is, and why it is important; also invite students to contribute suggestions for discussion topics and formats.
• Make sure the assigned material is discussed in class; if the students don’t come prepared with questions and responses, do not let the discussion wander. Bringing in specific quotes, problems, or other samples of the assigned material can ensure that even under-prepared students will have something to talk about.
• Consider asking students to email or post to a discussion board their thoughts. This will also give you insight into the students’ thoughts while you plan the discussion.


• Use open-ended questions and ask students for clarification, examples, and definitions.
• Summarize student responses without taking a stand one way or another.
• Invite students to address one another and not always “go through” you.
• Pause to give students time to reflect on your summaries or others’ comments.
• Consider taking notes of main points on a whiteboard or document camera.
• Toward the end of the discussion, review the main ideas, the thread of the discussion, and conclusions.


• Arrange the room to maximize student- to-student eye contact; e.g., chairs around a table or in a circle.
• When students ask questions, realize you (the instructor) do not have to provide the answer.


• Notice who did and who did not participate.
• Check the tone of the discussion—was it stimulating and respectful?
• Ask students about their reactions to the discussion session.

For more information on this topic, please contact the Coulter Faculty Commons Educational Development Team at 227-7196.