Talking about Discussions

Last year my focus for my own professional development was on creating better discussions in my classes.  I had previously attempted to conduct some discussion sessions but was not satisfied with the results.  A few students spoke during the discussions, but most stayed quiet.  I don’t think that I’m alone in this struggle.  I’ve often heard other faculty mention their struggles with discussion as well.  There always seems to be one student who talks all the time and a bunch of students who merely listen.  Additionally, some students want to hijack the discussion and take it off topic.  And then there are those students who just don’t seem to care about discussions; they would rather be lectured to so they can get the information they need and not have to think.  I had experienced all of these issues myself at some point, but I still felt as though discussions were worthwhile and taught my students needed skills; I just needed to perfect the system.

I started last fall with my EDUC 1301 class.  Every week they had an article to read and we discussed the issue presented in the article each Thursday.  Before we met for the first time, I asked students to help me create the discussion rubric that would determine their participation grades for each session.  I was shocked to hear that the quiet students expected to receive full credit for participation even if they didn’t contribute to the discussion because they were listening!

Once we created an acceptable rubric, we started our discussions.  I had the students grade themselves using our rubric and justify the grade each week.  Except for a few rare occasions, their grades very closely matched what I would have given them although they were generally harsher on themselves than what I would have been.

Even though I liked the way this system worked, I read Jay R. Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online and “Using Structured Reading Groups to Facilitate Deep Learning” to become better acquainted with the research and best practices surrounding effective discussions.  I decided to try the structured reading group method this semester instead of using my previous method.  One reason for this was the size of my class.  As I prepped for the course, I had 18-19 students compared to the 14 I had the year before.  I also wanted to give the students assigned tasks to complete to prepare for each discussion.  Even though our sessions had gone well the previous year, I think they would have been better if the students were more prepared.  I also hoped that if every student had an alternating role, they would each home to share (and might feel more comfortable sharing in a smaller group.  It might also help to eliminate the situations with the dominant talkers.

Needless to say, this method did not work well for us.  After the first few weeks, I began to suspect that the students were not getting as much from these sessions as I would have liked.  Absenteeism played a huge role in this as each group inevitably had someone missing.  It was also hard for me, as the instructor, to visit each group in a meaningful way to listen to the conversations without putting a damper on the discussion.  This led to us having a spontaneous whole group discussion one evening instead.  Each student still shared what he/she had prepared, but we all sat around one huge table instead of in our small groups.

When I read my mid-term assessments, the vast majority of my students all stated that the group discussions were what was helping them learn.  They did admit to liking the large group better than the small groups because they were inexperienced as leaders and the discussions were better.  They also liked hearing everyone’s views and opinions, and it helped them think about things in a new way.

So, what makes this work so well?  Here’s my thoughts:

  1. We sit around a large group of tables so everyone can see whoever is speaking.
  2. I emphasize that a discussion is just that.  It’s not a lecture or a question and answer session, so they should look at the person they are responding to and not direct everything to me.
  3. I sit with the students in the middle of the group.  I ask questions, share my thoughts and admit when I don’t have the “correct” answers.  This puts me on the same level as the students, so they aren’t afraid to share their thoughts and ideas.
  4. I stopped grading the discussion.  I give them credit for doing the prep work, but they can’t get a bad grade on the discussions.  They are truly learning experiences and not something the students do just to get points.

Last week, we got so involved in our discussion that we had no idea what time it was.  I looked at my watch and discovered that we had five minutes left in the class.  None of my students had said anything and no one had started to pack up to leave.  I dismissed them and put the room back in order.  As I was leaving the building, I came upon a group of students from my class gathered at the door still talking about our discussion!

I’m calling that a discussion win 🙂

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