So now that the semester is underway, course enrollments have settled down, and you’ve learned your students names, maybe discussion is going well, with most of your students enthusiastically participating. But if it’s not—maybe you’ve got Domineering Danny monopolizing the conversation, or a general shyness settling over the room when you ask a question—here are some tips from the archives.
Structure the Discussion
Nels’s excellent post on Leading Effective Classroom Discussions on Controversial Issues offers some good suggestions for managing any kind of class discussion, even one that isn’t organized around hot button topics. Nels suggests “keeping the focus on the issues” by using structured questions, rather than just “what do you think"; “use the words of others to guide the discussion” by providing short quotations from secondary sources; and “avoid binaries as much as possible.”
Amy’s post on Modeling Civility and Use of Evidence in the Classroom describes some of the techniques she uses with first-year students in political science courses to help them “learn to listen to other points of view respectfully and...learn to provide good evidence for their own points of view.” (A follow up post describes her decision to do away with her usual textbooks for this course in the fall to help students appreciate multiple viewpoints on key issues.)
In Playing to Learn, Jason offers examples of how using different kinds of inquiry-based games as classroom activities can engage students’ attention and creativity.
Billie recommends “telling jokes badly” in Humor in the Classroom, pointing out that humor can help students relax and perceive the instructor as authentic. Being willing to gently mock yourself can give students alternative ways to interact with you in class discussion.
Learn from your Difficulties
Erin’s Silence is Golden (and its extensive comments) offers her story of the “Seminar of Silence” and how she’s learned from it for improving future classes. Some of her lessons learned include the importance of knowing your own strengths and weaknesses; varying the pace of the class with group work; the “Zen Ten” exercise; informing students of their participation grades at midterm; and broadening your perspective beyond the particular course.
Guest author Janine Utell’s Using Failure to Reflect on Our Teaching describes a reflective process for documenting and analyzing one’s failures in the classroom. She provides a very helpful list of factors to consider, including: the pacing of class activities; the organization of the syllabus; outside demands on faculty time and attention; textbooks and course materials; over- or under-preparing; and group dynamics. Difficulties in teaching rarely are due to only one cause, and instructors are sometimes too quick to simply blame students or themselves when some additional factors may also be involved.
Finally, becoming aware of the multiple audiences that inevitably exist within your classroom, and figuring who you want to reach and how is important not only for becoming a more effective teacher, but also a more reflective one. In Jason’s discussion of Michael Berube’s essay on “Teaching to the Six,” he says:
“This essay gave me permission to think about the different audiences that exist even within the same classroom, and to think more creatively about the ways in which we all get along (or fail to!) over the course of the semester.”
What’s your best tip for improving classroom discussion? Let us know in the comments!
[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Mike Baird]