Asking Critical Questions: The Facilitator as an Organizer and an Evaluator
by Gene Segarra Navera
One of the challenges of discussing scholarly content especially with and among students from various disciplines and with a variety of learning profiles (Riding and Rayner 1998) is how to sustain their interest while keeping them motivated to engage deeply and thoughtfully with the learning materials. In other words, how do we ensure that discussions on academic texts are rigorous and substantive while encouraging students to participate actively in our classes? The answer is pretty basic but highly important to any discussion situation. I say it is by asking critical questions—an act that shapes the role of the teacher-facilitator both as an organizer and an evaluator (Beeman-Cadwallader, Buck & Trauth-Nare 2014; Hogan 2002; Hunter, Bailey, & Taylor 1995; Navera 2007; Navera 2013).
In this reflection, I demonstrate how I emphasize this element in my teaching practice and enact specific roles through an examination of a framework that encourages students to ask questions during class discussions either as designated facilitators or as participants of the discussion process. The questions in this framework surface four elements or dimensions that are crucial to the teaching of ideas and exposition: (1) content (ideas, concepts, theory); (2) approach (analytical framework or methodology); (3) the rhetoric of writing (discursive practices in academic writing); and (4) reflection. I argue that asking these critical questions is not only in line with the spirit of teaching ideas and exposition modules (i.e., “content-specific and rhetorically intensive”), it also allows both the teacher and learners to systematically organize the exchange of ideas in the classroom and to evaluate insights generated from texts, cases, and other sources of discussion.
Critical questions in ideas and exposition
Critical questions allow teachers to draw out ideas and reflections from students; they are communicated when teachers perform their roles as evaluators and organizers (Berdine, 1986; McDaniel, 1984; Rocca, 2010). In UTW2001R (Discourse, Citizenship and Society), a module I have been teaching for three semesters now, I have developed a set of guide questions that I use when facilitating discussions. I also encourage my students to adopt these guide questions during student-led class discussions of the required academic texts. The student led discussions are particularly useful in managing teacher talk and in encouraging students to surface their ideas on reading materials that serve both as sources of content and as models of academic writing.
Below is the set of guide questions that I have used in facilitating class discussions especially of academic content. I shall discuss each of these four elements or dimensions and explain the pedagogical value and implications of formulating specific critical questions for each dimension:
General guide questions for facilitating discussion of a core reading
1. CONTENT: What are the significant ideas in the core reading that help us understand the notion of rhetorical citizenship?
a. How does the reading help us understand the relationship of discourse and society?
b. What does the reading say about enacting or realizing citizenship through discourse?
c. Does the reading help us rethink (expand, complicate, inflect) our assumptions about rhetorical citizenship? Why? Why not
2. METHOD/ APPROACH: Comment on the author’s approach in the study.
a. What can we learn about the method/ approach used by the author/ authors in investigating the case in question?
b. What are the strengths of the approach?
c. What limitations can you glean from how the approach was carried out?
3. RHETORIC OF WRITING: Comment on the quality of writing of the article.
a. How are the ideas organized and develop?
b. Is the writing clear and accessible to its purported audience?
c. What problems do you find in the writing of the article, if any?
d. What can you learn from the example shown by this article?
4. REFLECTION: How does the particular reading contribute to the ongoing conversation on rhetorical citizenship (or discourse, citizenship and society)?
a. How do the ideas in the reading relate or link to the other readings discussed in class or that you have come across?
b. Does it reinforce certain ideas? Does it extend, complicate or reject them?
c. If you were to do a similar study, what would you adopt from the reading?
d. What would you improve on?
Before I explain the pedagogical value and implication of asking critical questions for each dimension, I wish to point out that three sessions of UTW2001R at the beginning of the semester are devoted to explicating the scope of the module as well as its key concepts and theoretical underpinnings (e.g., rhetorical citizenship, discourse and society). These sessions are carried out through a combination of mini-lectures and class discussions where I demonstrate how facilitation may be carried out. They offer the students an opportunity to observe the dynamics of facilitation while enacting their role as participants in the discussion process. They also provide a common ground for members of the class to be able to better understand texts, cases and other sources of discussion.
