At one time or another, most of us have been disappointed by the caliber of the questions students ask in class, online, or in the office. Many of them are such mundane questions: “Will material from the book be on the exam?” “How long should the paper be?” “Can we use Google to find references?” “Would you repeat what you just said? I didn’t get it all down in my notes.” Rarely do they ask thoughtful questions that probe the content and stir the interest of the teacher and other students.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
facilitating effective classroom discussions
The joy of discussion as a class activity is starting it up and seeing where it goes. Although some of the same themes come up in every discussion, how they emerge and the connections they raise vary as much as the individual students do. On a great discussion day, the talk flows freely in interesting and unexpected directions, much like jazz.
As a college student, I was rarely the first to raise my hand or respond to a question posed during class. I was shy by nature and always felt like I had little to offer. There were times, however, that I would interject simply to break the long silence after the instructor asked a question. In those cases, the silence was either too uncomfortable to bear or I figured that my response would be no worse than anyone else’s. There was also the threat of a pop quiz or some other academic challenge looming for the unresponsive class, which included students who obviously either did not know the content or had not read the assignment. I believe this is an experience all college students have faced at one time or another.
If you find yourself working longer hours or maybe feeling a bit more stressed at the end of the day, you’re not alone. Fifty percent of college faculty who completed the annual Faculty Focus reader survey said that their job is more difficult than it was five years ago. Only nine percent said their job is less difficult, while 33 percent said it’s about the same.
In the typical college classroom a small handful of students make the vast majority of comments. As a teacher you want to create a classroom environment that helps students of various learning styles and personalities to feel comfortable enough to contribute as well as understand the importance of class preparation and active participation. To reach this goal requires a constant balancing act of encouraging quiet, reflective students to speak up and, occasionally, asking the most active contributors to hold back from commenting in order to give others a chance.
The typical college student dreads hearing, “Let’s review the chapters you read for homework.” What generally ensues is a question and answer drill in which students are peppered with questions designed to make clear who has and hasn’t done the reading. In reality, these exchanges do little to encourage deep thought or understanding of the assigned reading. They produce awkward silences during which students squirm in their seats, hoping to become invisible. Other times students decline to answer for fear of giving the wrong answer. Almost all the time a negative tone permeates the classroom during this review. I decided to restructure the way that I approached reviews of reading assignments, and found that by doing things differently, I could change both the tone and outcomes of the review activity. I’d like to share some of the ideas and techniques that I have found useful:
Instructors face a Herculean challenge in managing discussion – whether the discussion is face-to-face or online. To be an effective instructor, it is important to learn how to facilitate discussion, and keep the dialogue flowing without veering off topic.
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.
Participation is one of those workhorse instructional strategies—easy to use, straightforward, expected, and often quite successful at accomplishing a number of learning goals. It’s good to remind ourselves of its many different uses, especially on those days when getting students to participate feels like pulling hens’ teeth.
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.