Questions of Fact, Interpretation, and Evaluation
In discussion, three kinds of questions can be raised about a reading selection: questions of fact, questions of interpretation, and questions of evaluation.
QUESTIONS OF FACT ask participants to recall a factual detail in the selection by citing or paraphrasing the author's words. A disagreement over facts can be resolved quickly if participants simply turn to the passage in question and reread it. A question of fact has only one correct answer.
QUESTIONS OF INTERPRETATION ask participants to make inferences about the meaning of a selection. More than one valid answer to an interpretive question is possible, and likely. Answers to interpretive questions should be supported by evidence in the selection.
QUESTIONS OF EVALUATION ask participants to compare the experiences and opinions of an author with their own. Do participants agree or disagree with the author's point of view? Answers to evaluative questions are as individual and as varied as the participants themselves.
Interpretation is the main purpose of class discussion, so most questions raised will be interpretive. But factual questions can bring to light evidence in support of interpretations and can clear up misunderstandings. Questions of evaluation can introduce a personal dimension to discussion once interpretive issues have been resolved.
Participating in Discussions and in Group Work about the Readings
CONCENTRATE ON THE SELECTION. Refer frequently to the text. Back up your answers with quotations or paraphrases from the reading; when you ask a question, point out the specific paragraphs, sentences, or even words behind it; and help others do the same. The more closely the group follows what the author actually says, the more rewarding discussion will be. You will be gaining new ideas from the author, instead of just rehashing ideas you already had.
ADDRESS THE QUESTION. The assignment questions are intended to focus discussion on important issues in the work. Speak to these issues, though others may intrigue you.
SPEAK YOUR MIND. State your opinion and be ready to explain it. If you don't understand what someone else has said, say so. Though it may seem to slow down the discussion, your request for further reasons, examples, or evidence enriches everyone's understanding of the work. If you disagree with someone, state your differences. Disagreement may bring out the contradictions in an opinion, or reveal the complex nature of a question.
LISTEN CAREFULLY. You will learn more after hearing your ideas challenged, supported, and modified by the other participants. So, listen carefully to what they say and pursue the implications of their thoughts, even if you disagree with them.
Effective Reading Strategies
Our class’s readings demand a lot from readers, and different readers cope in different ways with the challenge. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of the readings.
The Reading Session
- Plan to read every selection twice. Allow an uninterrupted hour or more for each reading session.
- Make yourself comfortable. Sit at a desk if you like to hunch over a difficult passage. Keep paper and pencils at hand, and make notes as you read. Relax in order to concentrate.
- Try to get habit to work for you. Reading in the same place and at the same time can help you get started easily.
First and Second Readings
- Read first to comprehend the scope of the work. There is no need to understand everything fully, provided you plan to return to the selection and study it more closely in a second reading.
- Let some time go by between your first and second readings to give yourself time to think and to let your ideas settle.
- You may want to begin your second reading by reflecting on the conclusion of the selection. If you understand the conclusion, you will be better able to follow the development of the author's thought. Or consider beginning your second reading by referring to questions you or the class has raised. Try to connect the new reading with what has gone on in class and in the other readings.
- Think while you read. Interrupt the course of your reading whenever you feel a thought coming. An interesting selection will pull you into agreement or disagreement, which require consideration. You should not expect to read a selection straight through from beginning to end.
- Pause occasionally to explain to yourself what you have just read. Review what topics have been covered or what events have occurred, and consider where the argument or story seems to be going.
- Add examples of your own to illustrate the author's argument. Make sure that your examples are appropriate to the author's ideas.
- During your second reading you may want to concentrate on specific portions of the work that interest or puzzle you. Work to grasp and appreciate the problem the author is trying to solve. Keep this "big picture" in mind and relate details to it.
- Use questions to challenge or argue with the author. As you read, adjust or discard questions that no longer seem appropriate.
- Read passages from the selection aloud, with expression.
- Locate passages that seem especially revealing or profound and reflect on them. These may sum up the argument. They may give advice or offer predictions (e.g., "We ought to-", "Everyone should-", "In the future, humankind will"). They may provide examples illustrating an idea. They may be occasions for direct reflection by the author or a fictitious character. Or they may simply be particularly eloquent and beautiful expressions of ideas.
- After reading the entire selection, mull it over by yourself or talk about it with another member of the class. Sort out your responses to it.
Writing While You Read
If you note down the thoughts and questions that come to you while you read, they will not be lost between class sessions, and your understanding will have a greater chance to grow. Moreover, by forcing yourself to write down your responses, you will keep your mind active while you read.
- Jot down your insights, your questions, your arguments with the author, and anything else that occurs to you.
- Mark passages you find especially clear and helpful, making brief notes of the ideas they suggest to you.
- Pencil in your own titles for sections, paragraphs, or pages, so that you can follow the selection more easily and refer to it more readily in discussion.
- Outline the selection. On the first reading, make check marks in the margin when the author seems to shift subjects. Then review the selection, numbering the major points and noting the examples and arguments that support them, so that the margins are marked like an outline.
- Draw rough diagrams or charts to help you make sense of complex passages.
- Underline a term which the author seems to use in a special way. Trace the term throughout the work in order to understand what it means in different contexts.
[Adapted from the Great Books Foundation]