Tag Archives: discussions

Difficult Discussions, “Hot Moments,” and Contra-Power Harassment

Steve Volk, March 5, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Last week’s CTIE workshop on “Facilitating Discussions” focused in large part on techniques for organizing and promoting effective classroom discussions, in large part thanks to the excellent suggestions provided by workshop participants. The conversation was so rich that we only turned to the theme of “difficult discussions” in the last 20 minutes. To compensate, today’s Article of the Week will focus exclusively on those complicated, “hot moment” challenges that spring up in our classes: how to prepare for them, manage them, and learn from them. I’ve addressed this topic before (here and here), but just as the events that create a need for this conversation continue to manifest in our classes, so it’s always useful to return to the theme.

Why “Difficult Discussion” Are Necessary

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café,” Illustrated London News, 17 Sept 1870

The definition of what is a “difficult discussion” is fairly important in that most of our classroom discussions should be “difficult.” By this I mean two things. The first is tied to the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky who argued that the social engagement arising in a discussion itself is central to the way that children and adolescents learn. Cognitive structures, for Vygotsky, originate in social activity and are “inextricably linked with language, which is itself a social construct. It is through social language” that students learn the cognitive and “communicative tools and skills of their culture.” This also relates to Vygotsky’s notion of the “zone of proximal development.” To put this simply (perhaps simplistically), there are tasks that students can do without any outside help. Activity that remains within that zone will quickly become boring; no learning will occur. Similarly, there are tasks that students are not able to do by themselves at the beginning. Setting up activities in this zone without providing support will guarantee failure and frustration. Optimal learning takes place in a “zone of proximal development” where learners, aided by the social context provided by teachers and peers, push beyond what they already know into new learning. In that sense (and I hope to be forgiven by the psychologists among us who are probably appalled by my presentation), learning occurs when students, scaffolded by the support they receive from teachers and peers, are thrust into the unfamiliar, the difficult. The discussions that provoke learning, then, are almost by definition, “difficult.”

Difficult discussions can be useful in a second way, most recently and poignantly described by Elizabeth Barnes, a philosopher at the University of Virginia, in “Arguments That Harm – And Why We Need Them.” Barnes begins by asking whether some ideas are “so offensive that they shouldn’t be engaged with?” Focusing on Peter Singer’s work on disability (“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed…”), which she finds “offensive, to say the least,” she concludes that, for a variety of reasons, “it is literally my job to think and talk about difficult ideas. The discomfort and hurt when dealing with views like Singer’s are real. But if I’m unwilling to take on a measure of discomfort, given how much privilege I have and how little I have to lose, then I’m not sure I’m using the privilege of an academic life the way I ought to be.” (I would not be doing justice to the richness of her argument if I didn’t also reference her argument that “there are some ideas that shouldn’t be engaged with.”)

So, by referring to “difficult” discussions, I’m talking about both the need to address difficult topics and other kinds of challenges, particularly challenges rooted in one’s identity, that can, and do, arise in our classes.

Three Kinds of Challenge

There are many ways that such problematic conversations can arise, but here I’ll focus on only three. They have to do with:

  1. Content: There are topics in our culture which have proven to be incredibly fraught, topics that we, as a society, are not good at discussing. Race is probably at the top of the list. While managing conversations about race or sexuality or privilege requires a tremendous amount of skill for those whose academic training is in these fields, even thinking about guiding such discussions can immobilize many of the rest of us, leaving us to hope that these subjects don’t arise in our classes. And yet we live and teach in the United States in the early 21st century: these topics are part of our students’ lives, and our lives, whether we are prepared to teach them or not.
  2. Silencing and Self-Censorship: Mark Twain once observed, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” I remember coming home after my first year at college practically bursting out of my new tweed sports jacket, eager to show my parents just how little they knew about the war in Vietnam or the civil rights movement. Oy gevalt! Late adolescents and young adults can be merciless to their peers as well as their “elders,” provisioned as they are with lots of new knowledge but not the commensurate skill set that would help them engage productively in conversations. Discussions in our classes can become difficult when students explicitly demean or otherwise rip into their peers for views that the latter express, or when students self-censor their comments for fear (whether real or imagined) of immediate or later reprisals.
  3. Challenges to Authority: Talk about contradictions! On the one hand, we crave students who challenge our ideas, taking issue with the readings we have assigned or drawing very different conclusions than we might have expected. On the other, when these become what has been termed “contra-power” harassment, challenges to our authority as teachers based on our identities and not our ideas, that’s a very different matter. There is no question that this topic, even more than the previous ones, is highly contextual. It’s not that a student’s challenge to a senior, white male faculty member teaching a course on – say – Latin American history is particularly easy to handle. But contra-power challenges to the authority of a junior, Black, female professor are of a different order of magnitude altogether.

In this article, I’ll focus more on “hot moments” in class that can unexpectedly arise, rather than on teaching planned course material that deals with very contentious issues. For that (and much else) I’d recommend Kay Landis, ed., Start Taking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2008). The book is available as a free download, so what are you waiting for?

Start at the Start

Establishing class “rules of engagement” is the single best way to prepare for the difficult discussions that might come. Class rules won’t put an end to difficult discussions, but they can help you manage them. Whether you establish the framework for classroom behavior or you encourage your students to write their own guidelines, it will help to have some previously agreed upon procedures to turn to when conflict arises. (I would note that rules written by the students themselves have a greater authority in these moments than rules that you have presented without discussion.)

Rules should cover some obvious (if easily ignored) terrain:

  • treating everyone with respect
  • listening without interrupting
  • allowing everyone the chance to participate
  • prohibiting name-calling or character attacks
  • encouraging questions when something isn’t understood
  • never assuming that one knows what another person is thinking
  • avoiding assumptions about class members or generalizations about social groups
  • not asking individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group

You can go a step further by establishing guidelines that can help you achieve the intellectual seriousness required by the learning process:

  • Maintaining confidentiality, pledging to keep the classroom as a “safe” space, a space in which students can work through their understanding of an issue without fear that rhetorical missteps, a lack of knowledge, probing questions, or unpopular positions will be used to attack them on social media or in face-to-face interactions outside of class. If students are public with their own thinking, whether hegemonic or heterodox, that’s on them, but what occurs in the classroom stays in the classroom.
  • Responding to a speaker’s comments is a complex act that can usefully be discussed. And here we’re not talking about interrupting or yelling, which should not be allowed. But it is one thing to discourage body-language signaling when in disagreement (eye-rolling, looks of exasperation), and another to suggest that students must remain in rigid (and, let’s be honest, white, middle-class) silence when in agreement. Perhaps you’ll find it OK to let students snap their fingers, or say “un-huh” when they agree. Responses are not without cultural histories and practices, and even discussing them can create an environment that makes difficult discussions less difficult.

If you are the one coming up with the rules, you need to explain why they are there and what is their intended purpose. If students come up with them, have them discuss why they think they are necessary, what purpose they are to serve.

The final point here is that coming up with classroom conduct guidelines in the first week does not free you from the need to remind everyone of them often, both when they are breached and as a way of reminding everyone of what was agreed upon earlier. (A recent book by Frances E. Jensen on The Teenage Brain notes that prospective memory – the ability to hold in one’s mind the intention to perform a certain action at a future time – is associated with the frontal lobes of the brain. This area develops significantly between 6-10 years old, and then again in the twenties; not so much in between. In other words, forgetting is not simply a function of not paying attention. Blame their brains!)

Handling “Hot Moments” in Class

Mr. Vesuvius erupting, photo by Tempest Anderson, Yorkshire Museum

It is possible that many of you, fortunate readers, have never had a “hot moment” experience in class – the unexpected flash where tension crystalizes in a comment, gesture, or action that cuts across the normal flow of things. But most of us have experienced such moments. These can be contra-power challenges to you (“I find it really racist that you’ve assigned this text”), confrontations with peers (“like she would know!”), or pronounced physical reactions to something that has happened, and you might not even know what (a loud groan, the student who walks out in tears). In each example, you didn’t see it coming. 

I suppose the good news is that you can prepare for “hot moments” as well as for the class where you know that the content will be contentious. Here are a few responses to consider, keeping in mind that sometimes the best response to a challenge, particularly when directed at you, is to ignore it in class and take it up in a different venue. I’ve gathered the suggestions below from a few sources (which you’ll find at the end of the article), as well as my own experiences.

