An Activity That Promotes Engagement with Required Readings, Even in Large Classes

small group discussion

On the first day of class, I often say something like this to my students: “Nothing floats my boat more than great discussion. Nothing promotes great discussion like having completed the readings. And nothing promotes completing the readings like having points attached to it.”

Encouraging students to complete the course readings is an age-old problem. When I was a graduate student, Douglas Sprenkle, now a professor emeritus at Purdue University, used a primary and secondary reaction discussion format that inspired thrilling class discussions. Years before discussion boards, Professor Sprenkle divided the class into two groups that alternated between serving as primary and secondary reactors to weekly readings. Primary reactors were the conversation starters, required to e-mail the class a critical reaction to weekly readings (what we liked, did not like, agreed with, and disagreed with) no later than 24 hours prior to class time. Secondary reactors were to read the readings and the primary reactions and then come to class prepared to continue the conversation with statements like these: “In their primary reactions, Beth and Miguel both mentioned X. My thoughts are this ____ but a question I have for the group is ____ .”

I have since used Sprenkle’s primary and secondary reaction format via discussion boards in dozens of small (i.e., with fewer than 20 students) on-campus and online courses—simply adjusting the length and complexity of the readings and the primary reaction (250–400 words) to suit the course level. Sometimes students alternate being primary and secondary reactors for each set of readings; sometimes they are both primary and secondary reactors for the readings—meaning that they must all post online before class, read each other’s postings, and then continue the conversation in class.

However, making this approach work in large classes was much more challenging. How could I use the primary and secondary format in classes of 100 students? With the help of some excellent teaching assistants, I now have a reaction discussion format that I have used in more than 25 large classes. Here’s how I do it:

  1. First, I divide the class into discussion groups of 5–7 members and assign 2–4 relevant readings for each reaction discussion, with 6–8 reaction discussions over the course of the semester.
  2. In their groups, students sign up for two primary and two secondary reactions. If there are eight reaction discussions over the course of the semester, students earn points for four of them and simply participate in the other four. For each reaction, the discussion groups typically have two members who post primary reactions that week and two members who are secondary reactors that colead the small-group discussion. Not all students in the group are motivated by points to do the readings each week, but I find that if more than half complete the reading, this is enough to create a rich, small-group discussion.
  3. Primary reactors are charged with beginning the conversation by posting their critical thinking about the readings no later than 24 hours before class (this is guided by the questions that I post for each reading). Primary reactors are also asked to post questions they would like the secondary reactors to consider bringing to the small-group discussion. Secondary reactors are asked to use their own thinking about the readings, as well as questions and ideas from the primary reactors, to develop a written outline of at least seven key points or questions that they use to lead or co-lead their 15–20 minute small-group discussions. During the in-class discussion time, teaching assistants visit each group to ensure that secondary reactors have written outlines in front of them, which they then turn in at the end of the discussion.
  4. Once the small-group discussion is complete, I ask one secondary reactor from each group (or I randomly pick half of the groups) to share one interesting thing their group discussed. Thus, in a class of 100, I typically have 10–15 speakers sharing questions or thoughts that arose in their small-group discussions. As each secondary reactor stands and shares with the class, I paraphrase what he or she says and tie it into other related comments that I have read in the primary reactions or heard in class discussion groups. I also may extend the comments shared by the secondary reactors with related research. If my previously posted questions for the readings are not fully covered by large-group discussion, I pose them to the class and offer my own thoughts.
  5. Last, we send frequent reminders. Prior to each reaction, a teaching assistant sends out three e-mails. The first goes to the entire class, reminding them of the reaction readings and my questions to consider for each reading. The second is sent to the assigned primary reactors, reminding them to post on the course website no later than 24 hours prior to class. A final e-mail goes to the secondary reactors, reminding them to come to class with an outline and prepared to lead a discussion on the readings.

In addition to promoting critical thinking and motivating students to complete the readings, this approach enables students form deeper connections with the material and one another, despite the large class size. An added bonus for me is that I am more aware of students’ preexisting knowledge and can tailor my lectures as needed.

Ashley Harvey is an associate professor and a senior teaching faculty member in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Colorado State University.

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