In “Can We Discuss This (II),” over at Inside Higher Ed, Rob Weir has some good ideas for herding students into a discussion, keeping discussions on track, and tips for recognizing and dealing with student personality types. You should go read the whole thing–I think he’s got a lot of great ideas for people across multiple disciplines–you’ll just have to decide what works for your discipline, your classes, and your teaching style.
Here’s Weir’s sensible advice:
Some students exude how little they wish to participate. I generally deliver gentle-but-firm out-of-class warnings to these students. I periodically remind everyone of the percentage of their grade that rides on discussion and that I apply those standards to everyone. I encourage each to contribute and I take shy students aside and brainstorm ways they can experiment with being more vocal. (Some of you will disagree, but I think we do students a disservice if we allow them to plead shyness. Moreover, unless a “shy” student has a documented psychological malady we’re not allowed to grant special dispensation!) Tell the lazy and clueless to step up their efforts and don’t waste your breath with the attitude-laden unless they become defiant. But if you best efforts fail, dispense an F for class participation and let grades suffer accordingly. (Because my criteria are written down I’ve never had a discussion grade successfully challenged.)
I agree–I always explain to my students that communicating their ideas in groups is going to be a skill they will need in the vast majority of careers open to college graduates: for example, running a meeting, making a sales pitch, teaching a class of their own–all of these activities require a high level of confidence in oral communications skills. I always have students prepare a short precis or set of study questions before our weekly discussions, so that the less confident have a “script” before them that they can use, Linus-like, as a security blanket if they need it.
Weir has other ideas about in-class writing assignments that can be used to prompt discussion:
At best, writing loosens embedded thoughts, but even at its worst it provides discussion fodder. Another time-tested way to break the stall is the two-minute essay. Rephrase the question at hand and give students two minutes to write about it. Ask a few students to paraphrase what they’ve written and reopen the discussion floor. As remarks come, ask follow-up questions and brainstorm examples.
As a humanities scholar, and one who assigns a lot of reading, I think discussions are too important to give up on. It’s easier to lecture–easier for faculty (past their first few years of constant lecture-writing and being fearful of not having enough material to fill the time), and easier for students to just sit back and check out. Just because we’re lecturing doesn’t mean that anyone is listening!
For all my efforts, though, I get one class about every 8-10 years that utterly resists my efforts to draw them into conversations. (And as I have noted before, because my classes are usually all about sex and violence, students usually have a lot of opinions!) I chalk it up to some mistakes on my part, but in my (happily few) experiences with a class like this, it has more to do with the particular mixture of student personalities. Either there are not enough, or no students at all who are openly enthusiastic about the material and participating in discussions, or there are too many people who create a psychological undertow that actively works against the development of a group dynamic that would support a free exchange of ideas.
What do you think of Weir’s advice? What do you do when you get one of those classes that remains totally passive?