Teaching Tips: Fostering Class Discussion

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Implementing class discussion into a lesson can be daunting. What if no one reads the material? What if they just don’t want to say anything? What if I end up just talking to myself? Really, how do I know a class discussion has the potential to be really meaningful for students?

I recently had a chance to talk with some graduate teaching assistants about what I keep in mind when I am planning class discussion for our FYC course. Here are some of the personal principles I talked through:

  • Don’t ask students anything that has a “teacher answer”—this is a game, and not everyone wants to play. My discussion style is heavily influenced by Postman and Weingartner’s Questions Curriculum and the ideas presented in their chapter “What’s Worth Knowing”. It’s a reading that keeps standards for class activities and discussions in check.
  • Don’t ask students anything for which the answer is obvious (to them). This is tricky, because asking them questions to see what they know already is cool, like, “If you’ve heard of rhetorical situation before, what are the elements of it? I’ll get you started: one of them is purpose.” However, “Ok, who is the writer of this text?” sets up the conversation too much like a quiz or game, and it’s so obvious and feels like grade school.
  • Have an objective for talking about the topic. Why is discussion better than a presentation or lecture? Will talking through the topic help students learn how to work through analysis or argument development? Will it help them understand something about writing process, or about the nuances of a core concept like genre? I often like to pose the topic of the day on the board in question form, because I want students to be able to answer it by the end of the class meeting, or, at least, to be able to answer it better. (This also helps me plan the other class activities we will be doing around a central objective.)
  • Why or how questions can have a lot of discussion-starting power. The other day, as we began to work on a rhetorical analysis project, I presented the group with an article excerpt, and posed this question: How does the writer work to convince us of his argument? This one question, with some follow-up questions and prodding from me, kept us going for about thirty minutes of really valuable rhetorical analysis practice. Sometimes I use personal experience questions to spark conversation: What do you want your peers to respond to when they read your draft? What did you annotate when you read the assignment? How did this help you write your draft? These personal experience questions help students see other ways of writing or thinking about a topic or process.
  • You don’t have to make yourself the leader of class discussion. You can participate—you can take notes—but when you’re the leader, it will always depend on you, the teacher, to keep it going, and an engaged class will not need this to happen. (Sometimes, their reliance on you to be the leader stilts conversation, and sometimes if you find yourself in this moment, you need to explicitly extract yourself from the role.)
  • Take notes on the discussion for everyone to see and refer to (and thus, remember)—Use the white board or chalkboard or projector and post notes for students to access. This helps students keep track of ideas and can also extend the discussion’s usefulness beyond one class period.
  • Some students don’t want to talk right away, or at all. Sometimes this is resistance, but more often there are emotional or social or other reasons why students don’t speak up in class. However, the class discussion would be so much better if they contributed in some way. To make that happen, there are a couple of strategies I like to use:
    • Ask students to write down questions about things they wonder about the reading, or things they don’t understand. This way, contribution to class discussion is not dependent on confidence in or mastery of subject matter—rather, it is centered on engagement with subject matter. Students get a chance to warm up to the class session and to the topic, and are allowed to be tentative. A KWL, in which the group writes down on the board what they know about a topic, what they want to know, and, after discussion, what they have learned, is a strong option, too.
    • Use wait time. Give students a minute or even longer to process your question. They often need time to develop a response because, for them, this is the first time they are talking through this kind of material. Though it makes sense, it can be the weirdest feeling thing to do. How can you manage wait time without it being so weird? Sometimes I give myself something to do—jot down things I might say, ready the white board to record students’ ideas, etc.
    • Use think/pair/share. This activity, in which students think first on their own, share ideas with a partner, and then report out to the whole class, can be a social and conceptual warm up—it helps students get used to talking (out loud, with each other) and used to talking about the topic.
  • Ask a question you don’t have an answer to yet. This is my favorite strategy, but it took a few years for me to get comfortable with it. When we are reading student samples that I haven’t looked at in a few semesters, or tackling an argumentative text that I have skimmed and assessed for usefulness, but have not analyzed yet, posing a question like “What is working well here?” “What strategies is this writer using to support her argument?” “What is confusing?” becomes engaging for me as well—I don’t have an answer yet either—but students get to see my brain at work. We talk through that stuff together. This kind of move works because of the preparation work I have done to craft these kinds of collaborative knowledge making activities in class: knowing students’ names, engaging them in conversations with many classmates, structuring speech genres, building responsibility into the course.
  • Work with the classroom furniture, or work against it, or work to make it do what you want it to do. Otherwise, it could be a barrier for classroom discussion goals. Sometimes, this means making students move their bodies, being more direct about how you want people to group up, or shaping that “circle” more deliberately.
  • Work with the social pulse that’s in place in the classroom. Give a dedicated or overwhelming talker a job. Ask a group of social beings to serve as a response group. Engage quiet students as note takers, and ask them to follow up class discussion with a summary.

After my presentation to the group last year, I asked the cohort to help me develop a heuristic for planning class discussion. You might use this set of questions as you think about how to implement a class discussion activity into a lesson plan:

  • What objectives or outcomes do I have in mind for this discussion?
  • How will this conversation help students at all levels of subject engagement and understanding?
  • How will I engage a diverse set of speakers/participants?
  • How will I get them to talk to each other and not just me?
  • How will we effect dynamic engagement in the subject/course/moment through our discussion?
  • How will I/we tie together everything we talk about when the discussion hits or must hit a stopping point?

Thanks to Nathaniel Bell, Ruth Boeder, Jesse Bradley, and John Landreville for their suggestions.

Adrienne Jankens is a Senior Lecturer at Wayne State University and teaches FYC, Intermediate Composition, and the graduate Pedagogical Practicum for the Composition Program. She is currently involved in research projects about reflection and collaboration.

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