A few years ago, my colleague Brenda Whitney spoke at a workshop about how class discussion can take on many different forms, each with its own style and descriptive moniker. Paraphrasing and borrowing language from her handout, with a few revisions of my own, these discussion styles include:
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It is no longer news that the 2016 U.S. Presidential election revealed and exacerbated a political polarization that has been growing in and beyond the United States. The heated nature of modern news reporting and political discourse both reflects and feeds such polarization. It also presents significant challenges to teachers who hope to foster critical and reflective thinking.
It’s a new academic year, and optimism and energy are in abundant supply. There are new ideas for class, new ways to engage students, and great questions to wrestle with as the intersections between past and present have rarely been so obvious. And it all goes swimmingly, it seems, until the first time we actually launch a discussion. Then those faces that seemed to be so cheerful–nodding along as we talked about how our class could be challenging, provocative, even FUN–now stare back blankly. It was as if posing a question triggered an actual electric shock that stunned them into a catatonic state. No…wait! Someone looked up. Eye contact? We look at them hopefully, ready for someone to bravely interrupt the increasingly awkward silence. They meet our gaze for a split second, their eyes widen in panic, and all of a sudden there seems to be something much more compelling to look at on the floor next to their chair. It’s as if the air goes out of the room. Everyone seemed to be on board with a discussion-based class until we actually gave them the chance to embark. Then, abandon ship.
As I contemplate my syllabi for a new semester, I possess renewed hope for students eager to discuss anything at 8 a.m., yet I have taught long enough to know that I will simply appreciate clean clothes and brushed teeth. As reality sets in, I add to my grading criteria an element that I hope will encourage engagement from even the most timid learners.
As college faculty, we put tremendous pressure on ourselves to talk. We want to cover the course content and thoroughly explain our assignments. We want to sound smart, share what we know, and communicate convincingly about the work of our disciplines. Our students assume we are experts, and we don’t want to disappoint them. All this amounts to teacher-centered pressure that confuses talking and teaching.
“Why are teachers afraid of sentences that begin with ‘I feel’ or that draw on personal experience?” Margaret Mott asks, repeating a question she read in an essay early in her career.
Students find discussions disillusioning just about as often as faculty do. In the analysis referenced below, students objected when a few fellow classmates dominated the discussion; when the discussion wandered off topic, making it difficult to ascertain main points; and when students participated just for the sake of participating.
A common phrase uttered during the first day of class is: “You will be graded on class participation.” As instructors we know what we expect. But what exactly do our students think we mean by that statement? The longer I’ve taught the more I’ve come to realize that students may not really know.
If you’re interested in approaches that encourage students to participate in class and develop their public-speaking skills, as well as techniques that help you learn student names, then my “daily experts” strategy may be of use to you.
Most instructors attempt to encourage class participation by making it part of the overall grade. But evaluating individual contributions and promoting a substantive, intriguing discussion