Tag Archives: Small-group discussions

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.

The Last Five Minutes: Class Endings and Student Learning

Steve Volk (Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence), April 20, 2014

A recent article by David Gooblar in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s on-line “Pedagogy Unbound” section reminded me how important it is to end a class well, both individual classes (today’s topic), and the semester as a whole (which I’ll turn to soon). We spend a fair amount of time thinking about how we start a class: perhaps summarizing material from the past class, highlighting written responses to the readings that students have posted, offering a snapshot of what the day’s class will cover. But the ending is often less planned, particularly as we rush to get through the topics we had intended to cover that day.

Why is that? Probably a lot of factors are to blame, but the most common one I’ve encountered is that faculty try to put too much into the 50 or 75 minutes we have in a regular class session; we try to cover too much. Many, myself included, particularly when I was a bit newer to the game, are worried that we will run out of things to say before the clock signals the end of the class. As a result, we over-prepare … just to be sure. Of course, we never actually run out of things to say. Rather, we run out of time in which to say them. Now, when we look up at the clock, we find that there are five minutes left and we have 15 minutes worth of “stuff” still to deliver. What to do?

Usually we try one of these strategies:

  • We talk faster in an attempt to squeeze it in;
  • We continue to talk even as the students put on their coats, anxiously lean towards the door, and we spy next instructor assigned to the same classroom peaking into the room;
  • We carry over a the “untaught” material from that class on to the next (which only seems to exacerbate the problem if it happens every day);
  • We drop that part of the class where the students are asked to synthesize and share the main conclusions from the small-group discussions they had just finished.

Bud Collyer as host of "Beat the Clock" (1958) - Wikimedia Commons

None of these strategies, obviously, is optimal for student learning, but I’ve employed each of them enough times (and observed others doing so as well), that it seems reasonable to offer a few suggestions from my perch at the back of the room. Now, some students may be so deeply engaged in a class that they don’t notice the time…but that usually isn’t the case. Because they need to be in another class in 10 minutes or simply expect the class to be ending, any observer can see them closing down, as it were. They start to pack their bags, put on their coats, close their computers, or just look at the door. The key point is that they are not listening (or learning) any more, and going past the time the class is to end by more than 1-2 minutes only makes them more anxious and less able to hear. We may feel that we were able to squeeze in everything we wanted to say in those last few minutes…but they probably didn’t get it. Production but no reception.

Too Much Johnson, William Gillette, 1895 (Public Domain).

This can be even more of an issue when teachers sacrifice some of the most important lessons of the class because they have run out of time. This will often happen when students have broken into smaller discussion groups and you had planned to bring them back together both to share their observations and to have them (or you) synthesize the key points you wanted to cover. Not every small group discussion has to be shared or synthesized, and you can develop other ways to do this without re-forming into a group-of-the-whole (see Tips for Capturing Small-Group Discussions below), but if you count on that moment to raise the cognitive level of the class and you have to forgo it because of lack of time, you’re passing up an important moment of student learning. There’s no question that this will happen from time to time: issues might come up in discussion that are just too good to sidetrack. And you can always start the next class with a summary of the last discussion (although, usually, students aren’t as able to return to that discussion two days later as you would like them to be).

Why Are We Doing It This Way?

As I suggested above, we often over-prepare a class for fear of being caught with our critical pants down: we have come to the end of our useful knowledge for that day and have nothing more to say. Besides the fact that I think we can always find something to say or to have the students do (and it does get easier as the years go by), I think the tendency to put too much into a class often reflects the fact that we haven’t thought enough about what our specific goals are for that class session. As a history teacher, I know that my “goal” was often only to cover a given chronology. If I was talking about the origins of the Cuban Revolution, I knew I wanted to end up in 1959; 1956 just wouldn’t do, so I’d speak faster to get it all in before class ended. But as I continued to think about what I was doing and what the students were getting out of it, I realized that more is not always more – quite often it is less. You think the students have understood something that you squeezed in at the end, but they haven’t.  As I tried increasingly to get at the central analytic issues involved in any particular class, I realized that I could plan a class that didn’t have to cover all the material I was delivering (after all, they have readings and other resources), but could focus on a few exemplary moments to help them work through the central concepts (in this case problematizing the question of what revolutions are, what we mean by “revolutionary origins,” what was it about the specific history of Cuba that gave rise to the events of 1959). This extra planning hasn’t meant that I never run out of time in my classes, but at least the main part of the learning that I want to happen occurs sometime before the last few minutes of the class.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro enter Havana, January 1959

How to Make Use of those Last Minutes?

There is an additional benefit to class planning: you can now use the final minutes of class in an activity that not only can hold the students’ attention, but can help you significantly in understanding what they got out of the class and how you might want to begin the next class. Use the last 2-3 minutes of class time to have them write. They can write a “muddy-point” commentary, noting something that they didn’t understand or would like further discussed in the next class. They can focus on the 1-3 points that they learned from that class. Or they can look ahead: what are their preconceptions of the next class. (I have posted a very short article on this topic, “The Final Three Minutes with 100 Undergraduates,” by Robert Hampel, on CTIE’s Blackboard site. It appeared in the most recent edition of College Teaching 62 (2014): 77–78.) These short exercises have the advantage of focusing student attention on a very defined task for the last few minutes of class rather than on wondering when you will stop talking, giving you an important idea of what they learned (or didn’t learn) in the class, and allowing those who have more to say (and who have the time to stay) to spend a minute or two more than the others with their comments. (Of course, there’s still the next instructor assigned to the class looking through the door wondering when she’ll be able to get in!)

Tips for Capturing Small-Group Discussions

Often, in discussions, I use one of two techniques as a way to help students develop and hold onto their conclusions. If I have 6-7 different small groups working at the same time, either on the same or a different set of questions, I have them to come up to the board towards the end of the time I have set aside for discussion and write down the conclusions, answers, or questions their group arrived at. If there is no time to bring these different “conversations” together, I take a picture of the board with my phone and post it to Blackboard. The students can refer to the image after class and I can start the next class with the image of the last class’s board projected on a screen. (You can do the same thing with post-in notes, having them write on the notes in their groups and then sticking them under appropriate headings.)

Partial image of chalk board after discussion (Steve Volk)

Arranging "post-it" notes (Steve Volk)

The other technique I use is to make sure that someone with a laptop is a part of each group. Before class, I have prepared a Google Doc with the same number of columns as there are small groups (add more columns if you’re not sure of the number), assign numbers to each of the discussion groups that has formed up, enter the email addresses of the student with the laptop into an “invitation” to join the document (all of which takes, literally, about 2 minutes), and then have them write conclusions, answers, or questions in their assigned column as they are discussing the material. I project that Google Doc onto the screen and can see each group’s discussion develop in real time. Again, if there is time to pull everything together, we do that at the end of class when we all look at the document that is projected; if we have run out of time, I save the document, post it to Blackboard for them to read, and (if I want) pull it up at the start of the next class.

Google Doc example from class (Steve Volk)

Google Doc example from class (Steve Volk)