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Improving discussion participation is one of the most widespread concerns of college instructors. Like most consultants, I often make suggestions based on my own experience and on hunches formed from observing a variety of teachers at work. Yet I have felt the need to test these hunches, and to generate solutions to the problem that are based on objective, systematic evidence. To take a step in this direction has been the purpose of the research project presented here.
This study deals with the contribution made by the verbal structure of questions to the form and quality of discussions (1). This is a fruitful place to start the analysis of discussions, since it is a factor which can be easily abstracted and studied apart from the interwoven context of classroom process. In addition to its "studyability," this sphere should produce useful information since the phrasing of questions is largely under the control of the instructor, and thus provides leverage for the person who wants to improve his or her teaching (2). This is so in two senses: first, it is the instructor, rather than students, who poses most questions; and second, questioning style--unlike many expressive, personality-linked characteristics -- can be altered by a deliberate effort.
(1): An aspect of this project formed the basis for a presentation at the 1979 POD Annual Conference. It dealt with one particular question form, the "Focal Question," which will be discussed later in this paper.
(2): My appreciation to Sondra Napell, a higher education consultant, who first directed my attention to question form. She uses this approach in helping instructors to analyze written transcripts of their own classroom questions.