  • Allow speakers to clarify their comments: Sometimes we launch full speed into a discussion of something that actually wasn’t intended in the way it emerged from a student’s mouth. Asking for clarification can prevent this unnecessary detour as well as allowing the speaker more space to more fully consider what he or she just said.
    • Did I understand you correctly? Did you really intend to say that? Let me summarize what you said: Is that right? Can you expand on that statement so we can understand it more fully?
  • If the comment was, indeed, intended and the student chose not to amend it, you can discuss the impact of specific language choices or words used. If you choose, you can explain why a particular approach or choice of language used raises the stakes of the conversation, especially if you think that some students don’t understand or respect the likely emotional responses of other students.
    • Let’s remember that we may be talking about classmates when we say… I can imagine that your use of that metaphor could easily feel like an insult to… There are good reasons why some people will find it hard to take your comments seriously after you use such language. I worry about the impact of those words on students who have experienced…
  • Where a conversation is running aground on the basis of differing conclusions that the students are coming to, try to help them find evidence for their positions or look for remaining questions to be answered. You can write on the board: “what is known” (evidence from the readings, lectures, etc.), “what is disputed” (is there contradictory evidence?), and “what they want to know more about” (remaining questions).
  • Remind students of your class guidelines. This can be useful in a number of contexts, both in terms of inappropriate verbal acts as well as disruptive non-speech acts (pronounced groans, eye-rolling, angry looks, etc.).
    • Remember when you insisted that we include a statement on our class guidelines that said we should try not to personalize viewpoints?
    • Remember the class guidelines that require that we treat each other with respect even if we dislike their ideas? If you don’t like what you heard, present an argument that can be discussed.
  • Depersonalize the issue: Try to separate the comment from the person who said it, and introduce the topic into a broader discussion:
    • A lot of people think that. Why do you think they do? Are there other ways of looking at this? Is someone willing to share a different view?
  • Engage the entire class: As with the previous example, this move allows you to broaden the discussion, taking it away from a single, adversarial student and allowing you, if possible, to tie the comment to something you have been examining in class:
    • Do others have concerns they want to share? How does this relate to what we were discussing/reading last week?
  • Help students to think of themselves as teachers as well as students. I’ll repeat what I wrote in an earlier Article of the Week: Quite often I have found that students who feel that they have attained a certain expertise in particular topics (often those related to contentious subjects such as identity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) will “call out” (“correct” or challenge) peers who may lack the vocabulary or conceptual background in the field, or who perhaps just disagree with them. The discussion or disagreement can be useful; the tone not so much. I have found it useful to reminded students that we are all both learners and teachers, and that a good teacher is one who helps others understand, or provide a way into, complex topics. And this is best done with patience, empathy, and some recognition that one doesn’t always have the “correct” answer. When a student takes exception to the way someone has phrased a comment, ask that person to try to present a critique or correction in a way that all can learn from it or can be invited into a discussion rather than feeling shut out, intimidated, or silenced.
  • Reflect through writing: If an incident was significantly disruptive, or if the topic is producing nothing but silence, have the students reflect and write for 5 minutes. They can write about what they are feeling and thinking about the incident that just occurred in class, why the topic and your invitation to discuss it has produced silence, and why they don’t feel that they can talk about it out loud. You can ask a few students to share their comments or, if that seems too fraught, collect them and use them as a way to prepare a future class.
  • If someone rushes out of your class in distress, send a friend to be with them.
  • Help students move ahead. Sometimes our impulse is to avoid these difficult moments or to get them over with as quickly as possible. We can help move on from the eruption by suggesting ways to transition away from the “hot moment” without at the same time ignoring or burying it:
    • One of the things that this discussion demonstrated was the problem of generalizing from a particular experience.
    • Let’s keep these points in mind as we get back to the topic we were discussing…

Contra-Power Challenges

It’s hard enough to manage a difficult discussion, let alone one that challenges your authority in the classroom. To be clear, these are challenges which go beyond a disagreement with something you have said – which we often welcome – and largely involve your identity. What you have said, the readings you have assigned, the topics you have brought up, and even your “right” to be teaching a particular course, are contested because of who you are. A few students can be quite adept at saying things in ways that can trigger our emotional reactions and push all our buttons: Why are you even teaching this course? I refuse to read this book – it’s clearly racist and homophobic! I just looked it up and, actually, the correct date is…

It’s a lot easier to suggest that your best response in these situations is to recognize that your buttons have just been pushed and to stay calm and maintain your perspective than it is to actually do so. But, if you are able, attempt to turn the criticism into a broader discussion, while trying to prevent a one-on-one dispute with a student:

  • So, the way you said that suggests that there is strong link between one’s identity and knowledge. That provokes a strong response in me, because it challenges my qualifications to understand and teach a subject because of who I am. OK, let’s look at that. To what extent does one’s social location limit or inform the questions she asks? Does identity constrain knowledge and, if so, how? Do identity and social formation give insights that others who don’t share that identity can’t obtain? What additions would you recommend to the syllabus?

Easier said than done, and there are times that the emotions that have been triggered in you are such that you need to let the moment pass, either to return to later, or to discuss outside of class (see below). If you need some time to collect your thoughts, give the students a brief writing exercise, perhaps suggesting that they reflect on whether the discussion reflected class guidelines, or discussing the difference between comments intended to trigger and arguments that can lead to debate.

Taking it Outside

There are times when you find yourself at an impasse in class, either with a particular student, or in terms of the larger discussion. At that moment the best approach is to move on and think of what can be done outside of class.

  • Invite the student who challenged you to come to office hours where you can discuss the issues that were raised in class in a less freighted atmosphere. You can show that you care about the student’s learning, and want to follow up on comments that were raised in class that were important but couldn’t be dealt with at the moment.
  • Follow up with the distressed student who left class, encouraging him or her to come visit you and to bring a friend if that would help.
  • Follow up with the class as a whole via email, either reflecting on the discussion now that you have had time to absorb it more fully, or discussing questions that were raised that you would like them to think about before the next class.

Finally, if you have been caught up in these “hot moments,” in any form that they take, you will know how truly debilitating they can be. It is vital that you connect with your own support network at these moments: talk it through with colleagues, friends, or partners. You are not the only one to go through this, so don’t keep it to yourself. If you feel that something that was said in class rose to the level of a threat or negatively impacted your ability to teach the class, talk to your department/program chair or the Dean.

I’d like to say that accumulated experience with “hot moments” in the class lessens their emotional impact on you, but It doesn’t. Still, experience does give you a broader repertoire of responses that you can draw upon and makes you aware that the class will go on, and that, because of your skills, students will continue to learn.


City University of New York, Handbook for Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom,

Kay Landis, ed. Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University), 2008.

University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, “Making the Most of ‘Hot Moments’ in the Classroom,” and “Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.”

Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching, “Difficult Dialogues.”

Digital Distractions? Technology, Teaching and Learning in the Contemporary Classroom

Steve Volk, February 12, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

In my current day job, leading Oberlin’s teaching and learning center, I am frequently asked to observe colleagues’ classes to offer some “formative” feedback, remarks that go to them alone, not to department chairs or deans. (Let me know if you would like me to sit in on one of your classes, by the way.) Many of these classes are relatively large, and I park myself in the back of the class where I have a clear view of the class, including the students’ laptops and phones. Oh, the things I have seen! Chats and texts, Amazon purchases, sporting events and Netflix movies, emails and emoticons.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed the disruption and distraction that digital devices introduce into the classroom, adding to the potential for a wandering attention that was already present in a pre-internet age. Reporting on the dangers of digital distraction is no longer confined to academic journals or the education press. Articles in Forbes (“Students spend nearly 21% of class time using a digital device for an unrelated activity like email or social media…They also check a digital device 10.5 times per class day on average”), the New York Times (“A growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures”), Fortune (“Score one for the Luddites. Taking notes with pen and paper may be more effective than with a laptop or tablet, studies show”), and myriad other sources have reported on the research findings (usually citing the same research study).

While I’ll go over some of these research findings in this article, let me summarize them here for those who are just about to stop reading so they can look at that text that just came in…

Digital technologies (cell phones, tablets, and laptops) have been shown to have a negative impact on a student’s ability to concentrate in class. They can prove almost irresistible both for the user and for those sitting nearby – a “second-hand smoke” effect. On top of this, some persuasive research suggests that even “legitimate” technology use, taking notes on a laptop, for example, can impede learning when compared with taking notes by hand. All of this provides a cogent argument for banning (with some exceptions) digital devices in the class room. My point in this article is to encourage you to think twice before adopting such bans.

In this article – which is based on the research literature and a recent CTIE workshop on the topic – I’ll  summarize some of the research about the impact of digital technology in the classroom, suggest some unintended consequences of outright digital bans, encourage you to consider policies that stop short of banning all devices, and, above all, suggest that encouraging your students to design a technology policy for the class, based on an informed discussion, may be the best approach of all.

What is Distraction?

Henriette Browne ( pseudonym for Mme Jules de Saux, née Sophie Boutellier), “A Girl Writing” (1870), (c) V&A Museum

Let’s begin by addressing the question of what is distraction. (Much of this is drawn from James Lang’s review in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Adam Gazzaley (neuroscientist) and Larry D. Rosen’s (psychologist), The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT, 2016). Lang recommends the book as “required reading for every teacher today.”) Distractions, the authors suggest, are about something blocking our efforts to achieve a goal that matters. Multitasking (texting, listening to music, watching a video, making a cup of coffee, reading email, etc.) on a lazy Sunday afternoon is not a distraction. Doing the same when studying for a calculus exam is.

Distraction, Gazzaley and Rosen argue, is the result of a conflict between our brain’s ability to conceive and plan long-term goals and our ability to control our minds and our environment as we work to complete those goals. To understand distraction, picture a huge wave (our goals) crashing into a sea-wall represented by the limitations to our cognitive control which “diminish our ability to direct and sustain our attention, to remember things, and to switch back and forth between tasks.” Barriers to sustained attention will always be there, but they don’t always defeat the pursuit of our goals. Further, what these barriers (limitations) are change over the course of our lives: they were different when we were children, are different for our students, and are different for us now.

