Could We Hear from Someone Else, Please?

Generating participation in a large class discussion is fraught with teaching land mines. We can call on people who raise their hands, but too often it is always the same people. We can ask to hear from someone else and risk offending those who have been volunteering, so that there are even fewer hands. We can call on people randomly and risk embarrassing those who aren’t prepared or don’t understand. Maybe that will motivate them to prepare, or it may just be reflected in our teaching evaluations. I’d like to share an exercise that broadens class participation and offers a way around these potential risks.

The exercise originated as the children’s game where one person starts a story, stops wherever he wants, and the next person picks up the story line. In college classrooms the story students pass to one another might be an explanation of a historical event, description of a physiological process, or the suggested solution to a case study. In my course, it revolved around conceptual elements in a theory. Let me explain how I used the exercise.

During the first half of the session, I lectured about the concept “Face Theory.” Next, I divided the class into thirds and told them they were going to be watching one of three film clips. Each group was assigned a different film vignette. All the groups were to use what they saw on their film clip to discuss these three issues.

  1. How do positive and negative face function for each character?
  2. Using face-saving goals (save own face, save other’s face, damage own face, damage other’s face), describe what happened.
  3. Identify examples of resisting intimidation, refusing to step back, or suppressing conflict for harmony’s sake vignette.

After the clip, one group member began by answering the first question. This first person could stop at any time. The next person in the row picked up where the first group member had left off. Again, that group member could say as little or as much as she wished about the application of the theory to the vignette. Each group member could modify or amplify what the person before him or her had said, or the new speaker could move on to another element of the theory.

Students seemed to gauge how much was left to be covered and how many students still had to speak, resulting in most of the students in the group contributing to the conversation. The atmosphere was light, and students were highly attentive, wondering when the cutoff would come and how the next person would pick up the thread.

In sum, the exercise provided an opportunity to review and apply conceptual material. It resulted in most of the class participating without me having to censure students who typically dominate, by my pleading for other participants. Students did not find the activity threatening—they were in control of how much they said.

Elayne Shapiro is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Portland.

Reprinted from Could We Hear from Someone Else, Please? The Teaching Professor, 23.9 (2009): 3-4.