Answering Questions, Questioning Answers: A Collaborative Assignment

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This blog was originally posted on January 16th, 2013.

In the student-centered literature classroom, one of the skills we try to teach is the ability to evaluate other people’s claims about a work of literature.  We can do this in a variety of ways, but one way I’m particularly fond of is based on an exercise that I found in Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth Berkeley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major.  Their exercise is called “Send-a-Problem,” and it asks students to answer a series of open-ended questions about theme and character development, and then evaluate a set of answers. Their version of the exercise calls for the instructor to write each question on the outside of a manila envelope.  Students then work in small groups to answer the question, slide their answer into the envelope, and pass it along to the next group.  Eventually, groups will have answered all but one question; upon receipt of the final envelope, each group will evaluate all the answers to that last question, a question they have not yet themselves answered.

Conceptually, I like this exercise. Logistically, I hate it. So I’ve adjusted it to suit my needs. I simply create a list of questions, print each on a separate sheet, and give each group all but one of the questions.  Students take their time – often the bulk of a 50 minute class period – answering the questions as thoroughly as possible, then we redistribute and evaluate.

For example, I frequently use this exercise with James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”  I’ve taught the story every year for the past 6 years, and I’ve taught it from a number of anthologies, including Ann Charter’s The Story and Its Writer and Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen’s Literature: The Human Experience and I’ve drawn some of my questions from those authors.  I also write my own questions, based on the themes that we’re talking about in class – essentially questions that ask students to define concepts based on the story.

Here’s how it works in my classroom:


  • I write (or select from the instructor’s guide to the text) 6 or so questions for the day’s reading.  Each question is designed to require significant thought on the part of the group – and requires students to find specific quotations to support their claims. Here are some questions that I’ve used for “Sonny’s Blues.”
    • How do you react to Baldwin’s change of prose style in describing the scene at the nightclub? How does his change in style contribute to his message? In what ways does it make his message harder to decipher?  What does it suggest about the narrator’s change as a character? (Charters)
    • How should we read the reference to the “cup of trembling” in the last paragraph of the story? Should we read it to mean that trembling and fury will be visited on whites (“them that afflict thee”)? Or pushers? Or is the full biblical passage not relevant? Explain. (Charters)
    • What function does the narrator’s encounter with Sonny’s friend at the beginning of the story serve? (Abcarian, et al.)
    • What effect does Baldwin achieve by rearranging the order of events? (Abcarian, et al.)
    • How does Baldwin this story define family in this story?  What does it mean to be a member of a family?  To have connections with family members?  Is this something culturally specific? (Mine)
    • Who is the protagonist of the story? How do we you know? What is the central conflict for the protagonist? (Mine)
    • I create a Word document that presents each question on a separate page, and number the questions 1 through 6.
    • I make enough copies of question sheets so that each group (students will be divided into 6 groups total) will have 5 of the 6 questions.
    • I sort the questions and provide each group with a set of will get all the questions except the one that corresponds with their group number (i.e. group 3 does not get question 3).
    • I label each stack with a big post-it note indicating with the group number.

In class:

  • Students self-select into 6 groups (in my classes, that’s typically 4 students per group).
  • I distribute the stacks to each group.
  • I circulate while students write out their answers (and I discourage students from writing their names on the sheets).
  • Once students have had a set amount of time with the sheets, we redistribute, so that every question 2 goes to group 2, etc.
  • Once each group has a complete set of answers to a single question, they evaluate the responses.
  • I encourage students to select the best answer, add where necessary, or combine more than one answer to make the most complete answer
  • Each group then reports to the full class.

I like this exercise because it puts a lot of responsibility on my students.  It also gives them time to wrestle with complex discussion questions without the pressure of having the whole class listen or while the impatient instructor (me!) stands waiting.  Finally, I think it’s useful for students to examine how other people try to answer questions – it’s good for discussion and for their own written work for the class.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.