OK, hold on to that thought (if you can!), as we’ll come back to it when talking about how to develop new approaches to digital distractions in the classroom that focus on helping our students (and ourselves) set and pursue goals.

When Digital Is Distracting: Cell Phones

It’s so annoying when I’m giving a lecture and half the students are talking on their mobiles! Well, duh! No one (at least no one I know) permits students to talk on their phones in class. And we don’t allow students to check their phones for texts, email, or interact with social media while in class. Of course, the fact that we don’t allow this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. (I’m always amused by student who are convinced of their own superpower: invisibility. They don’t think that we can see them looking down toward their laps while we’re talking away at the front of the class.) A study in 2012 found that 53% of undergraduate students at one university reported texting during class; a 2014 examination of 99 college students during a 20-minute lecture found that the average amount of texts sent and received among each student was 26.29 (14.10 sent, 12.69 received). Let me say that again: a 20-minute lecture, so, for each minute of class, students were sending or receiving more than one text.

According to a recently released survey conducted by Top Hat, 94% of students said they “wanted to use their cell phones in class for academic purposes,” and 75% believe using personal devices in the classroom improved their ability to learn and retain information even though more than half reported using their cell phones to text friends or browse social media. And these are among the more “optimistic” numbers. Other studies report 86% of students sending text messages in class, or 94% of students using their cell phones for non-academic purposes in class, or 125% of students using their cell phones to play Candy Crush in class. (OK, I made up that last one just to see if you were still paying attention.) But you get the idea.

Is this distracting? Of course, particularly when it comes to the ability of students to do well in their classes. Researchers at Kent State University surveyed more than 500 students, controlling for demographics and high-school GPA, among other factors. They found that more daily cell phone use (including smartphones) correlated with lower overall GPAs. (Correlation is not causation, but the findings are concerning in any case.) A number of other studies have also reported on correlations between cell phone usage and test scores (as usage goes up, scores go down).

Research also suggests that cell phone use has a differential impact on students. A recent study on student phone access and the achievement gap by Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy for the London School of Economics and Political Science, for example, found that banning mobile phones “improves outcomes for the low-achieving students … the most, and has no significant impact on high achievers.”

In short, we likely have enough data to suggest, at the very least, that instructors need to show some concern about cell phone use in class for other than allowable uses (e.g., taking photos of white boards or PowerPoint slides, looking up facts when requested, etc.)

When Digital Is Distracting: Laptops

The impact of laptops on student learning (or, to keep it accurate, on student grades) was equally troubling. In an experiment conducted at the United States Military Academy at West Point, faculty teaching multiple sections of an introductory economics course found that when they took away computers and tablets in the classroom, student grades rose. The difference wasn’t monumental, but enough to tip students into higher or lower grades. Similar research, using experimental, semi-experimental, and anecdotal data, yields the same results (see here, here, and here, for example).

zakiakhmad, Flickr cc

Researchers have also studied the impact of taking notes on a laptop versus taking notes by hand. The most frequently cited study was conducted at UCLA and Princeton where students using laptops to take notes were compared with students who took notes by hand. The researchers found that laptop note-takers performed worse on conceptual questions than longhand note-takers. The thought behind this is fairly evident: students taking notes on their laptops are essentially transcribing the lecture, whereas longhand note-takers, since they can’t write at the speed of the talker, must do some mental processing to isolate those parts of the lecture that seemed most relevant. (Of course, it is also possible that students can capture the less pertinent points rather than the most important ones, or that the laptop note-taker will go over her “transcription” to pull out the more relevant points, but we’ll let the observations represented in the study stand as the most likely outcomes.)

Equally troubling, researchers have found that, in the words of one article on the topic, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.” Psychologists at two Canadian universities discovered not only that “participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask,” but also that “participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not.” Their results, in fact, indicated that the consequences, in terms of comprehending a lecture, were even worse for nearby students than for laptop multitaskers themselves. In other words, the impact of “second-hand smoke,” so to speak, was greater than the impact on the smoker.

Finally, studies of both workers and students have found that the impact of breaking away from a main task lingers even if you only spend a few seconds “away,” to check email, a text, or responses to the latest Tweet from the WH. One study cited by Gazzaley and Rosen in The Distracted Mind, found that it took research subjects almost 30 minutes to refocus and fully engage with the original task.

When Digital is Distracting: Challenges to Authority

I have taught more than one class where a student asked a factual question for which I didn’t have an answer. Look it up, I suggested, and they always did. Smart phones can give us immediate answers, provide needed information, and allow discussions to advance where the lack of information might have been stymied an important line of inquiry. But in-the-moment access to information can also raise issues that we need to be aware of. Two examples.

(1) Two years ago I was teaching a summer course for high school students on morality and decision making. I had posed, as a purely hypothetical, what was an actual British case from the 19th century (R v Dudley and Stephens) dealing with a shipwreck, cannibalism, and eventual charges of murder when the survivors were rescued. As the students were discussing whether the (still hypothetical) survivors should be charged with murder for the death of a young crew member who had, after many days without food, lapsed into a coma, one student was busy on his cell phone. He finally raised his hand and reported that my example wasn’t hypothetical at all, and he informed the class of the results of the actual trial of the surviving seamen. I didn’t feel undercut, since it didn’t matter if the case were an actual one or purely hypothetical. But the student’s Googling set the discussion off in an unwanted direction as students now wanted to know the outcome of the trial rather than putting themselves in the place of the jurors.

(2) A faculty participant at a recent workshop (female, fairly new to campus) reported that a student had looked up something she said and noted that it was incorrect. While her response, as reported to us, was welcoming and non-defensive, I have little doubt the student would never have challenged a senior (male) faculty member in the same way. In other words, in the context in which newer, female, or under-represented faculty need to be more concerned with establishing their authority in the classroom than more senior, male, or white faculty, access to information via classroom digital technologies can be a means not just of distributing classroom knowledge and participation (something I would see as positive), but of challenging the authority of specific categories of faculty.

Pedrik_BioModLat-2012. Flickr cc

Hold On; Wait a Minute!

Enough, you’re probably begging by now. Ban laptops, confiscate cell phones, turn tablets into cafeteria trays and get them out of the class. There is a lot of evidence that more and more faculty are doing just that, minus the cafeteria tray suggestion. But there are reasons to think again about the unintended consequences of a total digital ban, and there are reasons to turn the conversation around and think of potentially more productive approaches to digital distractions in the classroom.

In terms of unintended consequences, the issue of note-taking accommodations is an important consideration. Students with the proper documentation can apply to Office of Disability Resources either for a note-taker, or for permission to use a laptop in a “no-laptops” class as an accommodation. The problem with this should already be evident: if you’re the only student in class who has a laptop open in a no-laptop class, you have just been outed. Other possible options: Assign note-takers for the class, to rotate among students for credit or extra credit. The note-takers can take notes by hand or laptop, but if the latter, they should be encouraged to go over their “transcriptions” to prepare a summary of the class, not a textual recording. Note-takers would have one day to post their notes to Blackboard.

If you have been to a professional conference in the last decade, you’ll have noticed the large number of audience members who pull out phones and tablets to take pictures of the PowerPoint slides, particularly the ones that contain way too much textual information. Other possible options: Put less on your slides, allow each slide more time, or, better yet, make your slides available after the lecture. And allow cell phones for students to photograph white boards, the blackboard, or sheets of paper that have been put up, so that that can capture some of the discussion that occurred. (Or you can take a photo and post it to Blackboard.)

And, finally, we have been encouraging our students to read articles we have posted to Blackboard, rather than printing them out. But if they can’t use their laptops to access the readings during a class discussion, it forces them to print out the articles or not to bring them in. Without laptops, you can’t ask your students to quickly find the reading from two weeks ago and compare Hobbes to Locke. Other possible options: Allow laptops for discussions of readings, having gained an understanding from students that the pdf’s will be the only tabs open.

But beyond potential fixes to specific issues, there are many other reasons why we should think twice about an absolute ban on laptops or other digital technology use in the classroom. Obviously, technology, when used well, can add a lot to classroom learning, engagement, and interaction. I’ll just mention one way I have used laptops in the class to very productive ends. I’m sure that you have many others. I’ve found that one of the trickiest aspects of conducting small group discussions in class occurs when the groups are asked to report back on the insights they have gained or the questions that have been raised. If there are many such small groups, student report-backs can grow tedious and time consuming. I began to use laptops to solve this problem. I would split the class into smaller (5-7) groups, making sure that one student in each group had a laptop. Before class, I set up a Google doc, and I would give the laptop students access to it. Then, as the discussion in each group occurred, I would have the student with the laptop to record their answers to questions I had posed directly into the Google doc. This document would be projected onto a screen at the front of the class. I got a sense of what was going on in each group by simply looking at the unfolding Google doc. When I called the discussions to a close, I already knew what points they shared, where the differences were, and how to direct my remarks or questions. Finally, I would preserve the document and make it available to the whole class. (I did a “how-to” video on this which you can find here.)

