“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.