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How to Jump Start a Flagging Discussion Class

jumper cables

If you teach a discussion-based course, you know that sooner or later, there comes a day when you notice that your students’ once-enthusiastic participation seems to have vanished. You can’t know exactly when that day might happen (though flu season and midterms both can be influential factors) so you will have prepared your course material and in-class activities as you always do. And nothing you try to do seems to be working. So what do you do next? Here are a few strategies I think of as akin to the jumper cables in the trunk of my car.

  • Acknowledgement: One of the simplest strategies is simply to acknowledge what’s going on. Rather than forging ahead and trying to build a discussion with only one participant, letting your students know that you’ve noticed they’re not participating can help build rapport, rather than resentment, and also facilitate your learning more about what’s causing the new behavior. For instance, learning that no one has understood the week’s reading lets me know I need to approach the content in a different way. Letting my students know that I do realize it’s midterms and that they have important exams in other courses helps them feel understood and more willing to make an effort for my class too.

  • Movement: When the energy in my classroom is low or if a wave of sleepiness is overtaking us due to the stifling heaters in our building, I will often ask students to stand up and move around — sometimes as part of a small group exercise where they have to switch partners, but frequently just as an invitation to get the blood flowing a bit. We all wave our arms in the air for 30 seconds or so and laugh at how silly we look (I do it too!) — and both the movement and the laughter are good for increasing our individual and group energies.

  • Reversal; Sometimes I’ll just go sit in the back row of the room and tell my class they have to lead the discussion. Done spontaneously as a jump-start strategy, this is very different from a structured activity involving informal presentations or student-prepared questions: I just sit in the back and wait to see what happens. Inevitably some students will step into the space and begin some sort of conversation. This can be useful both as a way into the material and as a way of opening a conversation about the learning processes of the course.

  • Randomness: I also like to use random constraints to fuel a discussion or class exercise. For instance, I might ask students to pick random numbers and then we use those pages in the text as our focus passages, figuring out what they have to do with each other. Depending on your course subject, random numbers, sentences, or image selectors might be helpful constraints or prompts for an exercise.

What are your favorite jump-start strategies for a flagging discussion class? let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image from flickr user Charles Williams]

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