The Bigger Issues

Let’s return to some larger issues before we join the rush to ban digital technology in the classroom.  We can start with perhaps the most important issue: our students’ ability to succeed in the future will depend to a significant degree on their ability to use contemporary technology responsibly and to their advantage, not to pretend it doesn’t exist. In that sense, it is better to encourage a conscious, targeted use of technology in the classroom than to banish it altogether.

One of our standard approaches to the issue of technology in the classroom is to wonder about why students don’t (can’t?) seem to control their behavior around its use. While many students report that they think that multitasking can improve their ability to learn, results of a study by Tassone et al (2017) indicate that a majority of students were aware that multitasking was detrimental to their grades. So, it’s not like they don’t know of the consequences of disruptive technology use.

New research points to the fact that students are increasingly anxious when away from their cell phones. A University of Illinois study found that high engagement with mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students. A review of 23 studies of the impact of cell phone use, anxiety and depression, confirmed this finding, although noting that the impact of increase cell phone use was weak to moderate. A psychology professor who wrote an “autoethnographic reflection” on his students’ cell phone “addiction in the classroom,” quoted one student, who observed that, “For just about everybody, their phone is their life. That is how they keep in contact with everyone; that is where all their pictures are, and so on… I do not think one could imagine life without technology and social media.”


We could benefit from more research on what appears to be a correlation between the amount of cell phone use and student anxiety (again, correlation is not causation). But the take-away for me when thinking about technology use in the classroom, is this: if, as the emerging research suggests, some students are tied to their cell phones in a way that is not beneficial for their mental health, simply banning them in class won’t address the underlying issues. Perhaps we should engage, as teachers, in a different way?

Which brings me back Gazzaley and Rosen’s The Distracted Mind as reported on by Lang. Gazzaley and Rosen, you will remember if you weren’t playing on your phones, suggested the conflict in our brains which goes on between two separate neural processes: the first directing our attention to goal-related activities, and the second blocking out irrelevant distractions. (Gazzaley’s experiments have also suggested that, as we age, we don’t lose the ability to focus our attention, but we do have a harder time blocking out distractions, which could be why older adults have a harder time focusing on conversations in a noisy restaurant.).

If this is the case, the challenge  – which Lang raises in his review – should not focus on modifying this second neural process, banning digital devices in order to block out distractions, but on the first, i.e., by helping students focus on goals.  As Lang put it, when thinking about one of his students who was a cell-phone-offender: “What goal had I established for Kate’s learning that day? How had I created an environment that supported her ability to achieve that goal? And perhaps most important — assuming that the class had a learning goal that mattered for her — did she know about it?”

Can Democracy in the Classroom Remove Digital Distractions?

No. We should be about what we can do. But the creation of transparent, student-centered classrooms can go some way to threading the needle between outright technology bans and an anything-goes approach. Again, we start with the assumption that students, to succeed, will need to know how to manage their technology use, and that just telling them to turn off their phones won’t give them practice, direction, or motivation for how to act when they are outside of class, studying, writing a paper, or doing their reading.

So, some suggestions:

(1) A technology use policy in the classroom is, in my mind, like any other policy one creates for a class: it can serve as an opening for a discussion as to why such a policy has been adopted (note the passive tense). Better yet, it can serve as a springboard for a discussion in which you would invite your students to come up with their own policies governing technology use in the classroom. Students may or may not think that a glance at a text in the midst of a lecture is distracting, but they likely don’t know the research that concludes just how problematic it can be. They probably don’t know that their watching of a music video on their laptops will negatively impact nearby peers even more than it will impact them. In other words, use this discussion to provide information (you’ve got all you need just in this article!) and help students develop their own classroom technology policy. And don’t expect that such policies will immediately solve the problem or that everyone will obey the class rules that they have established for themselves. Public health experts know very well that telling young people that smoking is bad for them doesn’t do the trick (nor have students stopped smoking on campus now that we have banned it). But, in the context of digital uses in the classroom, the rules have the potential of constructing a new social contract that might give students pause before they text in class.

(2) To the extent that you can, create an active classroom. Long lectures without breaks of any kind will make digital distractions much more likely as attention begins to flag. Cut down the time between the lecture and a task that engages students directly: asking questions, polling them, breaking them into group discussions. Digital distractions decline when students shuttle between short lecture segments and discussion groups or think-pair-share activities.

(3) Help students focus on the goals for that class, and remind them to stay focused on the goals. To rephrase Lang’s question, do students know what your goals are for the day? Distractions will win the game if the only goal a student has is making it to the end of the class.

The literature on the impact of that new technology is having on our brains, or better said, our students’ brains, is already large and will continue to grow, particularly with the advent of high quality virtual reality. Probably the most honest thing to say is that we don’t actually know how digital intrusions are shaping the lives of our students. But we do know that one of our greatest responsibilities as teachers, regardless subject matter, is to help students develop the capacity for deep and undivided attention as a means of problem solving, reflection, sustained engagement, and mental calm. Inviting our students into a discussion about digital distractions, and giving them the shared authority to establish policies, is at least a beginning.  

Your experiences in this regard? Please share!

Classroom Discussions: From “Civil Attention” to Real Participation

Steve Volk, October 9, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Why Discussions?

From a series of futuristic pictures by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists issued in France in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910. Public domain.

Because research over the past 30 years has demonstrated that student learning (from retention to student confidence to higher order thinking) is facilitated by active learning and student engagement. [Chickering and Gamson 1987; Pascarella and Terenzini 1991, 2005; Kuh et al, 2005]

Because the person who is doing the work is the person who is learning.

Because the participating classroom is a place where students learn citizenship skills, including how to articulate their positions, how to discuss with those with whom they disagree, how to take responsibility for their actions.

Because even in the best lectures, delivered by the most entertaining faculty at the very top of their game, student attention will flag at a certain point and students will mentally check out.

Because we’re doing more than preparing students to be good at going to school. Learning is more than “making deposits” in our students’ brains [Freire]; learning involves helping students become aware of their learning (metacognition) so as to be able to transfer knowledge and skills to other domains.

Because all students, even the most shy, will have to find their voice when they graduate: they will have to learn to advocate for themselves, to speak up and, often, to speak out.

Need More Why’s? 

if you’re still looking for reasons why discussions are a valuable classroom practice, here are fifteen further benefits of discussions as gathered from S. D. Brookfield and S. Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2005), pp. 21-22.

Discussion, they argue:

  1. Helps students explore a diversity of perspectives.
  2. Increases students’ awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity or complexity.
  3. Helps students recognize and investigate their assumptions.
  4. Encourages attentive, respectful listening.
  5. Develops new appreciation for continuing differences.
  6. Increases intellectual agility.
  7. Helps students become connected to a topic.
  8. Shows respect for students’ voices and experiences.
  9. Helps students learn the processes and habits of democratic discourse.
  10. Affirms students as co-creators of knowledge.
  11. Develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.
  12. Develops habits of collaborative learning.
  13. Increases breadth and makes students more empathetic.
  14. Helps students develop skills of synthesis and integration.
  15. Leads to transformation.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, The Wise Boys: or, The Entertaining Histories of Fred Forethought, Matt Merrythought, Luke Lovebook and Ben Bee (New York, Edwd. Dunigan), 1842.

Some Cautions and Challenges 

  • Talking/discussion does not automatically lead to or result in learning, as we well know. If we allow it, discussions can lead nowhere and serve no learning purpose. A recent article by Amber Finn and Paul Schrodt (2016) identifies five factors that characterize effective discussion facilitation on the part of faculty. Good facilitation provokes discussion, organizes discussion, questions students, affirms students, and corrects students. (You can download their “Teacher Discussion Facilitation Instrument” here.
  • Facilitating good discussions isn’t easy, but neither is it impossibly difficult.
  • Accept that promoting effective discussions requires working through contradictions: think of them dialectically:

          Students don’t much like it when a few students absorb all the class’s air time by constantly           talking; on the other hand (see below), they are often willing and even happy to let others talk,           and even talk constantly.

          Discussions require a classroom environment where students feel – dare I say it without           provoking a “precious snowflake” attack – safe, yet learning demands that we challenge           assumptions and preconceptions, which can make students uncomfortable.

Consolidation of Responsibility

In Discussion in the College Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015), from which much of this article is fondly and gratefully lifted, Jay Howard writes about the difference between students “actually paying attention” in class versus those who pay only “civil attention.” Just as we know the normative rules of behavior in specific spaces (don’t touch the paintings in a museum, move to the back and face forward in an elevator, etc.), so our students know how to create the appearance of paying attention in class: they look at (or toward) us, take notes (or at least pretend to), and try not to make it totally obvious when they check their phones. Such behavior, identified by Karp and Yoels [1976], is called “paying civil attention.” (I once had a student with a head of long and curly hair. Occasionally, as I droned on, he would attach his pen to the locks of hair falling over his face and “take notes” by moving his head around, letting the pen make marks on the paper below. Now that was really pushing the boundaries of “civil” attention!)

L. A. Vaught, Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, 1902.

Anyway, the problem, as Howard points out, is that as long as students adhere to these norms, our assumption (except for hirsute note-taking) is that they are actually paying attention. They’re not, or at least, many aren’t, and the challenge becomes how to move students from “civil” to “actual” attention. We all know that discussions are an excellent way to do this. So, what are the best ways to do engage all our students in productive discussions?

