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How to Create Great Discussion Questions

Question © by Clarkston SCAMP

Engaging students in classroom discussion is a vital part of the learning process.  It helps flex and strengthen cognitive muscles that students need to analyze, reason, process, and determine relationships.  It’s also great for emergency lesson plans  and stretching time!  If you’re left without a sub plan and decide to read a short story aloud, or if you’ve been left with reading or viewing material but no follow-up activity, being able to create challenging and engaging discussion questions on the fly is an invaluable tool.

  • If a teacher has left reading or viewing material, but no follow-up activity, use the time during which students are reading or watching to come up with the questions.
  • Make sure that questions are open-ended.  There is a difference between a comprehension question and a discussion question.  The former has a clear and definitive answer which students can find in the text, or will be able to answer quickly if they have read and understood.  A discussion question should not have a yes-or-no answer.
    • Did the townspeople in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” kill Tessie Hutchinson?  or What happened to Tessie Hutchinson at the end of “The Lottery?” are examples of questions that will generate one-word or basic answers.  There’s simply not much left to talk about after students answer this question.  However…
    •   Why did the townspeople stone Tessie Hutchinson at the end of “The Lottery” or Why didn’t Davy Hutchinson try to save his mother? are examples of questions that will force students to use their powers of reasoning, argument, and analysis to answer.
  • Questions that compare and contrast are quick and easy discussion question standbys.  Ask students to create a Venn diagram in pairs or groups that illustrates the similarities and differences between characters.  You could also instruct students to try to find similarities between people or events in the text and people or events in the real world.
  • Hypothetical questions are also a great way to allow students to use the creative and imaginative portions of their brains.  If your material is science-based, ask students to imagine a world without that particular phenomenon or property.  For example,What would the world be like without gravity? or How would it affect the food chain if this type of insect went extinct?  If you’re using narrative material, ask students to describe how they would behave or react in the character’s situation.
  • Asking unpopular or “dumb” questions work wonders in jolting students awake and riling them up.  If we go back to the example of The Lottery, in which a town engages in a centuries-old but senseless tradition of stoning to death one of its members every year, you could ask students if ritual killing would be a good way to control overpopulation, and then to defend their view.  The answer here is obvious, but the audacity of asking it will compel students to defend that obvious answer with passion and zeal.
  • If students finish reading early, at uneven times, or if you just suddenly find yourself with unexpected time to kill, instruct older students to design 2-3 discussion questions of their own.  Tell them the questions can’t be yes-or-no, and they can’t be simple comprehension questions related to the plot, but rather open-ended, opinion-based, or hypothetical questions for the purpose of generating discussion as opposed to answers.
There many more ways to engage students, check out the other tips on our blog for substitute teachers. Remember, SubAssistant helps you get the sub job, but it's up to you to make a difference!
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