Questioning, Listening and Responding

It would be hard to name a more valuable pedagogical accomplishment than the mastery of questioning, listening, and response: three teaching skills as linked, though distinct, as the panels of a triptych. (C. Roland Christensen, Education for Judgment, 1991)

The three essential skills of questioning, listening and responding are the backbone of discussion-based teaching. While each is important in its own right, the skills are intricately interrelated: the potential effect of a good question is only fully realized if accompanied by active listening, which in turn is an essential prerequisite for the appropriate response, whether in the form of an acknowledgment or further questioning.

Questioning Experienced case instructors employ different types of questions at various points in the class to shape the arc of the discussion toward student discovery and learning. Questions for Class Discussions provides examples of questions found to be particularly effective in each of four major categories: starting a discussion segment, following-up during a discussion-in-progress, transitioning from one segment of the class to another, and handling challenging moments when the discussion is at risk of becoming bogged down or thrown substantially off-course. Instructors can prepare certain questions in advance of the class session-particularly questions designed to start each discussion segment and to probe for analysis specific to the assigned case. Other questions are formulated in the flow of discussion as instructors draw on a more standardized repertoire of questions in response to student contributions in real time.

Listening. The organic nature of a case method discussion requires instructors to listen carefully throughout the class session and encourage students to listen closely to each other. Effective listening goes beyond attention to the content of student contributions: it also includes sensitivity to the tone and body language of each speaker and the reactions of other participants. Instructors should listen not only to individual contributions on their own terms, but also to their relationship to previous comments and their fit within the overall flow of the discussion. Ultimately, careful listening enables the case method instructor to remain highly participant-centered, while still providing effective guidance for reaching core learning objectives.

Responding. Case discussions can be profoundly affected by the instructor's verbal and nonverbal responses to student contributions. Instructor responses can provide feedback and direction to student contributors in real time, shape the content and flow of the discussion, and influence the energy level of the class. Case instructors find it helpful to acknowledge each contribution in some way, whether through a simple nod or verbal affirmation, a restating ("echoing") of the essence of the contribution, and/or the recording of the comment on the board. Yet experienced instructors are typically reluctant to give direct feedback after a comment, such as "brilliant analysis!" or "you're wrong." Instead they prefer an indirect approach, soliciting reactions from other students and using follow-up questions to probe for greater depth or clarity. In general, instructors should view responses as micro-level opportunities to guide the participant-centered learning process-typically through minimal means, but occasionally through more significant interventions designed to refocus, reenergize or otherwise redirect a meandering or confused discussion.