Who speaks up in class? Well, actually, very few students, if the research is any indication. Karp and Yoels [1976] found that, in a “typical college or university classroom,” a small number of students accounted for 75-95% of all interactions. Perhaps things have changed for the better lately since their research is a bit musty? We should be so lucky. Howard, Zoeller, and Pratt [2006] reported similar findings more recently. They studied 15 sections of an introductory sociology course taught by 9 different instructors at “a large Midwestern university.” In a “typical” 75-minute class, they found 49 instances of student verbal participation. Fantastic, no? Not really. In an average class, 70% of the students didn’t intervene at all. Of those who spoke, 6 of the 39 students in class accounted for 92% of all student interactions.

Many colleges and universities created First Year Seminars to give entering students a small-class setting in which the skills of discussion could be encouraged. When Sheryl Baratz Goodman, Krista Bailey Murphy, and Mia Lindquist D’Andrea of Ursinus College (2012) studied a First Year Seminar course with only 15 students enrolled, they found that a majority of students adhered to “a norm of silence.” In other words, they didn’t see themselves as obligated to participate in the conversation. In the literature, this is called “consolidation of responsibility,” meaning that the majority of participants turn over the responsibility for engaging in discussion to a few of their peers. (This can produce the contradiction I flagged at the start: students are both annoyed with their peers who talk all the time and are grateful that they are there.)

Why does this happen? There are probably a lot of reasons why this happens from the perspective of the student, including the possibility that they aren’t prepared for class. Factors of gender and race clearly enter in, although not always in the ways that one might imagine. I’m more interested in locating what we are doing as instructors to actually make it easier for students to bow out of a discussion and turn over the responsibility of talking to others. And, of course, I’m interested in what we can do to make the classroom a more participatory environment that encourages actual attention through discussion. First, what we might be doing wrong.

What We Do That Makes It Easier for Students to Sit on the Sidelines

There are a number of things we do, consciously or inadvertently, which signal to students that we’re not actually interested in what they have to say. For example, we:

  • Don’t leave much time for discussion during class;
  • Shoehorn discussion into the last few minutes of class when everyone’s attention has moved on;
  • Don’t prepare students for discussion or hold them responsible for what is discussed;
  • Keep calling on the same 3-4 students, the ones who are quick to raise their hands, or turn to those same students when no one else responds (“Josh, you should know the answer to this!”);
  • Do nothing to rein in the dominant talkers;
  • Respond sarcastically or curtly to students whose answers are incorrect or not the best;
  • Ignore certain students because, consciously or unconsciously, we don’t expect much of them.

Illustration from The Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus (1847)

Making Student Participation Both Valued and Welcome:

More positively, we can encourage a broad base of student participation in discussions by:

  • Stressing the importance of student discussion to student learning. As we begin to align our syllabi to class, departmental, and college learning goals, it is important to be able to articulate why we do what we do, i.e. why we structure classes as we do; why we assign the readings we do; why we have specific assignments, and why we encourage discussions in class. Bringing students early in the semester into a “discussion on discussions” can help them understanding the impact on learning that (well-prepared) discussions can have.
  • Emphasizing the social nature of learning and stressing the evidence that the fact that they have a lot to learn from each other; indeed, that’s why they are in our liberal arts colleges and not just reading a textbook at home.
  • Helping students become aware of the ways they learn, and how discussions are one aspect of that.
  • Having standards for discussion and, if you choose, well defined rubrics by which you grade classroom participation. Some discussions can be loose and unstructured, a kind of “throat clearing” form of engagement before getting down to the business at hand. But for important discussions, students need to know that they are taken seriously, and that they need to pay attention to their peers. (You can do this by having students take notes of their discussions and report back to the class.) In Q&A type discussions, ask students for evidence to back up their arguments or to highlight the experiences that have generated their comments. The best way to have productive discussions is to establish a model of good discussions and to keep students to it.
  • Making discussion a part of our classes, not an afterthought intended only as a break from the lecture.
  • Demonstrating from the beginning class that we won’t allow a “consolidation of responsibility” to happen, that we won’t let a few students carry the conversational burden – even if those few are happy to speak up and the others are happy to let them do so.

Supporting Productive Discussions

There are lots of things to be done. Here are a few, many of which you probably know already – but it never hurts to review!

  1. Modify any classroom geography that discourages discussion: No matter how “bolted down” the classroom setting (e.g. theater seating, chairs nailed to the floor, etc.) you can improve discussions by hacking the room to encourage communication.
  • Pull the chairs into a circle or horseshoe, where possible;
  • If you can’t move all the chairs, have students cluster in groups of 3-5 students;
  • If you can’t move ANY of the chairs, have students sit on their desks to face and talk to those sitting around them. When students can look at other students, we increase the chances that more will talk.
  1. Take your time: Students, particularly those who aren’t quick to raise their hands, need time to think about answering, particularly if the questions are complex.
  • Pause for 30 seconds (it will seem like an eternity) before calling on anyone;
  • Give students a minute to write their comments before calling on them;
  • “Think-pair-share” – the “go-to” method here: a minute to write; 1-2 minutes to share with the person sitting next to you; 1-2 minutes to report back. (More on this here.) These methods also allow you to call on the quieter students rather than only calling on the ones who raise their hands: “I saw your writing away, Yolanda. Can you share it with us?”
  1. Provide feedback that can build and expand student confidence. Research [Fassinger 1997] has suggested that the variable that best explained student participation was student confidence: not an overvalued sense of their own worth, but the confidence that their input is valuable, will be taken seriously, and won’t provoke peer disapproval. (This last point is critically important but deserves a separate article!)
  • Supportive feedback is not just the “great job, Sonia,” type of comment. If other students don’t know why Sonia’s comment was awesome, they won’t learn from it, nor learn from the discussion. Reveal why you thought it was a good answer: “Great job, Sonia. You connected Weber’s notion about the state and the legitimate use of violence with the conversation we’ve been having about the Kurds.” [For more, see here.]

    Andrew Comstock, A System of Elocution, with Special Reference to Gesture, to the Treatment of Stammering, and Defective Articulation (1846).

  1. Help the class learn from mistakes.
  • If a student serves up an incorrect answer, you can either correct the information (“No, it was actually in 1917”), or ask someone else (“Nice try, Ellen. Anyone else?”).
  • When dealing with more complicated concepts, not just facts, it can help everyone, including the student who answered, to probe a bit further to see where their answer came from, since many could harbor the same (incorrect) idea: “Hmm, not sure I get that, could you add more?” “What makes you say that?” “Can you point to some evidence to back up your argument?”
  • When the answer has little to do with what you’re discussing and you want to keep the student, and the class, on track, you can ask the student to describe how it connects to what you’re discussing. (This approach can at times produce startlingly interesting insights, as students, not experts in our fields, may make different connections than we do. And sometimes, of course, it’s just off base.)
  1. Control the “compulsive communicators” and increase the confidence of quieter students to support their entry into the discussion. As argued above, most instructors and students have come to expect and even accept that a small number of students will dominate discussions. Sometimes these are students who have taken the responsibility to prepare for the discussion; sometimes they are students who dominate discussions by either preventing others from entering in or by driving others out. In both all cases, you want make sure early in the semester that it’s not OK for a few students to be doing all the talking.
  • Help all students prepare for discussions and hold them responsible.
  • Encourage other students to speak up and don’t let compulsive communicators dominate discussions: “Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t yet spoken;” “I’m waiting for someone in the back row to speak up;” “John’s already answered twice: I need someone else.”
  • Walk over to different parts of the class and pose questions from there.
  • Encourage quieter students by giving them time to think (one-minute papers, etc.).
  • Avoid getting into a back-and-forth with a compulsive communicator: “Who wants to respond to John’s argument?”
  • Talk to compulsive communicators after class (in your office) and explain why you appreciate their comments (if you do), but you’d now appreciate it if they could to sit on their hands for a bit to let others talk. If you think there are different issue involved (e.g., a white student who continues to dominate the conversation and is oblivious to the indications that students of color aren’t talking and are becoming frustrated, etc.) explain what you think is happening and why it’s important for them to be aware of how their domination of the conversation impacts the class.

    Tiago Ribeiro (Braga, Portugal), 2009. Public domain.

  1. Experiment with well-established approaches.
  • “Muddy Point papers”: Reserve the last 2-3 minutes of class for students to write on a slip of paper what they found most confusing about that day’s class. Collect them, and begin the next class with some of the questions raised, particularly if a lot of students wrote the same thing. “A number of you found my explanation of recombinant DNA less than enlightening. Can someone try their hand at explaining it?”
  • “Most Important Point papers”: As with the muddy points, ask students to write what they thought the most important point covered in the class was. While these are usually anonymous, you can ask that they sign the slips they handed in and, in that case, begin class by asking a student to explain why she thought the specific point she raised was important; it’s a good opening to call on the less talkative students. The added value of this approach is that students can always duck the “muddy point paper” by saying that everything was crystal clear, no problems at all.
  • Online discussion boards: Similarly, have students answer questions online, collect them before class, and ask some students – again, the least talkative – to go over the points they raised in the homework. (More on this here.)
  1. Attend to the needs of students for whom English is not their home language. Fast-paced discussions, cold-calling, and a culture that favors hand-raising can silence or confuse multilingual students.
  • It is particularly important to understand that students for whom English is not their home language can benefit from all the approaches outlined above, particularly giving students time to think before they answer, putting them in small groups to discuss specific questions before the group reports back to the class, and using on-line forums outside of class and short writing opportunities in class. This is yet another indication of the value of universal design principles: when we think about how to make our classroom environment fully inclusive, we benefit all the students.

