Thirty years of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education have demonstrated that when students are engaged in the classroom, they learn more (Pascarella and Terezini 1991, 2005). Classroom discussion is likely the most commonly used strategy for actively engaging students. Whether it is a seminar course centered on discussion or a lecture punctuated by moments of interaction with students, discussion is likely second only to lecture as the most frequently used pedagogical strategy.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
There are many ways to get students engaged in a classroom, but when topics are controversial or taboo, students may shy away from sharing their thoughts on the subject. In contrast, some may be so overly passionate about a topic that they proselytize their point. One tactic that helps students feel comfortable enough to speak about controversial topics is through debates that are structured and promote students’ preparedness in defending or opposing a particular stance on a topic.
The Little Assignment with the Big Impact: Reading, Writing, Critical Reflection, and Meaningful Discussion
Several years ago, I came across the Purposeful Reading Assignment that was reported to encourage students to read, reflect, and write about readings assigned for class. Research (Roberts and Roberts, 2008) and experience tell us that supporting students’ reading, writing, and reflective practices is one of the most challenging aspects of learning and teaching. Although this assignment appeared to be simple, it has proven to be an influential tool for learning and has increased engagement and participation among my students.
If you’ve been teaching for any amount of time, you probably have a few nicknames for students based on the personality traits they exhibit. Roben Torosyan, PhD, associate director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Fairfield University, has some nicknames for his students, too. Names like Q, Sunny, and Light Bulb.
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.
“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.
We are used to discussing topics with our colleagues. They know the material, have already thought a lot about it, and can answer questions quickly. We want conversations in class to clip along at a similar pace—there’s always lots of material the class needs to get through.
Sometimes it’s good to revisit an instructional standby. Discussion is a staple in most teachers’ repertoire of strategies, but it frequently disappoints. So few students are willing to participate and they tend to be the same ones. The students who do contribute often do so tentatively, blandly, and pretty much without anything that sounds like interest or conviction. On some days it’s just easier to present the material.
If you have been teaching for any time at all, I’ll bet you’ve encountered what I call the interested but noncompliant student (hereafter, the INC). Here are some examples encountered in my courses: In an ancient language course, one INC would not take the trouble to learn her noun forms and verb endings but, fascinated by the language, went online to find an inscription that she tried to decipher. Another INC read more than I have in a subdivision of my field. He wanted to talk about it endlessly before and after class, so much so that I had to chase him away to give other students a chance to talk to me. Am I describing student behaviors that sound familiar?
Humanities and social sciences instructors have long borrowed from media communications to drive home concepts. For example, a business instructor might clip a magazine article pointing out how inappropriate attire can negatively influence the outcome of an interview with a company. Philosophy professors might motivate a classroom discussion on hedonism by discussing the antics of popular young superstars as reported in the tabloids.