Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Part 2.1: Issues in Pedagogy: Discussion

We continue with part two of our online content from the Teaching Seminar with ideas on "Classroom Discussion." The second session focused on "Issues in Pedagogy" which we purposely left open to our speakers because we wanted to know what issues, challenges, and ideas were foremost on their minds. Again we had a round-table discussion of the issues and themes. However if you are interested in even more pedagogical ideals or "issues," we recommend subscribing to The Chronicle of Higher Education - many of the ideas for future posts will come from this valuable resource.

Class Discussion - How do you engage students in discussion? How do you organize/balance between discussion and lecture? How do you utilize discussion effectively in a reading/writing course? These are just some of the questions we covered in our conversation about classroom discussion.

1) One approach we discussed is to connect to each student if you can. One professor chose to conduct one-on-one meetings with her students first thing in the semester in part to get to know her students but also to break down any discomfort they had in approaching her with problems. Other teachers use writing samples from the first day or ice breakers. Still others poll students -What are they reading? What/Who are their cultural interests? Of course the most basic piece of advice everyone had was to learn their names! Nothing helps you connect more and encourage participation when you can refer to them by name.

2) Have a clear vision for your course. We all agreed that alerting your students to the course vision along the way is helpful to them in general, but also specifically with class discussion. For example, one teacher likes to outline what they will try to cover in each class, and to take a few minutes to remind the students of discussions from other classes to help contextualize the readings for the day. It may also be useful to remind students that these discussions are fodder for future assignments. One last suggestion is to create a "master lesson plan" at the start of each term - which is basically an expanded, annotated syllabus just for you - and it explains and details your vision for your text/assignment decisions. At the same time, we have to be adaptable - sometimes you need to throw out the notes and let the discussion go where it may. Chances are, you have sat in a class with a professor who excels in encouraging and shaping discussion - take a tip from him or her!

3) Explain clearly what you mean by "participation" to your class - especially if it is a part of their overall grade. More specifically, explain the difference between "showing up" and "participating." Half the battle is setting out clear expectations. Another suggestion is to send warning emails both for attendance and participation.

4) Another part of class participation - student presentations. Should you have them or not? If so, what should the requirements be? Again, be clear about your expectations - give them an example handout if they will be required to provide one. Give them a definite time limit/minimum, and, if possible, require that they meet with you to discuss their presentations in advance. Another suggestion is to encourage the students to lead discussion for a certain number of questions as a way to encourage more peer-to-peer discussion.

5) Consider having them write short responses before launching into discussion. This may help get them focused and engaged before asking questions about the text. Another option is beginning with a mini-lecture to, again, help contextualize so that your questions seem more organic.

6) Check in on how you are doing with a mid-term evaluation. Design the evaluation form to get genuine feedback about discussion and comprehension in the class. This gesture will not only help you course-correct if it is needed, it will also show your students that you are focused on their progress in your class.

7) One final thought on classroom discussion - how should you respond to student comments? While you do not want to discourage comments and conversation, you may want to shape discussion by re-emphasizing a particularly good point, or steering a comment toward a larger idea.

Do you have any other ideas to contribute? Please email us or leave a comment below. Up next - a continuation of "Issues in Pedagogy" with a focus on teaching literature effectively, using handouts, and incorporating creative assignments.