By Way of Conclusion: Forms of Silence

Paul Goodman

I just came upon Paul Goodman’s discussion of speaking and silence in Maria Popova’s most wonderful “Brain Pickings” blog. In Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry (1973), Goodman  enumerated nine kinds of silence, reminding us that silence itself can be productive, and that the goal here, as always, is student learning, not student talking. There are forms of silence, just as there are ways of talking, that we want to encourage.

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.



Brookfield, S.D. and Preskill, S. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” AAHE Bulletin, 1987, 7 (39), 3-7.

Fassinger, P.A. “Understanding Classroom Interaction: Students’ and Professors’ Contributions to Students’ Silence.” Journal of Higher Education, 1995, 66(1), 82-96.

Finn, A. N. and Schrodt, P. “Teacher discussion facilitation: A new measure and its associations with students’ perceived understanding, interest and engagement.” Communication Education, 2016, 65 (4), 445-462.

Freire, Paolo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.

Goodman, S.B., Murphy, K.B., and D’Andrea, M.L. “Discussion Dilemmas: An Analysis of Beliefs and Ideas in the Undergraduate Seminar.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2012, 27(1), 1-21.

Howard, J. Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015.

Karp, D.A. and Yoels, W.C. “The College Classroom: Some Observations on the Meaning of Student Participation,” Sociology and Social Research, 1976, 60(4), 421-439.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H. , Whitt, E.J., and Associates. Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Pascarella, E.T., and Terenzini, P.T. How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

The Sounds of Silence: Approaches to Other-Oriented Listening

Steve Volk, February 20, 2017

cage_4-33As long as we’re talking about Frank Zappa…

In 1993, Zappa recorded John Cage’s 4’33” as part of A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute [Koch International Classics]. You might remember 4’33” as a recording of silence, or better put, as a composition scored for any instrument or combination of instruments in which the performers don’t play for the prescribed amount of time. It’s not, in fact, a composition intended to produce silence since, in performance, listeners hear the environmental noise that they normally ignore at a concert (except, of course, for the continual hacking and rustling that goes on). “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, recalling the première of the work. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Kyle Gann [No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s ‘4′ 33″’  (Yale, 2011)] described Cage’s composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.” In other words, 4’33” explores how the absence of the expected, in this case “music,” can act to heighten our awareness of things that otherwise might have eluded our attention.

I have been thinking about the role of silence in the classroom, somewhat peculiarly in the part it can play in supporting discussions, dialogues, or any other non-monologic teaching. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about whether silence can help students hear. As with Cage’s composition, the relationship between talking and silence in the classroom is not a binary, both are part of a singular process.  Silence can be employed to encourage hearing as well as talking. (I’m reminded of an anecdote recalled by Catherine Blyth in The Art of Conversation. When Solon, he of ancient Athens, in a test of wits was asked to remove the best and worst bits of a sacrificed animal, he selected just one item: the tongue.)

Silence in the classroom has been addressed by a number of scholars. Donald L. Finkel, for example, in Teaching with Your Mouth Shut (Heinemann, 2000), suggests ways that instructors can teach by removing themselves as the center of the students’ attention. At this time, however, I’m particularly concerned with whether silence can encourage what I would call “other-oriented” listening, which I used to think of as “real” listening, and therefore add to productive engagement in the classroom.  Because, beyond a doubt, in the world at large there’s way too much talking and not enough listening.

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, John C. Cavanaugh, the president of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, argued that we need to be teaching our students how to listen, or, more precisely, what he termed the skill of “contemplative listening.” Contemplative listening, Cavanaugh writes, “is not the same as ‘listening’ in the colloquial sense. The latter, which tends to be the default way listening is practiced, is rooted in how listeners are consumed with how a conversation affects them.”

That last part really resonated: consumed with how a conversation affects them. Anyone who has led a classroom discussion knows exactly what this looks like. You ask your students a question. Hands go up. As the first to be called on offers a response, the others who had their hands up don’t appear to be listening to the speaker. Their faces tell you that they are thinking of something else, probably how they will answer when eventually called on. They’re thinking of how the conversation will affect them. This is pretty much the same if you “stack” those who want to answer in a queue or if you have the current speaker determine the next speaker. Both techniques can help remove you as the central hub of classroom discussions (allowing you to teach “with your mouth shut”), but they don’t address the challenge of getting students to listen to each other in order to actually develop the discussion. Students often remain focused on what they had planned to say rather than moving with the conversational flow. And, as a result, class discussions don’t develop into truly dialogic spaces capable of generating new understandings or fresh insights. Don’t get me wrong: discussions aren’t a waste of time; but they could be more productive if students actually listened to their peers.

Image taken from "Lilliput Lyrics," R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

Image taken from “Lilliput Lyrics,” R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

It’s not a great surprise that students aren’t better at other-oriented listening. Truth be told, we’re not particularly good at it either. Perhaps it’s our training to be critics, but we, too, are often busy planning how we’ll respond rather than listening to what a colleague has to say. (Think back to your last faculty, department, or committee meeting. OK, don’t.)

Cavanaugh argues that traditional-aged students often haven’t developed an ability to “separate one’s personal needs and interests from those being expressed by the speaker.” (And once again I’d say, it’s not just late adolescents: Physician, heal thyself!) He cites the neuroscience research pointing to the late development of the integration of emotion and logic which is central to contemplative listening. I’m not familiar with that research, but I do know that there is a growing tendency to remain in our own “echo-chambers.” And in this aspect research has clearly shown that our conversations/reading/viewing – whether virtual or face-to-face – are increasingly with people who share our perspectives. To the extent that we only listen to what we want to hear, we are self-oriented thinkers, unable or unwilling to hear the unexpected, the uncomfortable.

Impediments to Other-Oriented Listening in the Classroom

Still, there are structural reasons that make other-oriented listening in the classroom harder for our students. Classroom interactions obviously don’t follow the same rules as one-on-one or small group exchanges, with a relatively “natural” flow of talk among conversational partners. Although, as Blyth worries, it is possible that conversation itself, “especially face-to-face [conversation] – for thousands of years the core of human interaction – is being pushed to the sidelines.”  Even given that, or perhaps because we are becoming less adept at the “art of conversation,” good classroom discussions, unlike other social interactions, require that the participants’ have prepared for them. And we all know what that can mean. But there are circumstances we impose that also lessen the likelihood of effective listening.

  • When students know they are expected to participate in class discussions, particularly if participation makes up a part of their grade, they can become more focused on the act of participating, on intervening in the conversation, than on whether what they have to say helps the discussion advance. Their interventions don’t depend on having listened to previous speakers, and they will largely focus on what they have been planning to say even as the discussion has moved on.
  • Students often recognize that they are being evaluated by the instructor (and their peers) more for what they say than for their ability to foster a discussion. They have received a message, often accurately, that it is more important to impress us than to contribute to generative discussions.

So, what practices can we employ to help our students build their capacity as other-oriented and contemplative listeners? How can we circumvent the barriers that make classroom discussions less about individual speakers and more about collaborative engagement?

Some Quick Fixes:

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

There are some quick fixes that we can use to help students become better listeners. In general, these involve explicitly raising for class members the challenge of taking responsibility for the generation of a productive discussion by closely listening to, and then addressing, the arguments and themes raised by the previous speakers. For example, think about:

  • Having each speaker sum up her comments at the end of her intervention and, if possible, raise a new question to be answered.
  • Encouraging the next person in the queue to begin his comments by focusing on the question raised by the previous speaker.
  • Adopting a modified Socratic approach. As you know, the Socratic method involves teacher-student interactions based on a shared dialogue in which both are responsible for pushing the conversation forward through questioning as a means of finding foundational beliefs, values, or principles. Socratic approaches often allow us to find new meanings through  persistent questioning. In a modified approach, students, more than the instructor, would be responsible for advancing the process of continual questioning of assumptions, and they could only do this by paying particular attention to what the previous speaker has said and thinking more deeply about its values and understandings.

But here is where silence can help. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to encourage contemplative listening in the midst of a conversation is to employ silence. Think of John Cage. Use enforced silence to help students focus before answering, not just after you ask a question, but after the first student offers an answer and before you call on others, with the explicit instruction that no one will talk for a minute (it will seem very long) after the previous speaker to allow everyone to think of what was said, to write comments, and to respond explicitly to what was said. I can guarantee you that this won’t be easy, but don’t be faint of heart and give up after what will undoubtedly be your first disastrous attempts at it. Stay with it.

