facilitating effective classroom discussions
“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.
Is there a way to motivate and improve student participation without grading it? I raise the question because I think grading contributions gets students talking for points, not talking to make points. Verbal students make sure they say something, but often without listening to or connecting with the comments of others.
A recent classroom observation reminded me that student participation can be encouraged and supported by attention to small but important presentational details. In this article I have highlighted these details in the form of questions, and I hope that you’ll use them to reflect on the behaviors you’re using when seeking, listening, and responding to student contributions.
If you find yourself working longer hours or maybe feeling a bit more stressed at the end of the day, you’re not alone. Fifty percent of college faculty who completed the annual Faculty Focus reader survey said that their job is more difficult than it was five years ago. Only nine percent said their job is less difficult, while 33 percent said it’s about the same.
I have been known to berate the quality of classroom discussions—student-teacher exchanges that occur in the presence of mostly uninvolved others. Perhaps instead of berating I ought to be trying to help faculty improve how they lead discussions, and that has gotten me thinking about all the details discussion leaders must keep track of and make decisions about — all on the fly. Leading discussions effectively is not an easy task for any of us. Even those who make it look easy have actually worked very hard to hone this important skill.
Presenter Jay Howard, a widely published author and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University, reveals classroom norms that inhibit discussion and how you can overcome them.
In the typical college classroom a small handful of students make the vast majority of comments. As a teacher you want to create a classroom environment that helps students of various learning styles and personalities to feel comfortable enough to contribute as well as understand the importance of class preparation and active participation. To reach this goal requires a constant balancing act of encouraging quiet, reflective students to speak up and, occasionally, asking the most active contributors to hold back from commenting in order to give others a chance.
“I just don’t see how students learn anything when they talk to each other,” a faculty member told me recently. “Their conversations are so superficial. They get things wrong. I can hardly stand to listen to them.”
Although I don’t agree, I can understand the feelings. Students talk about content as novices; faculty discuss it as experts. Novices do talk about things superficially, incorrectly and not very systematically. And those types of exchanges do cause experts all kinds of consternation. But there are good reasons to let students talk about course content. Here are five.
I started thinking about this when I wondered in a previous blog whether the 5 or 10% that many of us give for participation was enough to motivate students, or whether being such a small part of the grade, it actually devalued what students contribute in class. Since then I’ve been thinking more about how we decide on the allocation of points or percentages for the various assignments students complete in a course. For many of us (that includes me), it isn’t as thoughtful of a process as it should be. Rather, we do what we’ve done before, or we ask around, get a general sense of what everybody else is doing and follow suit.
The typical college student dreads hearing, “Let’s review the chapters you read for homework.” What generally ensues is a question and answer drill in which students are peppered with questions designed to make clear who has and hasn’t done the reading. In reality, these exchanges do little to encourage deep thought or understanding of the assigned reading. They produce awkward silences during which students squirm in their seats, hoping to become invisible. Other times students decline to answer for fear of giving the wrong answer. Almost all the time a negative tone permeates the classroom during this review. I decided to restructure the way that I approached reviews of reading assignments, and found that by doing things differently, I could change both the tone and outcomes of the review activity. I’d like to share some of the ideas and techniques that I have found useful: