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How do I ask great questions without breaking into a lecture? How do I keep things going?

Questions are the simplest form of interactive teaching tool, particularly in large classes, and are useful in any discipline. They can help promote active learning and gauge students' level of interest and comprehension. Ask questions from the first day of class to set a precedent; you will have a much better participation level than if you try to change your routine midway through the term.

  • Develop key questions before class (they won't occur to you on the spot – this also allows you to plan your time).
  • Decide when you're going to ask them. During lectures, ask questions early on to stimulate interest and gauge students' level of knowledge; in the middle, to break the pace of the lecture; and/or at the end, to review main ideas and gather ideas for future classes.
  • Ask questions that can be answered, but favor the ones having complex answers.
  • Vary the form of questions: those that gauge knowledge, require diagnosis or explanation, or challenge conclusions.
  • Ask only one question at a time.
  • Pause between asking and accepting replies (pausing gives students a chance to think of an answer, and by not asking the first person who raises his/her hand, you encourage quieter students to participate).
  • Acknowledge all answers – repeat so the class can hear and/or write them on the board (this also helps to show you understood the answer).
  • Move around the room – avoid focusing exclusively on the respondent.

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  • Brainstorming can be simple and useful in all disciplines but it must be used appropriately to be effective. Choose a strategic point in your class for brainstorming, such as when beginning a new topic or at the end of a lecture as review. Use students' input to decide on sub-topics to focus on during your class, to identify possible lines of questioning, and to assess students' level of comprehension and interest in your topic.
  • Decide exactly how much time you'll allot to the brainstorming, and enforce it.
  • Present students with a question or issue that you want their ideas on; emphasize quantity over quality. For large classes you should use a prompt that asks for tentative responses rather than declarative statements. For example, "tell me what you know, have heard, or have read about this topic." This allows your students to offer responses without having to fear being "wrong."
  • Use a few minutes of silence for students to write down their ideas before hearing them.
  • Accept students' input and organize it into logical groupings, if relevant.
  • Apply only two rules: acknowledge every offering by writing it down and don't allow judgments of any idea until brainstorming is over (this includes your judgments!).

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Introduce "quescussion."

"Quescussion," as the name indicates, combines questions and discussion into one activity. The professor asks a question or makes a statement to the class (this question should be written on the white board or overhead projector). There are four basic rules when responding to this prompt:

  • Discussion has to be in question form (No statements!)
  • A person may speak only every nth time.
  • No fake questions (i.e., a statement disguised as a question. For example, "small classes are better than large ones, aren't they?").
  • No ad hominems: an attack on someone else (i.e., "a person would be crazy if they thought that, wouldn't they?" - this is also a disguised statement).


By following these four rules, the quescussion can occur effectively. All questions are recorded, grouped, and used to determine students' exposure to and understanding of a specific topic. It can also be used to determine topics to cover in each lecture. By framing the discussion into questions, students feel less intimidated to speak in front of the large class. Also, the questions are tentative (impossibly wrong) responses rather than declarative (possibly wrong) responses. The rule of speaking every n times (for example, 3 or 4) generates a variety of voices and allows for reflection while waiting for a turn to speak.

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Host a debate.

A debate is a good way to encourage class participation in large groups without losing control, and they can work in any discipline – not just the social sciences. They can emerge spontaneously from classroom material but are best used with planning.

  1. The first step is to describe the background context, and explain why you are having a debate.
  2. Then decide on the two (or more) sides to the debate and physically group the class according to points of view. For example, the people sitting on the right-hand side of the room are for a concept, while the people on the left-hand side are against it.
  3. You, as moderator, can ask provocative questions, but don't express judgment on any point of view (at least not until afterwards!). For large groups, you should have speakers raise their hands while you moderate. The debate will probably start slowly at first, but the intensity will pick up.
  4. After 10 to 15 minutes of debating, end the debate and reflect on what was said.
  5. You can use ideas and conflicts from the debate to lead into your lecture, review lecture concepts to end the class, or segue to your next class.
  6. Variations:


  • Argue the other side:  Can you argue both sides? Most people will take a side to an issue or a discussion or a debate, but a way to make that discussion or debate stronger is to be able to argue both sides and be able to consider the other side's opinion/facts. Some issues that I think would be fun to argue both ways are gun control... abortion... animal high kill shelters... the death penalty... Some people can argue both sides. They like to choose the side that no one else is arguing, to make a real discussion of it. They are the original Devil's advocate...
  • Debate the "why side": The Power of Inquiry. "We're all naturally curious," says Allyson Graul, who worked with commissioners as director of the Youth Civic Engagement Center at Alternatives, Inc. in Hampton. "But in so many ways our society has shut down our curiosity and replaced it with these right-wrong answers. Our school system has created young people who are just about getting the 'right' answer without really looking beyond that."