The Longer-Term: Classrooms as Learning Communities

You probably have more ideas than I do about helping students develop more other-oriented listening approaches in a classroom, and I’d be eager to hear them. But to address this issue on a profound level we have to consider some of the structural factors mentioned that inhibit deep listening. These are not just, or even, about the number of students you have and whether only small seminars are capable of generating other-oriented thinking skills. What we need to take on board is whether we are structuring our classes in ways that encourage deep listening. To return to a point I made above, except in large lecture classes, most of us, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, include a “class participation” component as part of the final grade. I did that for years without providing students with helpful – OK, any! – feedback on how their participation would be evaluated. And, when I finally did provide some feedback in the form of a rubric, I mostly stressed quantity (were they active participants?), their ability to stay on topic, and whether their interventions were informed by the readings or other assigned work. I never commented on whether they helped the class generate a productive discussion or if they raised further questions for their peers to address. In my approach, I probably convinced students either that quantity was more important than quality, or that the “quality” of their interventions was an individual feature, disconnected from the whole group’s ability to reach new understandings. I find my own practices even more curious since the very quality which I didn’t explicitly raise with students — the ability to advance a discussion — would always be at the top of my list when writing student recommendations.

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

If we are interested in supporting other-oriented listening, a listening that moves students away from thinking only about how the conversation affects them, a practice of hearing that opens them to other perspectives, we need to structure classrooms as learning communities where all participants are held responsible for producing knowledge, deepening understandings, and solving problems. As I wrote in an earlier post, “When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility.”

At one level,  this involves moving from what Paulo Freire called the “banking,” or information-transformation model of teaching to a more learning-centered, inquiry-centered model where, as Jeffrey Wilhem writes, teachers and students “work together to co-construct knowledge according to disciplinary standards as they learn and use disciplinary concepts and procedures.” To the extent that students become co-responsible for classroom learning, and to the extent that the different experiences and knowledges that they bring with them are valued, we can create a space where listening becomes an essential foundation for talking.

John Cage used silence in his compositions to help us hear what we weren’t listening to. Other-oriented listening in a collaborative classroom can also be based on the promotion of silence, both the absence of talking that allows students to think about what others are saying before speaking themselves, as well as the silence that involves stilling one’s inner voice to a sufficient degree so that they (and we!) can actually listen to what others are saying. If the work of the classroom is the work of the all its participants, then let’s cultivate a silence that helps students tune out “how a conversation affects them” and focus instead on how they can further a discussion that will support everyone’s learning.

Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 26, 2016

All images from Lewis Caroll, "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There" (London: McMillan, 1871)

All images from Lewis Caroll, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” (London: McMillan, 1871)

As part of a class assignment, two Muslim students from Middle Eastern countries attended a Catholic Mass in Philadelphia. What happened next was sobering. The students were members of a course in religious studies, “Religion in Philadelphia,” taught by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez of Temple University. In the course Alvarez sought to introduce her very diverse students to a variety of religious practices and institutions in the Philadelphia area.

I’ll quote from the article that Alvarez wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Fostering Open Communication in a Culturally Diverse Classroom”) to describe what happened next:

They were enjoying the beautiful building and taking in unfamiliar practices — holy water, repeated kneeling and standing, communion lines — when a parishioner photographed them with her cellphone and then abruptly left. After the mass ended, they ran into her outside the church, where she asked them if they spoke Arabic — yes — and if they were Catholic — no. When the students walked to their vehicle, multiple police cars stopped them.

The incident thankfully ended without further offense to the students when they explained the nature of their assignment for their religion course. But it left them, their classmates, and the instructor deeply shaken. While the professor had prepped both the students and the institutions they would be visiting in a responsible and professional manner, Alvarez was left to wonder whether “in today’s xenophobic climate” she could “continue to assign interfaith exchanges to my diverse students?”

Acknowledging the Moment

alice2It’s probably fair to say that most of us whose lives are absorbed with teaching and learning share that concern. It is no exaggeration to say that the current political climate, and – let’s be frank here – the Trump campaign in particular, are making our job as educators that much harder. Calls to ban Muslims, introduce racial profiling, support stop-and-frisk policing, wall-off the U.S.-Mexican border, apply torture to suspected enemies, disqualify judges on the basis of ethnic origin, and other atrocities that Trump has endorsed, strike at the heart of democratic and human rights that are a vital part of national and international law and challenge the inclusiveness that is an essential ethical and moral underpinning of the educational process itself. (For a forceful rebuttal to the argument that college administrators and faculty must remain on the sidelines of all political contests, see “Help Stop Trumpian Calamity” by Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University.)

If the heightened xenophobia and fear exhibited across sectors of U.S. society has led faculty members to wonder if they can still conduct their classes in the ways that are necessary and have proven most fruitful to the learning process, the persistent killings of black men and women, and the concerted attempts by many students (and faculty and staff) of color to get higher education to respond in a serious fashion to a history of grievance and exclusion, are also shaping the classroom environment. All of this can make faculty feel, at times, that we are walking on eggshells, uncertain how to approach difficult topics (see below on what makes them “difficult”) or when a comment will head us in directions we feel ill prepared to pursue. All of which can lead to the feeling that we should keep our distance from such themes or rapidly steer away from them when they come up.

This is not to say that we are not used to teaching through discomfort – indeed, learning is often most successful when we create a context of discomfort that calls forth deeper questions and new answers. But, to be honest, most of us aren’t all that skilled at engaging topics that are outside our own comfort zone, ones we fear will be potentially explosive. And for most of us, race is often at the very top of the list. [(Among many others resources on this, see Beverly Tatum, Can We Talk About Race? (Beacon 2008)]. Why does race, in particular, offer itself as a “difficult” conversation? Derald Wing Sue, et al argue that difficult dialogues on race:

represent potentially threatening conversations or interactions between members of different racial or ethnic groups when they (a) involve an unequal status relationship of power and privilege, (b) highlight major differences in worldviews, personalities, and perspectives, (c) are challenged publicly, (d) are found to be offensive to others, (e) may reveal biases and prejudices, and (f) trigger intense emotional responses…Any individual or group engaged in a difficult dialogue may feel at risk for potentially disclosing intimate thoughts, beliefs, or feelings related to the topic of race.

It is important to be clear that “race” and, therefore, the “dialogues about race” that take place in U.S institutions of higher education, are relevant to every class that is taught, not just those that have “race” in the course title. Because we teach in institutions that are a part of a larger history of exclusion, and because we claim, even if we fall short of the mark, that we value inclusion, we are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., recognize what is going on) when we look out at the students sitting in our classes and see who is there and, more importantly, who isn’t. We are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., take steps to change our practice) when we devise our curriculum and see who is represented and who isn’t, when we examine our pedagogy and realize what kind of learning it attends to and what kind is pushed to the margins. In short, the discussion of race happens even when it doesn’t happen. So no one gets a free pass from this discussion.

These were some of the things that crossed my mind as I read Alvarez’s disheartening narrative. And so I wondered:  If the world outside our classrooms is becoming less hospitable to the conversations and interactions we need to have, and if we worry about how these essential discussions will happen in our classrooms if we are nervous and worried about missteps and feeling unprepared to have them, where will they happen?

Approaching Difficult Discussions

alice3The heart of Alvarez’s essay is not what happened to her students, but the advice she offers in order to engage these difficult conversations so that the pervasive xenophobia does not set the tone of her classes. She observes that encouraging these discussions requires “helping students develop an awareness of their own cultural narratives and differences,” and that we need concrete strategies if we’re going to do this. (I would only add that she could easily add “faculty and staff” to the category of “students.”) These strategies, she continues, “include explicitly clarifying the assumptions and methodologies of academic inquiry, breaking down required skills into components that are addressed at the assignment level, and, most crucially, making the classroom a safe place for discussion so relationships can grow and empathetic engagement can occur.”

“Yeah, right,” you’re probably thinking. Easier said than done, and bromides aren’t going to help me when I’ve opened the door to something I’m not prepared for.  And certainly we all know of examples (of colleagues, if not ourselves) where attempts at such discussions, or even less challenging ones, crashed off the rails. There are no guarantees that these discussions will prove useful for our students or ourselves; but there probably is a guarantee that avoidance of critical topics is abrogating our responsibilities.

Location and Context

Among the many suggestions that Alvarez raised to help educators think about engaging difficult discussions in the classroom, I found one in particular to be quite helpful. Faculty, she writes, should “instruct students in how to locate and contextualize their comments, and to model such behavior themselves. At a minimum, this involves indicating whether statements are based on experience, observation, academic research, or some other source.”

Her examples are illustrative. One student’s broad assertion that “Christians believe that Jesus is returning soon,” can, with purposeful questioning by the instructor, be located and contextualized into a more grounded, and limited, claim: “When I was growing up, I was taught in Baptist churches in Western Pennsylvania that Jesus is returning soon.”

She suggests that faculty help students specify the context or location of a statement they make or questions they offer. For example, when a student in Alvarez’s course stated that “Muslim women hide when men enter the home,” she asked that it be rephrased to help locate where that statement was coming from, whether it was generated by something the student read or observed, for example. A follow-up rephrasing that: “I read in an article by Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud that African-American Muslim women in Philadelphia in the 1970s often moved to the kitchen when men entered the home,” provides specific context for the assertion and also locates its origin in a research article.

