David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

The ‘Holy Grail’ of Class Discussion

Full vitae class engagement

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Whenever you lead a class discussion, you naturally want to see your students eagerly participating. It shows they’re engaged, and that’s surely a prerequisite for learning. But too often academics treat speaking up in discussion as an end in itself — as if it doesn’t matter what students are saying so long as they’re saying something.

Unless you are teaching a large lecture class, the default activity in your classroom is probably discussion. It’s a reliable fallback — and with good reason. As much research has shown, if students see themselves and their classmates as a community, that’s a big indicator that they are engaged with the course and motivated to do the work. Allowing plenty of time for discussion can help create that sense of community.

But in those discussions, are your students actually talking to one another? Or does it work the way it often works in my class: The instructor asks a question, and students direct all of their answers right back to the instructor. Getting students to interact with one another, instead of responding individually to the instructor, might be the holy grail of small-class discussion.

In a blog post earlier this year, Cathryn Bailey, a professor at Western Michigan University, questioned the ubiquity of class discussion, wondering if it too often offered the illusion of student engagement without the substance. "It is all too easy to be fooled by the volume of students’ chatter into believing that something meaningful is occurring," she wrote. "We are probably especially susceptible to this delusion because of how hard it can sometimes be to get students to pipe up at all."

Indeed, I’ve sat in many a class taught by a graduate-student instructor who nods and accepts any comment students make — grateful that they are saying anything. It’s surely important to signal that discussion in your classroom is a welcome and nonthreatening activity, one in which students should feel free to try out ideas, however outlandish. It’s also important to encourage quiet students to contribute to the conversation, so that it’s not dominated by the same few outspoken people.

But we do students a disservice if treating them nicely — nodding approvingly rather than challenging their comments in class — comes at the expense of taking them seriously. At least after the initial weeks of class, it’s worth coming up with more ambitious goals for discussion than just getting students to talk. Why do you want them to talk? What are you hoping they’ll gain? Is there a destination you want the discussion to reach? And should students get there by themselves, or should you help them find their way?

Thinking through those questions before class can help guide how you manage discussions during class.

Use class discussion to teach difficult concepts. Often we don’t know exactly what we think about something until we are forced to try to put it into words. Discussion offers students the chance to think through complex topics out loud. By using discussion to sort through the meanings of a reading or a new idea introduced in a lecture, you provide a venue where they have to engage directly with course material — and with their classmates, who may have different ideas about what that material means.

Your goal here is to move students beyond their initial impression and help them in the process of thinking things through. One way to do that: Reply with a question that shows students you actually care what they think: "What do you mean by that?" or "How so?" or "Do you think that is true in all cases?" By gently but firmly asking follow-up questions, you model the sort of self-scrutiny that critical thinkers engage in to better understand what they think.

Such questioning can also help the class discussion gain a firmer footing. In my early years of teaching, discussions in my classes often took the form of a series of disconnected comments. I would ask a question about the reading, and one student would provide an answer. The answer would kind of float slowly to the ground, like a feather, until another student offered an opinion without responding to the first. So it would go, with no one building on someone else’s answer, and the discussion never really going anywhere.

Asking follow-ups is a simple but effective way to halt that pattern. By pressing students — trying to establish precisely what their ideas are — you can show them that those ideas matter and send a signal that respectfully questioning one another’s ideas is fair game.

Use the board to help students build on one another’s ideas. It’s simple but it works. Writing down the rudiments of students’ answers, along with their names, can give a visual representation of the discussion. Students can see each others’ responses. They can take a little more time to formulate a response, knowing that everyone will be able to understand when they refer back to an earlier point. And you can take the opportunity, while writing on the board, to "translate" certain comments into clearer and sharper prose — formulations that might more easily drive the discussion forward.

Even if you use the above strategies to help students clarify their thinking, you may still find that they are mostly talking to you. My colleague Megan Knight has evolved a surprisingly effective way to get students to talk to one another in class discussions: She puts her head down.

No, she doesn’t take a nap in the middle of class. But she keeps her eyes down on her notebook as she takes notes. She tells students she’s going to do this in advance — so as not to seem rude — and then she spends the discussion looking down at her notebook. I’ve been a witness to this (we teach a class together), and the effect is remarkable. In the absence of an instructor to make eye contact with, students inevitably cast about for someone to direct their comments to. They start slowly, unused to the situation, but are soon doing the only thing they can: talking to each other. It’s amazing to watch happen.

Like nearly every class activity, the key to improving how you run a discussion is to start by thinking through what students are doing, and why. What is the experience of the students in your class? What will they gain by taking part in the discussion you initiate? What do you hope they will learn from the experience? I’ve written before that leading a class discussion requires instructors to be a "discussion EMT" — thinking quickly on the spot, responding to unpredictable developments, rushing to keep the dying conversation alive. Such agility and resourcefulness is a lot easier to pull off if you’ve got specific aims in mind and if you’ve developed goals that go even a little bit further than just getting them to talk.

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