The icon indicates free access to the linked research on JSTOR.

In my US History courses, we usually have a few days of reading-based class discussion each semester. My students read full historical monographs (since it’s a college course), but I often supplement these with JSTOR Daily articles to provide additional things to think about or context for what they’re reading. For example, students reading about disability history might also read “The Ugly History of Chicago’s ‘Ugly Law’” or “Go West, You Nervous Men.

JSTOR Daily Membership AdJSTOR Daily Membership Ad

For a class that doesn’t have the time, resources, or reading readiness for a full-length monograph, JSTOR Daily syllabi and roundups are great places to find short, accessible reads for students organized by topic. Many of the lists are broken down by sub-topic, so it’s easy to assign readings to students by area of interest, historical period, or according to student choice.

Let’s take a look at what an activity like this might look like using “Voting in American Politics: A Syllabus.

Dividing the Reading

This syllabus is broken into three subsections: Elections and Power, Fighting for the Right to Vote, and Who Are Voters? Each section has something different to offer, from lessons in civics to history to political science.

For a university-level class discussion in a 45–50-minute class, my recommendation is to ask students to read four to five articles before class. Consider your student population carefully when deciding how to divide the articles. Do you want students to read multiple articles from the same subsection? Do you want them to read across the subsections? Will you allow them to choose their articles with no supervision? What kind of pre-discussion activity (if any) will students do with the articles?

It may be helpful to consider the following:

  • For students who are high-level readers but struggle to make connections across topics, you may want to assign readings within subsections and gear the in-class discussion to building cross-topic connections.
  • For students who are building critical thinking skills, you may wish to assign articles across subsections and provide an activity that asks questions to get the connection process started before the class discussion. This will help them to have a higher-level conversation with less instructor assistance during class.
  • Think about the parameters that will guide decisions if article choice is left up to the students. You may want to consider implementing a reflection process or questions to help guide them. You may also want to track choices so that students don’t all choose the same articles (if that matters to you).

Preparation for Classroom Discussion

Instructors can help students prepare for the in-class discussion beforehand. In my course, this typically involves a series of informal questions that students answer and submit to our Learning Management System (LMS) the day before or morning of the class discussion. If you want to provide feedback to students on their preparation materials, you might ask them to submit them a bit in advance of that deadline.

Keep in mind that students will be reading a variety of articles, so the questions for this exercise will necessarily be a bit vague and more about the reading process. Here are some questions that instructors might ask of students for our Voting in American Politics syllabi reading:

General Questions for Classroom Discussion

  • Please list the titles of the articles you chose for this discussion. What drew you to these articles? What were you hoping to learn from them that you didn’t already know?
  • What is something that you learned from your reading that reinforced something you already knew? From where did you already know that information? How did your articles reinforce that knowledge?
  • What’s something that you learned from your reading that contradicted something you thought you knew? What was your understanding of that topic/idea before? What’s your understanding of it now?
  • What’s something you learned from your reading that you would consider a “fun fact”? For example, what’s something you would share with your friends or family at a social gathering?
  • What are things from the articles that you are confused by or have questions about?
  • Please provide at least two scholarly questions that you want to ask the class as part of our class discussion as it relates to your articles.

Voting Questions

  • On a scale of 1 (not confident at all) to 10 (very confident), how confident would you be in explaining the American political system to an alien from another planet? Please explain.
  • What do you think is the most sensible and the most confusing part of the American political/electoral system?
  • What do you think has been the biggest change to American politics over time?

These questions are just examples of the types of things that can get students thinking before in-class discussion, and they’re certainly not a requirement. You should consider your individual classes and students when determining if this type of activity is necessary or if you want to offer it as voluntary or graded in your course.

A rubric for this preparation work might look something like this:

Full Credit Middle Credit Low Credit
Response addresses all required questions fully and with thoughtful analysis. Response clearly indicates a scholarly engagement with all required materials. Response addresses most or all questions thoughtfully. Response clearly indicates that the student was engaged with most of the materials, even if there is a clear indication that the student may have misunderstood some of the readings or made erroneous connections. Response does not indicate that the student made a meaningful attempt to engage with the materials. Responses may be vague or not present.


The Classroom Discussion

There are numerous ways to lead a class discussion. One of the most common in college classrooms is the Socratic Seminar. This type of discussion works well for the activity we’ve outlined here because it’s text-based and challenges students to express their thoughts in a critically considered manner. My personal preference is for a less formal discussion that allows us to venture beyond prescriptive notes and prepared questions.

No matter what method you choose, always be sure to have read each of the articles on the syllabus and come prepared with backup questions in case the discussion hits a lull. I’ve found that having a short list of three to five open-ended questions is usually sufficient for this. For the Voting in American Politics syllabus, I might recommend something like:

  • We vote by secret ballot because political machines and other groups had too much influence (and were a danger) on how people voted. From what you’ve read and your understanding of US History, is this problem solved?
  • What mechanics of government are used to keep people out of politics versus keeping people in politics?
  • One of the articles is titled “How to Repair Our Democracy.” Is our democracy broken? Or to what extent (if so)?


You may choose to include a post-discussion activity in your class. This might include something like asking students to summarize what they learned or provide a few bullet-points for what they found most interesting. In my own post-discussion activities, I ask students to include any thoughts or questions they wish they’d had the opportunity to include during class. This gives an opportunity for students to express ideas they may have had that didn’t quite “fit” into the ongoing discussion or provide a space for less vocal students. Whether it’s graded or ungraded, this is a great opportunity for students and instructors to wrap up their thoughts.

Should you choose to grade this portion of the assignment, a rubric for this portion may look something like this:

Full Credit Middle Credit Low Credit
Response addresses all required questions fully and clearly articulates that the student was engaged throughout the class discussion. Response includes thoughtful reflection of items learned or key takeaways from the discussion (beyond mere summary) AND/OR includes specific follow-up questions they wish to contribute. Response addresses all required questions fully and clearly articulates that the student was engaged throughout the class discussion. Response may summarize the student’s thoughts without necessarily adding new analysis AND/OR attempt to add follow-up information in a way that is vague or muddled. Response does not indicate that the student was attentive throughout the class discussion in a manner that provides a thoughtful post-discussion analysis. AND/OR Post-discussion analysis is not completed.

Support JSTOR Daily! Join our membership program on Patreon today.