Now, the specific critical questions from each dimension address critical thinking skills (Davies and Barnett, 2015, p. 12) that are vital to the teaching of academic research writing. These skills include interpretation and comprehension, analysis, evaluation including inter-relational thinking, as well as synthesis and creativity. I classify each of the questions based on which critical thinking skill it encourages or invites students to perform. (see Table 1)
The class is usually divided into pairs or groups of three before a class discussion of a text or core reading ensues. In pair or in groups of three, participants talk about their understanding of the content of the academic source. This is meant to build confidence in one’s ideas before sharing them to the bigger group. This structured learning activity Hatch & Bohlig 2015) has not gone unnoticed to students of the module. One learner had this to say:
Splitting into smaller discussion groups in a way forces us to think and contribute to the discussion, which then makes the subsequent class discussion more productive, so I suppose it was good that he had these mini group discussions for the readings.
The core critical question having to do with content focuses on surfacing significant ideas that help participants understand the notion of rhetorical citizenship—the core concept of the module. These significant ideas are crucial when students write their research projects—research proposal and research paper—as students get introduced to ongoing academic conversations on discourse, citizenship and society or rhetorical citizenship.
The three specific questions under “content” invite facilitators and participants to interpret and evaluate ideas in the academic source. The first two questions are questions that require discussants or participants to demonstrate their comprehension as well as interpret concepts that are featured in the academic text. The third one with corresponding probing questions enables participants to engage in an evaluation of the reading while linking its ideas to those of previous academic sources covered in class. These questions allow participants to tease out relevant content from the academic text under investigation; the content surfaced should be useful in thinking about ongoing conversations in the field, in developing one’s ideas for the writing assignments, and in framing the actual writing projects.
The second dimension of the guide questions focuses on the analytical/ critical approach or the method of the academic source under investigation. The questions are specifically aimed at understanding the method or analytical/ critical approach and assessing the strengths and limitations of the said method or approach. The first question checks the participants’ comprehension of how the approach is described in the text while the next two enable them to evaluate what the approach has to offer to future researchers or discourse analysts and what limitations these researchers potentially face when they use such an approach.
Since the module is a writing course, it is important that the texts under investigation serve the purpose of offering readers discursive practices in academic writing (Murray, Thow, Moore, & Murphy 2008). The third dimension of the guide questions is therefore focused on the rhetoric of writing. From this dimension, we view the texts as a means to socialize the readers to the writing practices of researchers. The questions put forth in this section are analytical, interpretive and evaluative. The first question requires participants to describe the structure and development of ideas in the paper. This implies that the reader should engage in a close reading not only of the content but also of the communication of content, thus, the rhetoric of writing. The second question focuses on assessing clarity and accessibility to its readers/ audience. Needless to say, the level of clarity or accessibility should be demonstrated through language use and these should be surfaced during discussion of the text. The last two questions under “rhetoric of writing” talk about specific problems or areas for improvement as well as making apparent the best practices in writing as reflected in the academic source. These questions are evaluative and allow participants to treat the written text as a repository of discursive practices that may or may not be adopted in one’s own writing practice.
Finally, the reflection dimension is meant to reinforce insights generated from the evaluative question posed in the content section, that is, the question on how the particular reading contributes to the ongoing conversation on rhetorical citizenship (or discourse, citizenship and society). This dimension is important in that it firms up the reader’s understanding of the text in relation to other texts covered in class. It also reinforces or potentially puts into question certain ideas that have been shared in class. This opens up further discussion or exchange of views. More importantly the dimension offers questions that allow the reader to make decisions with regard to what is applicable or not and what can be developed further for her own research project. The reflection questions not only generate evaluative comments, but they also encourage the reader to synthesize insights from the text and create new research possibilities that adopt viable academic writing practices and avoid the weaknesses gleaned from the academic sources.
