Killer Strategies

Critical “Listening” / Engaged Discussions

Feedback Lenses 1: Socratic Pool

Basic Idea: Students assume different roles to guide discussions as they question each other in an attempt to build understanding of a course concept / issue / problem.


The principle that guides this activity is to critically engage students in substantive dialogue with other students and with the content. Multiple skills are targeted including: critical listening, entering analytically into alternative perspectives, grounding abstractions in concrete examples, thinking metaphorically, speaking concisely and clearly, and generating clear and focused questions. Consistent practice and reflection on the value of these intellectual moves targets the cultivation of intellectual dispositions (attitudes and habits of mind) including: thinking with empathy, inquiry and curiosity, and respect.

The general idea is to assign students different roles as they contribute to discussions and posts. The instructor is providing specific lenses for students to think through the content. The instructor, then, is a facilitator directing intellectual moves rather than providing input in the form of comments and questions. We cannot assume that students will recognize and reproduce the types of intellectual moves we make as we pose questions, craft responses, and point to alternative constructs. In other words, modeling is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Recommended Applications

This activity originated in the face-to-face classroom where an instructor would use name cards to randomly call on students to perform specific intellectual moves as they collectively worked to assess and build content understanding and a culture of respect and attentiveness. The method changes for the asynchronous online learning environment, but the principle remains the same.

  1. Present the day’s topic or question to the class.

  2. Assign roles:

    1. Option 1: The entire class will work to pose questions to each other focused on a particular intellectual move: asking questions of clarification, sufficiency, validity, or accuracy. You’ll see better posts if you lay out specific thinking directions. For example, ask all students to pose at least two questions probing clarity, two questions probing validity, and two questions that explore conceptual connections. In addition, as that all questions be responded to.

    2. Option 2: Assign specific roles to individual students. Depending on the size of the class, it may be wise to create groups of 4.

      1. Student 1 will pose questions of clarification focusing on definition and elaboration (conceptual connections).

      2. Student 2 will work to exemplify key concepts and/or points. Examples can be drawn from the text and one’s personal experiences.

      3. Student 3 will work to create analogies, metaphors, similes or drawings that capture the essential meaning of the key idea/issue.

      4. Student 4 will pose questions of accuracy, validity and/or sufficiency: How do we know this is true? Is this the best metaphor to capture the essence of the idea?

    3. Option 3: Assign the entire class a specific role. For example, you can create a series of stages that build off of one another to lead to deeper insights and target different skills. A specific example may look like this:

      1. All students will post an initial response to the question/topic/reading by the end of the day.

      2. We will first look at “Student 4’s” response. Everyone will ask Student 4 a series of clarifying questions. Specifically focus on questions of definition, elaboration and exemplification.

      3. Next, looking at all the questions asked of Student 4 we will assess the clarity of the questions posed.

  3. At any time, you can direct a particular student (or all students) to accurately paraphrase what another student has said. Then you can ask students to collectively choose the clearest and most accurate paraphrase and include a brief rationale. A quick poll can be used, which may increase efficiency of replies, and it provides a way to track participation.

 Direct students to:

  • Restate the central question under discussion

  • Evaluate and/or analyze statements

  • Paraphrase statements

  • Make assertions and draw inferences

  • Assess claims

  • Probe motives

  • Probe causes and correlations

  • Relate to personal experience with examples

  • Relate to content citing specific examples

  • Construct illustrations (concept maps, analogies, metaphors, similes, drawings, etc.)

  • Explore alternatives

  • Ask questions that explore clarification, implications, etc.

  • For more general intellectual moves see:

    • Barkley, E.F. (2010). p. 90, 122-124

    • Browne, N.M. & Keeley, S.M. (2010). pp. 10 and 17


Assessment is embedded throughout this activity. We guide students to evaluate each other by posing questions and alternative assertions, by verifying understanding through restatements and exemplification, and by making connections between course content and personal experience/observations. However, at any time an instructor can target a particular task (and associated skills – e.g.- asking clarifying questions) and capture that data for end of the term purposes (e.g.- participation).


