Issue 1: The classroom discussion is going pretty well. Students are offering some good comments and more than one hand is in the air. Then a student makes a really excellent observation that opens up a whole avenue of relevant possibilities. You follow-up by calling on a student whose hand has been in the air for some time. Her comment is fine, but it’s totally unrelated to the previous comment. How do you get students to respond to each other’s comments? How do you get student comments to build on a key topic so that it becomes more like a real discussion?
As a college student, I was rarely the first to raise my hand or respond to a question posed during class. I was shy by nature and always felt like I had little to offer. There were times, however, that I would interject simply to break the long silence after the instructor asked a question. In those cases, the silence was either too uncomfortable to bear or I figured that my response would be no worse than anyone else’s. There was also the threat of a pop quiz or some other academic challenge looming for the unresponsive class, which included students who obviously either did not know the content or had not read the assignment. I believe this is an experience all college students have faced at one time or another.
The evidence that students benefit when they talk about course content keeps mounting. In the study highlighted below, students in two sections of an introductory zoology course were learning about the physiological mechanisms of RU-486 and about emergency contraception medication. They learned about the topic in three 50-minute lecture periods. Students in both sections were given supplementary reading that reinforced the content, and they were encouraged to ask questions and discuss the content during lab. In addition, students in the experimental bioethics section read and discussed essays that addressed the social, ethical, and legal issues associated with use of emergency contraception. Students in the experimental section then discussed these readings. They managed the discussion, asking questions and raising the issues they wanted to talk about. The instructor intervened only when there was confusion about the content or when prompting and follow-up were needed to advance the discussion.
Many faculty members use quizzes to keep students prepared and present in class. The approach often tends to be punitive, however, motivating students by extrinsic means. Karen Braun and Drew Sellers, who teach beginning accounting courses, wanted to use quizzes in the usual ways—to get students coming to class having done the reading, to arrive in class on time, and to participate in class discussion, but they wanted their quizzes to be more about intrinsic motivation and less about assessment. How did they achieve that objective? They incorporated a number of “motivational” design features into their use of quizzes.
Good answers depend on good questions. That’s why we work so hard on the content of our questions and why we should work with students on how they ask their questions. What also helps to make questions good is asking the right type of question. It goes to intent—what we want in the way of an answer. The type of question we ask conveys this intent to the listener.
“Get students talking about their experiences!” I heard this recommendation in a couple of sessions at the recent Teaching Professor Technology Conference, and the admonition does rest on sound premises. Students learn new material by connecting it to what they already know. If a teacher gets a sense of that knowledge base (which often grows out of and rests on experience) it’s a lot easier to make good connections between what students know and what they need to learn.
I was looking at participation policies in a collection of syllabi this week. I wouldn’t give most of them high marks—lots of vague descriptions that don’t functionally define participation and then prescribe instructor assessment at the end of course with little or no mention of criteria. But I’ve voiced my concerns about participation policies previously, so I won’t do again here. Instead, what I would like to share with you is a policy that’s impressive in its specificity and in the intriguing idea it contains.
I found a nice set of online discussion activities that strike me as good in-class discussion activities as well. One of the reasons discussion so often fails or doesn’t realize much of its potential is the absence of structure. The discussion is too open-ended. It wanders around and is easily sidetracked. I’m not discounting the value of an occasional unstructured exchange, but when students are still learning what academic discourse entails, a structure can keep the discussion focused and on track.
As a sociology teacher, not only do I discuss topics related to oppression and inequality, but these topics comprise a pervasive and substantial portion of our pedagogy. The chapters on class stratification, race and ethnicity, and gender and sexuality are a required chunk of the curriculum by the social science department, and an obvious pedagogical necessity to the social scientist who knows that our location on the social hierarchy is tremendously dependent upon the “isms”—on an individual and institutional level. When covering a lesson on privilege and oppression—almost inexorably, and amongst others—at least one of the following responses from students ensues: denial, defensiveness, and/or diminishment. Aptly enough, their reactions exemplify a part of the lesson, and therefore can be used as a learning device in the liberal arts and social sciences classroom.
“What did you think about the reading?” can serve as an acceptable discussion prompt if your class is reading a novel, but a question like that doesn’t generate much response when the assigned chapter is in an engineering mechanics book or a principles of accounting text. For those who teach “technical content” — and by that I mean material with “right” answers and preferred ways of doing things, like problems with specific solutions or checklists of procedures — it can be doubly difficult to get students talking.