Table 1 below summarizes how each critical question that corresponds to the four dimensions discussed above address specific critical thinking skills (Davies and Barnett, 2015).
|Dimension||Questions||Critical thinking skills addressed|
|Content||What are the significant ideas in the core reading that help us understand the notion of rhetorical citizenship?||Comprehension, interpretation, and evaluation|
|How does the reading help us understand the relationship of discourse and society?||Comprehension and interpretation|
|What does the reading say about enacting or realizing citizenship through discourse?||Comprehension and interpretation|
|Does the reading help us rethink (expand, complicate, inflect) our assumptions about rhetorical citizenship? Why? Why not?||Evaluation and inter-relational thinking|
|Approach||Comment on the author’s approach in the study.||Comprehension and evaluation|
|What can we learn about the method/ approach used by the author/ authors in investigating the case in question?||Comprehension|
|What are the strengths of the approach?||Evaluation (assessing strengths)|
|What limitations can you glean from how the approach was carried out?||Evaluation (assessing limitations)|
|Rhetoric of writing||Comment on the quality of writing of the article.||Analysis, interpretation and evaluation|
|How are the ideas organized and develop?||Analysis and interpretation|
|Is the writing clear and accessible to its purported audience?||Evaluation (assessment of effectiveness)|
|What problems do you find in the writing of the article, if any?||Evaluation (assessment of problems)|
|What can you learn from the example shown by this article?||Evaluation|
|Reflection||How does the particular reading contribute to the ongoing conversation on rhetorical citizenship (or discourse, citizenship and society)?||Comprehension, interpretation, evaluation, and synthesis|
|How do the ideas in the reading relate or link to the other readings discussed in class or that you have come across?||Comprehension and interpretation|
|Does it reinforce certain ideas? Does it extend, complicate or reject them?||Evaluation|
|If you were to do a similar study, what would you adopt from the reading?||Synthesis|
|What would you improve on?||Evaluation and synthesis|
Table 1. Critical thinking skills (Davies and Barnett, 2015) addressed by the guide questions for discussion of academic texts
Student and peer feedback
Below are some of the relevant comments from students who have found the “structure” of my lessons (largely defined by the critical questions) useful and relevant to achieving the module’s learning outcomes:
His deliberate injections of humour into the seminars certainly never fail to liven classes up. I also appreciate his organisation of small group discussions and activities, which I thought was really effective, especially for students who will be shy to air their views to a large group. He is also patient and understanding
He is engaging and charismatic. He is adept at facilitating discussion and generating interest in a topic as abstract as rhetorical citizenship. He gives good feedback and provides excellent slides that detail the steps for us to attain the learning outcomes.
Dr. Gene has incorporated feedback from IEM1 very well in order to significantly improve the IEM2 experience. His lessons are conducted in a clear and structured manner, which is very helpful in helping us to understand the subject matter at hand.
Dr Gene has been a very engaging teacher and has facilitated class discussions when we’re stuck in our quite, unsociable selves. I have learnt many new concepts regarding enacting citizenry and discourses.
H[is] eloquence is befitting of a module that puts a heavy emphasis on written communication. Lessons are conducted in an engaging manner and students are encouraged to share their perspectives with the class. Moreover, he builds up a strong rapport with his students and encourages them to be more engaged citizens in society, a theme that underpins the module.
…He is well-versed and knowledgeable in the content knowledge, and sets out clear learning objectives for each lesson while also encouraging the active participation of students during lesson time. He is highly supportive and encouraging of students’ and their work, and provides timely, prompt and extensive feedback about students draft and assignments. He is an understanding person who is also very patient with his students, and also a very caring and sensitive individual who is genuinely concerned about his students. He is also able to build on students’ ideas and encourage them, thereby creating a facilitative and nurturing environment where students are encouraged/have the flexibility and freedom to explore their own ideas, while he helps to offer constructive feedback, suggestion and criticism to develop and strengthen them…
Peers who have observed my classroom teaching have also affirmed that a clear structure or framework for discussion ensures the achievement of learning objectives. Some of their relevant comments are stated below:
In my opinion, the class was extremely well prepared for, organised and effective in achieving the intended learning outcomes. Prior to the class, Dr. Navera had assigned the required reading to the students, and he had a very clear idea of how the class was to be organised and conducted. The learning objectives for the class were well laid out at the start, along with the discussion prompts for the assigned reading which framed the discussion in a logical manner. Ample time was allocated to group discussion, subsequent sharing of students’ views, and summarising of the key points at the end of the class.
