A useful way to create discussion questions--for your own students or for leading a panel at a conference--is to use the reading comprehension levels of literal meaning, inferential meaning, and application. Using this technique can help you stay focused on the material at hand, can help you gather your thoughts and get the energy flowing (making up questions off the top of your head can be quite difficult!), and can help you gauge and adapt to the level of understanding of your audience.
The literal level of any text is what the author says directly in his message. Questions looking for the literal meaning focus on accuracy of understanding and help ensure that everyone in the discussion is on the same page. If you get 3 different answers for a literal question, you know there was mass confusion about what was read, or what was discussed at a conference, and more energy should be put into addressing misconceptions than trying to move forward when part of your audience is not ready.
The inferential level of a text is what the author does not say directly, but can be implicitly understood. Being able to identify the assumptions, deductive logic premises, or even cultural knowledge embedded in a text will help you critique a work. You can raise questions about the appropriateness of these assumptions, or examine the overall text's logic in light of the author's starting points.
Finally, the real meat of a discussion comes from the application questions, or the questions that help the participants abstract or generalize what they learned or understood from the text to other contexts. These questions could be based on analysis (for example, breaking down this author's argument in light of recent shifts in educational practices), comparison or contrast (putting this author's ideas side-by-side with another's), or any of a number of other situations that enable the participants to see and explore how these ideas can be taken beyond the text.
To the right are suggestions for creating each type of question. Even if you decide not to use the literal or inferential questions to guide your discussion, creating them helps ensure that you have a solid grasp of the text yourself.
Here are online resources about the literal, inferential, and application/evaluative model and how it is used in the American academic context:
1. For literal questions, first determine what the core ideas of the text to be discussed are.
Specifics are rarely important to the big picture the author is trying to paint, and focusing on nit-picky details can cause the discussion participants to feel bored or talked down to. These questions are to be sure everyone understands the overall purpose and topic of the paper, so:
a. Use the abstract to help you identify elements the authors themselves thought were important.
The topic, what is said about the topic, the purpose of this work, the audience for whom it was written (which determines the kind of organization and evidence used), the methodology, the theories, the significance this information will have to the field as a whole, etc., all these elements can be used to craft literal questions. For more ideas on using abstracts, see the Abstract Filing page in the Organizing and Maintaining Resources LibGuide.
b. Use the 1st paragraph of each section, and sometimes the last paragraph too, to check your understanding and to find the "big" ideas.
Idea organization in academic English is relatively straight forward: tell the reader or audience what you will be talking about, show how all your evidence or proof relates to what you are talking about, remind them what is was you were talking about. Every paragraph is a mini essay, with at least one sentence that tells you that paragraph's main idea, and in long texts, each section has at least one paragraph that gives you that section's overview. Use the structure of formal, academic English to help you decide which ideas will be pertinent to a group discussion of the work as a whole.
c. If using journal articles, focus on the ideas in the Conclusion or Discussion section, and/or the Lit Review if the Lit Review includes justification for how or why this research was done.
2. For inferential questions, scrutinize the ideas that underpin the author's assertions.
Good questions to ask to help you write inferential discussion questions include:
What do I have to accept is true, that the author has not explicitly stated, for this argument to work?
What does the author take for granted I know or, in the case of propoganda or something poorly written, wants to trick me into accepting as true?
How do these unspoken ideas affect my acceptance of their argument? Their use of evidence? My perception of their bias?
Are there any references to events, persons, places, or things that point to a cultural or contextual limitation to the generalizability of the ideas here?
3. Application questions can be far reaching, but should try to stay within the theme of the discussion or context.
Application questions can be framed with a personal reference ("What do you think?") and allow for an open-ended exchange of ideas--both critical and creative--depending on the discussion's purpose and the kinds of questions you come up with.
Some ideas for creating application questions might be:
-Abstracting the big picture ideas and asking your audience to apply them to their own experiences.
-Comparing some aspect of the study to another study or work the group is familiar with.
-Asking the group how this work would or could affect subsequent studies of this type.
-Questioning the use of this methodology or theory for the theme being discussed and allowing the participants to defend it (if they choose).
-Introducing related current events or topics and allowing the participants to determine how these ideas translate into these real-world contexts.