  • Barkley, E.F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Browne, N.M. & Keeley, S.M. (2010). Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. 9th Ed.Upper Saddle River, NJ; Pearson.

  • Paul, R. & Elder, L. How to Improve Student Learning. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking. p. 12, Idea #8.

  • Carl Rogers Rogerian Argument

Feedback Lenses 2: QRO (Questioner, Responder, Observer)

Basic Idea: Students listen to each other from a variety of perspectives (roles) and engage one another through questioning and summative feedback to explore content topics or to assess content understanding.


This activity challenges students to question and assess the extent to which one’s peers understand course content and provide summative feedback about the conversation’s intellectual direction. They assume specific roles that requires asking focused questions, concise responses, and focused feedback. This activity can help to develop questioning skills, consciousness of the need to be accurate, clear and concise, and critical listening and feedback skills.

Recommended Applications

Create students in groups of three, but a maximum of four. Establish a way to generally identify students as they assume different roles during multiple rounds of the routine. For example, you can letter students as A, B and C. One fairly efficient way to organize this activity is to create online groups. A challenge is to isolate conversation threads to facilitate fluid reading. This activity can be used as a precursor to a general whole-class discussion, or it can be the way the discussion over course content is facilitated. It is recommended that student roles switch regularly where two or more rounds of questioning are engaged each addressing deeper and deeper dimensions of course content.

There are three roles: Questioner, Responder, Observer.

  • The QUESTIONER poses a given question to the responder. (e.g. What is the First Amendment to the Constitution? or How would you define justice? or How would you define a mathematical function?). The questioner continues to probe the responder’s understanding of the concept, issue, or problem by asking questions that focus on depth and clarity. This person only asks questions and does not impose or interject his/her conclusions, judgments, or perspectives unless stated interrogatively.

  • The RESPONDER seeks to be clear and concise being aware of the dangers of writing too much.

  • After a given time frame, number of questions posed, or general satisfaction that the issue has been sufficiently probed, the OBSERVER provides feedback. The feedback focuses on:

    • the extent to which the other students maintained their roles,

    • the extent to which the topic was sufficiently clarified,

    • the extent to which the questioner posed questions that clarified and challenged the responder’s understanding of the topic,

    • the extent to which the responder’s knowledge of the topic is sufficient,

    • comments on the general direction of the conversation, and

    • comments laying out other avenues of inquiry that could be investigated.

Round 1: A = questioner, B = responder, C = observer

Round 2: C = questioner, A = responder, B = observer

Round 3: B = questioner, C = responder, A = observer

If the group consists of four members, then it is recommended that there are two students posing questions.


As noted earlier, assessment depends on the learning objectives: they type and range of thinking you wish to measure. There are multiple lenses on which an instructor can focus, so be careful not to overburden yourself attempting to assess every dimension of intellectual work in for each round of discussions. For example, an instructor can give a general participation grade to two students and focus the evaluation on one specific role such as the range and quality of the questions posed, or the accuracy of the responder’s answers, or the quality of the synthesizing feedback specifically the extent to which the observer identified and clearly articulated content questions or topics that were not addressed in the discussion. Quality assessment depends, first and foremost, on the extent to which the instructor is clear about the intellectual task to be measured.


  • Barkley, Cross & Major. (2005). Collaborative Learning: A Handbook for College Faculty.

  • Palincsar, A. & Brown, A. (1983). “Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Monitoring Activities.” Center for the Study of Reading: Technical Report No. 269. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Also cited in Perkins, D. (2009). Making Learning Whole. P. 138) – [Adaptation of reciprocal teaching originally developed by Palincsar and Brown]

  • Millis & Cottell. (1998). Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty.