The learning objectives and the relevance of the class within the larger context of the module were clearly articulated at the start. During the group discussion, Dr. Navera went around checking on the groups, to clarify any questions that they have, and to help spur the discussion along. The subsequent plenary session where the groups pooled their views was extremely well-facilitated, with Dr. Navera ensuring that every student had the chance to speak. He summarised what each student shared, and re-directed questions to the rest of the class to seek their views as well. Questions were also posed during discussion to get students to think more deeply on the answers that they or their classmates gave. At the end of the session, he deftly picked up the key points of the discussion and concisely articulated them to ensure student takeaways of the learning points.
Students were not only able to discuss the scaffolding questions that were set up for them in small groups, they were also able to confidently share these with their entire class when prompted. Gene made sure that each student contributed to the discussion at some point or other by calling to them individually by name.
Insights and conclusion
The general guide questions can pose constraints and challenges for the classroom discussion when used as a prescription. Given the limited time frame allotted for a tutorial or seminar-style session (i.e., 1 hour and 35 minutes as students need to be dismissed 25 minutes before the end of the 2-hour period), the guide questions when followed very strictly can consume the time and can be intellectually exhausting for students. While it could ensure rigor in the discussion of academic texts prescribed for the module, covering all questions might mean giving up space for students to formulate their own questions during the session as they try to make sense of the readings in their own unique ways. The guide questions definitely allow for a more structured and targeted discussion, but it should not be used in such a way that it silences the participants’ voices (Freire 1984) and downplays other possibilities of engaging academic texts.
I believe the students, even when introduced to these questions before they carry out facilitation work in the classroom, should have the option of formulating their own questions that they consider necessary for a robust discussion to take place. What the questions in the guidelines offer then are just models and possibilities—a synthesizing template that can help them organize the discussion more systematically and that can ensure that critical thinking skills are targeted by the kind of questions they ask—whether they are recall or process questions, foundational thinking-oriented or higher order thinking-oriented. This template should never be thought of as a prescription; instead, it should be treated as an enabler so that both the facilitator and participants achieve the level of evaluation necessary to bring out ideas and develop rhetorical skills that matter to academic or scholarly writing. Additionally, it may be used as a means to launch and direct a more focused or targeted discussion within the limits or constraints often faced by our courses.
Beeman-Cadwallader, N., Buck, G. & Trauth-Nare, A. (2014). “Tipping the balance from expert to facilitator: Examining myths about being a teacher educator.” Studying Teacher Education, 10:1, 70-85, DOI: 10.1080/17425964.2013.864967
Berdine, R. (1986). “Why some students fail to participate in class.” Marketing News, 20:15, 23-24.
Davies, M. and Barnett, R. (2015). The Palgrave handbook of critical thinking in higher education. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Freire, P. (1984). Pedagogy of the oppressed (trans. M.B. Ramos). New York: Continuum Publishing Corporation.
Hatch, D. K. & Bohlig, E. M. (2015). “The scope and design of structured group learning experiences at community colleges.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39:9, 819-838, DOI: 10.1080/10668926.2014.91112
Hogan, C. (2002). Understanding facilitation: Theory and principles. London: Kogan Page.
Hunter, D., Bailey, A., & Taylor, B. (1995). The art of facilitation: How to create group synergy. Cambridge, MA: Fisher Books.
Jones, R. C. (2008). “The ‘why’ of class participation: A question worth asking.” College Teaching, 56:1, 59-63, DOI: 10.3200/CTCH.56.1.59-64
McDaniel, T. R. (1984). “A primer on motivation: Principles old and new.” Phi Delta Kappan, 66, 46 49.
Murray, R., Thow, M., Moore, S. & Murphy, M. (2008). “The writing consultation: developing academic writing practices.” Journal of Further and Higher Education, 32:2, 119-128, DOI: 10.1080/03098770701851854
Navera, G. S. (2007). “Facilitation as performance as kinesis: Language teaching as activist performance.” Reflections on English Language Teaching, 6(2), 65-75.
Navera, G. S. (2013). “Teaching as Transformative Performance: Performance as Kinesis in an Argumentative Writing Class.” Pertanika Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 21(4), 1621-1631.
Riding, R. J. and Rayner, S. (1998). Cognitive styles and learning strategies: understanding style differences in learning and behavior. London: D. Fulton Publishers.
Rocca, K. A. (2010). “Student participation in the college classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review.” Communication Education, 59:2, 185-213, DOI: 10.1080/03634520903505936