Personal experience can also be brought in as part of the evidence, but it is to be contextualized as just that – personal experience.  Alvarez quotes from one of her students who responded to the first comment that, “When I was growing up in a Sunni home in Kuwait, my mother moved to a private area of the home when unrelated men entered.” Or, as another added, “In my extended family in Turkey, women welcomed friends and neighbors into their homes and ate with them as long as male relatives were also present.”

By contextualizing and locating statements or questions, broad claims that often leave us either speechless or wanting simply to close off the conversation can be further examined, contextualized, and evaluated on the basis of the evidence: direct evidence, reported evidence, academic evidence, cultural evidence, visual evidence, etc. Such an approach can move the discussion from a series of unsupported statements to a conversation based on evidence, while allowing students to “hear one another’s comments as unique experiences.” This kind of opening can easily lead, if one allows, to a deeper examination of what counts as evidence in our disciplines, as well as what might get left out or become undervalued, and whether critical voices in the discipline have explored ways to compensate for this.

alice4Further Suggestions

Beyond locating and contextualizing, Alvarez and others offer some suggestions that can help us think about how we can use these discussions to help generate greater understandings, light as well as heat:

  • No class member should be asked, or assumed, either by the faculty or other students, to speak for a whole group.
  • Don’t load the weight and responsibility of explaining racism on students of color; explaining homophobia on queer students; explaining Islamophobia on Muslim students. Audre Lorde put it quite succinctly: “People of color are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.”
  • Be aware of the ways that unconscious stereotyping and implicit bias impacts how we “see” our students, even if we are sure that we are not doing this and certainly don’t intend to stereotype. (CTIE’s workshop on “Implicit Bias,” on September 29, will address these issues.)
  • Respond to questions and situations honestly: “I’m unsure right now,” or, “Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with that, too. Is there a way we can talk about it?”

These conversations are not easy to have, and it is likely that some will go awry. But as the public conversation becomes more degraded, it increasingly falls to us take on and model discussions that need to happen. As the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano reminded us, describing what he called the “looking glass [upside down] school” which “teaches us to suffer reality, not change it; to forget the past, not learn from it,” we can do things differently if we put our minds to it. Perhaps, Galeano continued, there is “no disgrace without grace, no sign without a countersign, and no school that does not beget its counterschool” [Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World, (Picador 1998)]. Creating the space for difficult discussions is one way to foster those increasingly needed “counterschool” spaces.

Let’s Talk About It: Fostering productive class discussions

Steve Volk, September 6, 2015

There are no general rules for stimulating a good class discussion…OK, so there are. But they are not so much rules as a set of understandings, things we probably all know but don’t always remember to practice. Of all the topics that faculty are interested in, particularly new faculty, this is the one I get most often. I’ve written about this before (for example here and here), but it’s a good question to consider again.

Do you believe? I don’t think we would be here if we didn’t believe this, but to state the obvious: Discussion (by which I mean both the back-and-forth with students that takes place within a more lecture-driven pedagogy and longer discussion-centered classes) will probably not go the way we hope if we don’t believe there is any pedagogical utility in student discussion, If we solicit student input only when answering our questions or when asking us to clarify points we raise in lecture. That certainly was the standard when I began teaching; I no longer think it is.

Good discussions are built on an understanding that students learn by taking an active part in their own education. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, criticized what he called the “banking theory” of education in which “the students [and he was talking about adult learners] are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits…But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

Discussions work best when we see them as a central part of student learning and make them an important aspect of our pedagogies.

Habits form quickly. We all know that by the second class of the semester, 90% of the students will be sitting in the same seat they occupied in the first class. And this will continue all semester; it becomes a matter of habit. The same is true about talking and listening. Many (if not most) students will quickly fall into the habit of talking…or remaining largely silent. In our smaller seminars, particularly the First Year Seminars, we almost always have every students speak during the very first class: they may introduce themselves, suggest why they are interested in the class, discuss some aspect of their background, or speak of what they hope to get out of the class the class. Those are good things to know, but the basic idea is to get the students talking so that they quickly feel comfortable with their own voices.

We don’t do the same in larger classes, often because there are too many people for everyone to speak, but the same proposition holds true. If students learn from the start that their primary role in class is to listen and not speak, it will not prove surprising that they won’t engage as easily when we do ask them to enter into a discussion  with their classmates. (To be sure: there are always those who are not only willing to talk, but often dominate any conversation, leaving little room for others – but more on strategies for dealing with this later.)

The bottom line is that if you understand that discussion is essential to student learning and want to encourage rich discussions in your class, make sure that your students develop the habit of talking from the very start and try to build in opportunities for discussion continually, not just on one day a week or only at the end of the lecture.

Slow is better. Except in seminar settings, and even there, student voices are most often encouraged when we ask students to answer a question we pose. Certainly there are a lot of times we ask so-called “known answer” questions as a way to discover whether they did the assigned reading or can fill in a specific piece of information (although asking such questions can produce a deadening stupor, as anyone familiar with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off will recall: “Anyone? Anyone?”).

More often we ask questions which require students to think more deeply about an issue but don’t necessarily want to break the class into smaller groups to discuss them. In these cases, the answer is neither obvious nor easy, and unless you want the same hands to shoot up each time, you need to give the students time to think and consider before answering. You can say, “wait a few seconds before answering,” but you’ll still get the same hands going up. Instead, have them write their answers or briefly discuss with the person next to them. Not only does that give them time to think, but it also makes it easier for you to call on a student who doesn’t normally talk in class. “Katie – I see that you’re writing away. What did you come up with?” (There are teachers, to be sure, who adopt what I would call the “enforced” Socratic method, like Professor Kingsfield, the contracts law professor in The Paper Chase.  And there is some value in that method – not the Kingsfield humiliation approach, but as a way to see that students come to class well prepared.) But understanding that students need time to prepare responses to complex question (as do we), is one way to get broader participation and more informed responses while avoiding both “Anyone-Anyone” moments and discussions that always revolve around the same few students.

Anatomy-Poster-French-head-238x300Save the harder for later. I have noticed that in seminars in which students are expected to take the lead in discussions, they often start the class by asking what I would consider to be the most difficult questions, the kinds of questions that usually require the students to synthesize the subject matter and come to a conclusion before the discussion has even begun.  And I also realized that I often did the same thing: I would open the discussion (at 9:00 AM, no less) with a question that not only couldn’t be answered then, but was certain to stop any discussion dead in its tracks.

When planning for student participation in class, whether a lecture-centered class or a discussion-based seminar, try to begin with those questions that are both easier to get at (perhaps descriptive or informational questions) and build to the more analytic, synthetic questions as the student, you, and the discussion get warmed up. You will generate more participation and bring along more students.

Good scaffolds make good buildings. Moving from the back-and-forth question and answer of a lecture class to a seminar-style discussion or any class in which student input is primary, the best chance to generate a productive discussion is by helping students prepare with clear expectations and prompts to guide them through the readings or other homework. What should they be looking for? How should they be preparing for the discussion? Will they be expected to lead the discussion? Will you set the pattern of staying (largely) silent or can they count on you to “rescue” them when the discussion stalls in silence?

And when you give students a set of prompts to be thinking about, try to stick to them when you open the discussion. More than once I realized that I gave my students a set of questions to help them prepare the reading and then I asked a completely different set of questions in class. It’s not that we have to stick unalterably to a scripts that we have written, but if students see no relation between what you’ve asked them to think about and what you’re asking them to talk about, they are not likely to generate a good discussion.

Responsible talking, responsible listening. Whether in a seminar setting or having divided your class into smaller groups, it is useful to employ some practices to support the discussion. There are two key roles in the discussion section: responsible talking and active listening. To support the first, give the students a sense of what it means to be a responsible participant in the group. Obviously, it means being prepared for the discussion by having completed and thought about the reading, trying to stay on topic, and encouraging others to talk as well. It also means attempting to move the discussion forward. Which brings up active listening. A good discussion is built on the fact that students are not (just) queuing up with a Medical-Illustration-Hearing-NLM-211x300set of things they want to say even though those points have already been made. They are listening to their colleagues in an active way so that even if they repeat some of what has been said, they also try to move the discussion to a new point. (For tips on active listening, see here.) You can do some things to support this by having students adopt (and exchange) certain roles in the discussion. You might want one student to be a note taker and another to be in charge of facilitating the discussion or reporting back to the class. (You can find different report-back strategies here.)

Unless you assign regular discussion groups at the start of the semester, you can encourage more participation by arranging discussion groups to have different students in them each time, particularly if you find that students always sit in the same seats and you tend to form discussion groups by having students talk to those sitting closest to them. While quick discussions will inevitably rely on turning to one’s neighbors, for longer discussions you might want to mix the groups up, setting them up by “counting-off” or other techniques. The latest suggestion I read on how to do this comes from George Williams in ProfHacker who uses playing cards to establish groups in a large class. (For example, to set up groups of four, pass out the cards and have those who draw the same number form a group. This may seem an unnecessary waste of time, but students might also find it intriguing.)

Finally, if you are interested in different ways to assess student discussions, please refer to the Article of the Week for February 18, 2013 (Assessing Student Discussions). You can find this on CTIE’s Blackboard site.

Do you have other ways to encourage student discussions? Share them with us by posting a comment.