Feedback Lenses 3: Avatar Roles

Basic Idea: The basic idea is to assign students (or let them choose) anonymous roles to play in asynchronous class discussions in addition to their actual persona. The roles represent different lenses by which the course content and discussions are stimulated, analyzed and evaluated. For example, lenses may include the skeptic, the devil’s advocate, the accuracy police, the concept clarifier, the claim adjuster, the assumption investigator, the positive feedback provider, the constructive feedback provider, the grammar police, the exemplifier, the illustrator, the metaphor/simile seeker, the Socratic inquisitor (elaborative interrogator), the uninformed (I just don’t get it!), alternative seeker, theory position, subject character, and so on.


The key principle that guides this activity to to provide the opportunity for students to consciously, systematically and critically enter into specific perspectives and make these perspectives part of the daily class discussion as thought stimulators. Students “listen” to one anothers’ comments and form responses that exist within their role. This does not mean, however, that students are limited to this role. Students also participate in a general discussion where their identities are known. Students are encouraged to expand on ideas and ask questions as they work to build content understanding. So, the avatar identities are designed to provide further lenses for analysis and discussion. They focus on skill development related to building understanding within a particular perspective and exercising the intellectual discipline needed to accurately represent that point of view as they work to make substantive contributions to the discussion.

Recommended Applications

Avatar roles work best when students are presented with a topic that lends itself to multi-perspective analysis. On a basic level, students can be assigned roles that represent analytical and evaluative concepts like looking for and questioning concepts, assumptions, clarity of explanations, metaphor generator, illustrator, question reducer, etc. However, more advanced roles may have students embody specific theoretical perspectives (Marxism, feminism, positivism, constructivism, evolutionists, etc.). Advanced roles may also challenge students to assume specific characters (G.W. Bush, Clinton, Obama in a political science course, or different characters from a novel in a literature course, or theoretical perspectives like B.F. Skinner in psychology or Foucault or Goffman in a sociology course). The disciplines will define the relevant theoretical and character perspectives.

A comment on methodology: The value of frontloading cannot be understated. In a face-to-face classroom, students individually develop questions and insights from their given avatar role. This allows them to put for the intellectual work needed to challenge their thinking and provide a conversation starter for whole group discussion. It’s like pre-thinking a range of questions we wish to have students think through. Asking individual students to work in this way also provides us with valuable information for assessment purposes: we can see where they are struggling and what they are doing well.

From individual to small group synthesis and evaluation. Having small groups work together to explore further constructions, synthesize perspectives in relation to the key question of the day (lesson or unit), and hold each other accountable for developing significant questions and insights is the next step. This is not a jigsaw, but an opportunity for the avatar’s to manifest themselves. It also provides an opportunity for students to listen to and within different perspectives and continue the conversation.

The small groups the morph into the whole-class discussion facilitated by the instructor who challenges and extends the avatar lenses.

To summarize the suggested method:

  1. individual question and insight generation

  2. small group discussion and assessment

  3. whole group (class) structured discussion entering each lens one at a time.

  4. whole group debrief and meta-reflection

  5. individual meta-reflection on the process, insights and areas to develop


Instructor as evaluator: The first step to establish the assessment of avatar roles in an online course is for the instructor to know the student behind each avatar. Doing so provides the instructor with written evidence of student engagement. Maintaining anonymity can be valuable in that it allows students to freely present their ideas without fear of judgment. However, the challenges with maintaining a respectful and meaningful discussion without oversight can be difficult to manage and emotionally uncomfortable for the instructor. We suggest letting the context determine the most appropriate level of oversight.

Peer Assessment: CIQ (under development)


  • DS106, University of Mary Washington presentation on Open VCU, Friday 21, 2014;

  • GRAD 602, discussions with Jeff Nugent and Britt Watwood.

    • Jeff and Britt have extensive experience integrating avatar roles within online, blended and traditional classroom environments.

  • Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Association for Psychological Science. 14(1): 4-58. Sage: DOI 10.1177/1529100612453266

2 thoughts on “Killer Strategies

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