Class Discussion: From Blank Stares to True Engagement

class discussion

Thirty years of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education have demonstrated that when students are engaged in the classroom, they learn more (Pascarella and Terezini 1991, 2005). Classroom discussion is likely the most commonly used strategy for actively engaging students. Whether it is a seminar course centered on discussion or a lecture punctuated by moments of interaction with students, discussion is likely second only to lecture as the most frequently used pedagogical strategy.

Yet the idea of attempting to engage students in discussion is also rather frightening. There’s always the possibility that our invitation for students to engage with the material and their classmates will be met with silence.

Sociologists have long contended that our behavior is guided by norms—largely taken-for-granted assumptions about appropriate behavior when we are in the presence of other people. The college classroom is no exception. You have likely noticed whichever seat a student sits in on the first day of class is where the student will sit for the entire semester. It is a normative expectation that students have about the classroom.

Professors believe that one classroom norm is that students are expected to pay attention. But sociologists David Karp and William Yoels (1976) pointed out that in most college classrooms students are not required to pay attention. The real norm is paying civil attention—or creating the appearance of paying attention. Students do this in a variety of ways. They write in their notebooks, nod their heads, make fleeting eye contact (fleeting because prolonged eye contact invites interaction), and chuckle when the professor attempts to be funny. While students may not be paying attention, they create the appearance of doing so.

Why can students get away with only paying civil attention? The answer is that we as faculty let them. Unlike high school teachers, the majority of college professors are reluctant to call on a student who is not somehow signaling his or her willingness to contribute. You likely had high school teachers who sought to coerce students into completing reading assignments by calling on them randomly, publicly embarrassing the unprepared and frightening them into completing future reading assignments.

Yet in college, our students are adults. They are not required by law to attend class. They are in class because they want to be. They attend in order to fulfill a longer-term goal: completing a degree and having a comfortable, secure lifestyle. Because our students are adults, we wish to treat them as such. We believe they should be self-motivated to complete assignments and prepare for class. Therefore, we don’t embarrass students into preparing for and participating in discussion.

The result is that students can safely slide by, paying only civil attention in most college classrooms. Of course, there are some exceptions—math courses where students all take turns working problems on the board and foreign language courses where students may take turns conjugating verbs aloud. But in most disciplines, most professors don’t directly question students in order to stimulate discussion.

We also defend this practice out of concern for our introverted, shy students. We don’t want to subject them to situations that would make them very uncomfortable, which is not an entirely unreasonable concern.

Yet if engaging students through discussion is a key strategy for facilitating student learning, how do we get students to move beyond civil attention to true engagement in the classroom? There are numerous strategies to do so. Perhaps the most effective is allowing students, especially introverted students, the opportunity to formulate their thoughts prior to being called on to verbally participate. The think-pair-share classroom assessment technique is one example: Ask students to take one minute and write in response to a question. Then ask students to share their thoughts with a classmate. Finally, have pairs of students share with the class as a whole.

Another strategy is to provide discussion questions to accompany the reading assignment, which then are used as the basis for class discussion. The questions both guide students’ reading of the material, helping them identify key concepts and issues, and allow them to formulate their thoughts prior to being expected to articulate them in class.

Faculty can also structure their courses in a manner that requires students to come to class having read the assignment and prepared a response. One way this can be accomplished is through short response papers wherein students write a paragraph to a page, reacting to a question or an issue raised in the reading assignment or through online just-in-time quizzes (see Novak, Patterson, Gavrin & Christian, 1999).

In these ways, faculty can create new classroom norms, replacing the norm of civil attention with the expectation that all students come prepared to participate in classroom discussion. This shift increases the likelihood that students will learn more and that faculty won’t encounter awkward silence when initiating a discussion.

Karp, D. A. and Yoels, W. C. “The College Classroom: Some Observations on the Meaning of Student Participation.” Sociology and Social Research, 1976, 60(4), 421-439.

Novak, G.M., Patterson, E.T., Gavrin, A.D. & Christian, W. Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1999.

Pascarella, E. T., and Terenzini, P. T. How College Affects Students: Findings and insights from Twenty Years of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Pascarella, E. T., and Terenzini, P. T. How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Jay R. Howard is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University. His most recent book is titled Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online (Jossey-Bass, 2015).

This article first appeared in Faculty Focus on February 8, 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.