June 20th, 2012

Five Reasons Getting Students to Talk is Worth the Effort


“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.

1. Students learn content when they talk about it. There’s lots of research supporting that claim, as well as plenty of first hand experience, doing it and seeing it. When you try to explain something to somebody else, you end up understanding it better yourself. Talking can make it easier to see how the new material connects with, relates to or disagrees with what you already know. It expedites making the material your own, making it more meaningful to you.

For most faculty the question is whether you need a knowledge base before you can talk about something. People talk about things they know nothing (or very little) about all the time. . .so it’s certainly possible. The question is more about whether you should talk about things when your knowledge base is minimal. You shouldn’t if the conversation is without an infusion of new information, but teachers can do much to prevent that from happening.

2. Talking lets students learn from each other. Learning can be an individual activity, but learning also can happen when students work together. Too often these are viewed as learning preferences and you’ll hear people say that students learn well alone or they learn well with others. In reality, they should have the skills necessary to learn in both contexts.

And sometimes it’s easier for students to learn from each other than from the teacher. It’s safer to ask questions of a peer and to test knowledge with someone you consider an equal. Sometimes when you’ve just learned something, you can explain it better to somebody who doesn’t understand than the experts who know the concept so well they’ve forgotten when and how they first learned it.

3. Talking gives students the opportunity to practice using the language of the discipline. Experts in every field talk about material with a highly specialized language; new words, big words, unfamiliar words. Students struggle with nomenclature; talking and writing are the best ways to learn the language of the professions. And nobody learns a new language without practice and without making egregious errors.

4. Talking connects students with the content. There’s a thrill that comes when you start hearing yourself talk like a professional, when you first start to master the language and can make references the same way the experts do. This is how some students first discover that a particular content area interests them and when they catch a glimpse of learning as something that can be loved.

5. Talking connects students with each other. In-class discussions help break through the anonymity of a large class where students don’t know each and can’t expect the teacher to know them. Talking with other students about course content is a good way to benchmark knowledge: “Everybody else thinks this is important, so I’d better learn it.” or “Oh good, I’m not the only one who thinks this is hard and doesn’t understand it well.” Talking puts some perspective on individual efforts to learn. It reduces stress, adjusts attitudes and motivates learning.

True, it can be difficult listening to novices grappling with the content. But that’s the teaching challenge. How can you ratchet up the intellectual caliber of those exchanges? What questions point students to areas of content they need to master? What scenarios force them to deal with content integration and application? What readings will build understanding and stimulate deeper conversations? Teachers have the power to add form and substance to the discussions. If they accept the challenge and keep listening, pretty soon they’ll hear students talking in a way that sounds different. Will it sound like music to faculty ears? Perhaps, but in the beginning it’s best to expect soft music and short songs.

  • Marae Bailey

    In my classes, students do a lot of the "teaching" for me. For example, in critical thinking, I'll give them a definition of analysis (taking a problem apart and putting it back together) and then ask, "Why do you suppose that would be useful in problem-solving? Aren't you making things a lot more complicated, looking at all those little pieces?" The questions why and how can create a lot of interesting dialogue and turn a definition from words on a blackboard to concepts they can actually use and apply and have fun doing it.

  • Linda

    In my case, the highest rated class evaluations I get are focused on the group work the students experienced. It seems that they do get more out of talking about the topics even if it seems "superficial" and what I call incomplete. There is one thing that Instructors should know and that is: The first time, the talking is superficial and it is mostly because they are orienting themselves to each other; they nee time to check each other out. Over time they begin to trust a bit and then they reveal things that will floor you. Patience with the process is important and being ready to sustain their growth is imperative.

  • Hugo Sandoval

    I'd like to think of class conversation focused on the subject as the equivalent of the physics' lab communicating vessels.

    It is the way each vessel (students and instructor) contributes to raise the common level of understanding (or to lessen the common level of ignorance, if you prefer the half empty glass analogy),

    I would add another point to the five listed in the article: class discussion allows for an low stress assessment of student learning and provides for immediate feedback and correction if needed.

  • Jayant Bose

    To me students talking in class is better than sitting dumb. it is sign of engagement. the question is can a faculty chanelise the talk to areas where either some learning can take place, or helps in bonding, or breaks the ice at the initial classes, i would take it as a sign of engagement.

  • Nicely stated. Conversational learning opportunities allow for "Am I understanding, in the context of, what is being said by others?"

  • coffeequeen

    I agree with much of what has been said; however, I would like to add that students are not very good at group/teamwork. They do not really know how to "be a group member" or who should do what or how to elaborate on someone's comment, etc. Working in groups must be taught in order for it to be effective. I spend quite a bit of time explaining how groups work, different roles in a group, how to make sure everyone is engaged, how "group participation' will be assessed, etc. Most student dislike group work when it is not done well. If they have the skills they need to participate effectively, they seem to get a lot of satisfaction out of it.

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  • cognitioneducation

    I use small group discussion frequently in classes ranging in size from 20 – 60 students. With clear instructions about the goal of the discussion it usually works quite well. However, students have to buy into the program. This last term I had an unusually uncooperative group though: they didn't buy in and I am still mulling over why that might be the case (as a psychologists, I did a class demo on personality and suspect part of the reason was the preponderance of students with a profile showing low neuroticism and low conscientiousness). My typical approach is to circulate and listen in to make sure everyone is on the right track and to correct errors or compliment insights, but with this last group they watched me and only focused on the topic when I was in ear-shot, otherwise they gossiped and shared apps on their iPhones. In 10 years of doing this though, I've only ever had about 2 such groups. In all others, the students frequently comment that the discussions are integral to their understanding.

  • Young Professor

    "1. Students learn content when they talk about it. There’s lots of research supporting that claim, …" Could you please provide some of these citations? I'm an untentured professor who believes in active student engagement from the get-go, but some of my senior colleagues seem to think class time (especially in introductory courses) is better spent "covering content" until students "have something useful to say." In particular, I've also received feedback from students critiquing me because "I'm making them teach themselves" rather than teaching them the material. Any thoughts on how a junior faculty member might navigate these two challenges while trying to put together a tenure packet with support from students and faculty?

    • Fred Feldon

      Oh, yes. I've heard those arguments as well. A student even told me once, "I paid good money for this class. Why should I be paying to teach and learn from other students? Isn't that what YOU are paid for?" My response was to discuss Bloom's Taxonomy. It shows that the "biggest bang for your buck" is deep thinking, discussion and interactive learning as opposed to listening to a lecture, for example. "And don't you want the most value for your money? THAT is my job, to help you with metacognition–that is, to be aware of what you know and what you don't know–and to create the proven, most successful learning environment with the best return on your investment, for everyone." That seemed to satisfy the student. Good luck. Don't give up. Keep doing what you're doing!

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  • sandra

    give reasons why students make noise in a class?

  • Shirley

    I have found that amazing ideas are created when students share, new viewpoints and connections to a topic arise along with fuller understanding. Shirley

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