May 1st, 2008

A Discussion Strategy


The article referenced below suggests that we aren’t being as insightful about class participation as we should be. We don’t think carefully about why we’re using this strategy—as in what goals we hope it accomplishes. But more than that, we don’t look at the results our methods produce. Example: we cold call students (that’s the jargon for calling on students who aren’t volunteering) with the intent of making them accountable for assigned reading or homework. For students, it’s still a gamble—maybe you won’t be called on and if you are, there’s a good chance you won’t be called on immediately again. If cold calling is about who’s coming to class prepared, then the questions focus on information recall. Are these the kind of questions that make students think and foster engagement with content? It’s a great article that constructively challenges us to take stock of beliefs, actions and benchmarks with respect to participation.

Besides asking pointed questions, the article also contains some great ideas. For example, it proposes that students who are assigned reading material come to class with a question or reaction to the reading written on a note card. Students are then put in groups of three to five and given 10, maybe 15 minutes to discuss the questions and reactions. When they reconvene as a whole class, the instructor asks each group (or some groups, depending on time constraints) to share the question or reaction they discussed for the longest. These are then posed to the class as a whole for further discussion.

The instructor notes that having used this strategy for a number of years, he has found that student questions do focus on concepts he would have talked about in class anyway and that students are “engaged and enthusiastic because their questions initiated the conversation.”
Sounds like an idea that might be worth trying!

Reference: Jones, R. C. (2008). The “why” of class participation: A question worth asking. College Teaching, 56 (1), 59-62.

—Maryellen Weimer