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Active Discussions with Class Visitors

Mon Jan 8, 2018 at 07:30 AM

While instructors have often invited guest speakers to talk with students and print new, fresh perspective to course content, the sudden move to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic may have increased this practice, as anyone with strong internet access could pop into a class. Whether you're teaching in-person or online, class visitors often provide a much-needed break from the class routine. To get the most out of the experience, consider how students can best prepare for a rich discussion.

Students’ Written Questions

I ask students to submit a written question based on a class reading that discusses the theme for the visitor’s discussion. I also request that the guest reads the article before the visit. Students prepare their question in the following three-paragraph format and submit it to me by email as a graded assignment prior to the guest’s visit:

  1. The first paragraph provides background information from the reading to set up the student’s question. The student should provide quotes and other ideas from the reading to frame their question.
  2. The second paragraph discusses why the student is interested in this issue. How is it related to their personal experience or interests?
  3. The third paragraph poses the student’s question. 

After I receive all of the students’ questions, I organize them in a document that I forward to the guest a few days before their visit. I categorize the questions according to topics with headers to provide a coherent structure to the list and the discussion. The guest has a chance to read the questions and plan responses before the visit if desired. In my experience, class visitors appreciate having an opportunity to prepare before their visit rather than facing the class without any advance notice of the questions that will be asked.

Conducting the Visit

Guest visits should be up to an hour in length in person or on Zoom. More than that can be tiring for both the class and the visitor. A lot can be accomplished in this period of time (or less!) if the discussion is organized into the following two parts:

Part I. Discuss Students’ Written Questions

After introducing the class visitor and asking them to tell us some basic information about their background, I turn to the students’ written questions. I read a condensed version of a student question aloud. The visitor then answers the question. (I also inform the visitor which student asked which question.) I do this for each of the questions until the visitor has answered all of the questions. 

I normally do not read all three paragraphs of each student’s question since that would be too time-consuming. Rather, I summarize relevant points from each student’s question to keep the discussion moving quickly. If the class has more than ten students, I pick representative questions from each topic area and ask only those questions. I inform the class before the visit that we will not be able to answer all of their written questions so that individual students are not disappointed if their question is not chosen.

Part II. Open the Floor for Other Questions

After the class visitor answers the students’ written questions, I open the floor for other questions that students have for the visitor. I tell students ahead of time that if we run out of time for their written question, they may ask it during the open question period if they wish. I also require students to think of at least one additional question to ask during the open discussion period if I call on them. The additional question can be related to the reading, or it can be on another topic of interest to the student that the visitor would be able to address.

Topics for Guest Visits

I have invited class visitors to my cross-cultural communications course and my sociolinguistics course to discuss topics related to language and culture. My goal is to show students that the topics we cover are genuinely relevant in the “real world” – they are not just topics discussed in textbooks! I believe the best topics and readings are ones of a general nature that students find fun and interesting to discuss. I avoid topics that are overly narrow or technical because students are unlikely to have a genuine interest in engaging with visitors to learn more about them.

Choosing Class Visitors

I prefer to invite faculty members and graduate students for class visits because they are comfortable talking with students and understand classroom practices. They are familiar with reading academic articles and responding to them in class discussions, and it is easy for them to understand the goals of this type of exercise and to answer students’ questions. 

It is not necessary to invite someone directly from your field, but class visitors should be from disciplines related to your field so they will be able to answer questions about the theme you choose for the discussion. For example, I have invited not just linguists to my classes but also instructors of foreign languages. All of my class visitors specialize in language in some manner, which enables them to comment on language-related issues in a meaningful way.


  1. This learning activity is most appropriate for small classes of about fifteen students or less. In larger classes, the number of written questions to organize and discuss during the guest’s visit would become overwhelming for both the instructor and the visitor.
  2. Set up class visits so that visitors do not have to prepare a talk to deliver to the class. Rather, they should simply join the class in a discussion to answer student questions.
  3. The reading chosen for the discussion should be short. The visitor should be able to read it quickly before the visit.
  4. I give students a list of everyone’s questions before the start of the visit to enable them to keep track of the discussion topics more easily. If you’re conducting the visit through a Zoom meeting, you could also share the questions as a document on Zoom. Rather than giving the class a handout with everyone’s full three-paragraph written assignment, I just provide the paragraph that states each student’s question.
  5. Student participation in guest visits should be a graded activity to motivate students to participate actively. I evaluate students on the quality of their written question and their participation in the open-question period with the visitor.

Updated April 2022

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About the Author

Helena Riha is a Special Lecturer in Linguistics and International Studies. Helena has taught over 3,300 students at OU in 16 different courses, and she is currently developing a new online General Education course. Helena is the 2016 winner of the OU Excellence in Teaching Award. View all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.