Getting Students to Talk

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 21, 2011

I like to eavesdrop when I'm on campus. And there's usually plenty of opportunity. I overhear pairs and trios of students chatting as they walk between buildings, or I try to pick out bits of conversation from the cacophony of voices that professors have to cut through to commence class in a big lecture hall. Doing so reminds me that students have plenty to say.

Yet once a dozen or so of those same people sit down in a "discussion" section, silence prevails. As teaching assistants, we are supposed to get students to reflect on what they're learning, to give them a chance to talk instead of be talked at, and to share with them a first taste of the graduate-school seminar experience.

So how do we stimulate the kind of vibrant conversation in the classroom that we hear every day outside of it?

Require students to recite passages. The first time I walked into a discussion section as a new teaching assistant, I told students they were going to have to memorize and recite a passage from one of the course's weekly reading assignments. They gawked at me. Once I explained that their essay exams in American history required evidence from both lectures and readings, they understood that memorizing a passage was like having one piece of proof, at least, in the bag.

It was impressive to grade exams that included direct quotes from Benjamin Franklin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Frederick Douglass. But I had other reasons for that exercise in parroting. For one, most students memorized some of the key portions of the documents we read. Which meant that they kicked off each discussion by sharing the crux of the reading with the rest of the class. Nailing down the thesis or main points early made it easier to tackle questions of evidence, rhetorical style, or connections to lecture material.

For another thing, making students face their peers and recite passages written hundreds of years ago was about the most nerve-racking thing I could imagine requiring, without inviting complete mutiny. Once the blushing, flustering, and staring at the floor subsided and students got through the ordeal, simply talking from the safety of their seats was, if not a relief, much easier.

I forced memorization on students more than once in the four years I served as a TA in my history department, but I also tinkered with other ways of spurring discussion sections. Those one-credit requirements accompanying our department's survey courses were fairly common at our university, as well as at many others.

My fellow TA's in the sciences oversee weekly one-hour labs or discussion periods. When I've asked them and my peers in history about guiding discussion sections, we've shared the struggle of getting undergraduates to talk. For me, making them recite from memory was a good beginning.

I maintain that memorizing someone else's words or thoughts is not much different from a musician's committing melodies to memory. It is the precursor to improvising.

Have students give talks. Having students prepare and deliver short, extemporaneous talks related to the assigned material improved our class discussions as well. Because I let students pick their own topics for those talks, they owned the material. Sometimes I knew nothing about their topic, such as when one young lady discussed the cultural and political influence of 19th-century Swedish immigrants on frontier life in the United States.

At best, the exercise put students in the role of teacher, giving them a chance to ask and field questions. It associated a sense of authority with talking in class. Every single time I've required such talks, both the presentations and the questions that followed have exceeded the time I allotted. And they've done so because of genuine student interest.

Hand out questions in advance, and ease in to discussion. When it comes to fostering good discussions about assigned reading, it is essential to give students questions or themes to think about before they read. When I've failed to do that, class discussions are usually a disaster. Without reading prompts, students seem to retain less of what they've read, for lack of focus. And unprompted reading leaves students, literally, on different pages: Some recall specific details, others, overarching arguments, while most come to the discussion with an unorganized smattering of recollections.

Even when I've provided prompts, I like to ease into discussions. Starting on familiar ground helps students begin speaking confidently. For a few weeks, I tried in one of my courses to help students situate Uncle Tom's Cabin in the context of what they were learning in lectures about early-19th-century America. But our discussions around questions like how Northerners viewed slavery continued to bomb.

So, to begin our next meeting, I asked students to summarize the novel's plot. The act of starting with something basic, like plot summary, warmed them up to analyzing themes in the book with much greater assurance and clarity. I've seen similar results by having students recap our previous meeting, recount a bit of the most recent lecture, or answer a simple question, like what surprised them about the week's reading.

As questions have arisen spontaneously in a discussion, I've carved out time for students to think before answering. I'm a slow thinker. I walk away from plenty of conversations and uncover my clearest thoughts on the topic minutes, sometimes hours or days later. Expecting students who might be grappling with unfamiliar material to have quick and ready answers is often unrealistic.

I've found it worthwhile for students to spend five minutes jotting down their thoughts. Many feel more comfortable contributing to a discussion if they have a crib sheet of their own creation at hand. I never go into discussion sections without one.

Set rules for discussion. In addition to always having my discussion notes with me and encouraging the same of students, I try to abide by a few simple rules. Anyone who speaks has to wait until three others have had their say before he or she can comment again. Along with spreading the conversation around, that discourages hasty rebuttals. The rule applies to me, too, which promotes peer discussion rather than a back-and-forth approach in which I'm the inquisitor and they're the contestants.

Kind of like eavesdropping, it's satisfying to hear students challenge one another, even to the point of good, levelheaded arguing. I've even pushed arguments on occasion by following the comments of a particularly outspoken student with a challenge such as, "Does everyone really agree with that?" Or, "Does Jane really speak for all of you?"

But I don't always interject a comment to spur dialogue. In fact, my favorite method of stimulating discussion during a lull is to not say anything and let the lull lengthen. I don't pretend that a minute or so of quiet in a discussion section is the monastic "solitude and silence," the "empty room" that Thomas H. Benton envisioned in a recent column, "Getting Medieval on Higher Education" (The Chronicle, January 28). But much like giving students a reprieve to jot down their thoughts, a little silence offers them space to think.

At the very least, the awkwardness of an elongated pause in a room full of undergraduates, with a question hanging over their heads and a TA looking on, goads even the most reticent student to talk. Eventually someone will sacrifice herself or himself, and others will soon commiserate.

Have a chat. Finally, I've discovered that if I want my discussions to be as lively as the conversations I hear outside classrooms, it's worthwhile to let some of that chatter through the door. Rather than waltzing into class at the last minute and using my first question like the rap of a gavel to stifle energetic talk about last weekend (or the next one), I like to show up early and socialize.

When it has been appropriate to enter and steer those preclass chats toward the material at hand, I've found that students appreciate mingling their lives with what they've read.

Similarly, when students veer off-topic during a discussion, rather than turn them back to where I want us to be, sometimes I indulge a bit of ranting, then ask someone to make the connection between the day's intended topic and the tangent. I've heard fascinating links between the two. Besides keeping lips moving, allowing those diversions can help students see the relevance of our discussion to their lives, or provide another point of view from which they can reflect on their personal experiences.

Such reflections not only make history more vital, but also are what many students want—to understand why they should care about what they are studying.

Of course, all of those tools, techniques, methods, or whatever you might call them threaten to be a bit gimmicky when used like a bag of tricks into which I reach and grab at random. It can get tiring overseeing three, four, or even half a dozen discussion sections every week, facing the same combinations of students with the same list of readings and questions.

When I've tried to run multiple sections in cookie-cutter fashion, I've rarely savored the results. Using my set of tools effectively has meant applying each one to an appropriate problem, and with the force of real curiosity.

Because, tools aside, it's hard to make people want to talk if you don't want to listen.

David Brooks is an A.B.D. doctoral candidate in history at the University of Montana. If you would like to contribute a First Person essay to the series on graduate-school work and life, please e-mail your ideas and essays to