Schools increasingly focus more on the answer than the question. Teachers are deemed successful if their students answer exam questions correctly, not if they can think critically. Science, civics, art, and other inquiry-based subjects get pushed aside in favor of subjects that are quantifiable. This is a profound irony, considering that what society needs from citizens, and what businesses need from workers, is the ability to inquire, analyze, and discern why it matters. If we start with a vision of the kind of adult we want to produce—not with the test scores we want students to attain—and work our way backward, we will see the value of preparing questioning, critically thinking young people.

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Give an ungraded quiz.

An ungraded quiz encourages students to pay attention during lectures by presenting them with a short-term, non-threatening learning objective. It can be done very quickly and can also provide you with a source of candid feedback on students' knowledge level. Use ungraded quizzes at the beginning of a lecture to determine the level of knowledge, or at the end of a lecture as a review and incentive for students to retain and comprehend information. Alternatively, use an ungraded quiz at the end of a lecture to gauge how successful you've been in teaching the material.

  1. Write question(s) on the board, overhead, or handout.
  2. Give students five to ten minutes to respond on a blank sheet of paper (depending on the atmosphere in the class, you may keep the quiz anonymous or ask students to put their names on papers).
  3. Collect papers and report on responses next time the class meets.
  4. Variations:


  • Prepare multiple-choice answer options and present each one in turn, asking for a show of hands.
  • Before (or instead of) collecting quiz papers, have students exchange and "grade" each other's quiz papers based on the answers you present. This grading is to allow students to gauge their understanding and should not be used as a formal assessment.

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Encourage development of a student liaison committee ("Ombuddies").

"Ombuddies" or the student liaison committee can be an excellent way of getting feedback from large classes in particular. With this tool, a group of student volunteers act as a liaison between you and the class. The group can meet independently on a regular basis and then periodically meet with you to provide you with the feedback they have gleaned from their classmates. Or, this can be less formal, with the students simply reporting to you questions or concerns as they arise. The class should always know who the volunteers are and should receive regular reports from the "ombuddies" and/or you. There are two components that make this activity work:

  • Provide the volunteers with some guidance about how to function as a committee and how to solicit and collect feedback from their peers.
  • Students should know one another. Ombuddies should be used in highly structured programs or upper-year classes where students are going to be familiar with each other. If a student is reluctant to talk to you about an issue, they will most likely be apprehensive about talking to a fellow student who is a total stranger.

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Distribute blank index cards for quick and easy feedback.

Blank index cards enable you to gather a small amount of feedback quickly and easily.

  • Students respond to two questions that you pose, answering one question per card side
  • Questions could be very general (i.e., What do you want more of? Less of?) or more specific (i.e., Are the problem sets too difficult?).
  • Allow students one to two minutes to jot down their ideas. With any more time, they may become frustrated with the limited paper space.
  • Collect students' responses and answer any questions they have during the next lecture.


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Incorporate the various internet tools available.

  • You can use an electronic bulletin board or course website to post the course syllabus, course notes, assignment instructions, or administrative details (i.e., your office number, dates for tests and so on).
  • More intensive use of the Internet could involve using bulletin boards, chatrooms, or on-line discussion groups to answer student questions or pose discussion questions. These tools work best in large classes if students are divided into smaller groups and are graded on their participation.
  • Some instructors, too, encourage participation via micro-blogging technologies such as Twitter: students have the option of participating verbally or of typing their contributions into a live Twitter feed.
  • Electronic polls can be used to get feedback from the large group on times for office hours, topics for lectures and for voting on debate topics.
  • Also, consider what face to face activity you will eliminate from your course to make time for on-line discussions.

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Use hand-held immediate response clickers.

You can use clickers to collect students' responses to multiple-choice questions. You can extend the learning with clickers by having students' first respond individually and then having them respond again after discussing their ideas with their peers.

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