Thursday, February 28, 2013

Teaching Series: Leading Classroom Discussion

Part III: Leading Classroom Discussion

Encouraging Student Engagement & Participation in the Classroom
Leigha McReynolds

This post focuses on encouraging student participation by leading an effective discussion and using group work effectively in the classroom. However, as many of you reading have experience in or hope to teach a literature class, keep in mind that these techniques and tips have come from a slightly different teaching experience. For the past four years I’ve TA’d for a business writing class. Once a week the students go to lecture where the professor introduces the business issues. I see two classes of 15 students each for an hour and fifteen minutes once a week. I focus on critical thinking, writing, and combining the two in the assignments for the class. All of the following views are my own and might not be supported by any empirical evidence.

A good discussion, and effective group work, is easiest if a good number of students are committed to participating. Make sure they know how important participation is to you. Have it on your syllabus and take time to discuss it on the first day of class. Let them see you note who is participating; they’ll want to be counted.

For me, one of the most important aspects of encouraging good class participation is making sure your students come to class prepared. Usually, my students have some reading to do for class. (If not, then they are likely bringing in a finished assignment to do an in-class writing workshop.) I often ask students to post discussion questions before class. This encourages them to read and think about the material, helps me plan class, and hopefully makes them more invested in the conversation. Recently I’ve tried, and been pleased with, a number of critical reading assignments. (Erin turned me on to this.) Students are asked to take specific notes on the reading, so that they record not only important points, like the main argument, but also begin to engage in analysis by, for example, evaluating the argument. When I subbed for Tawnya’s Brit Lit. class last semester, she had the students identify and bring in selections from the reading that spoke to themes she had previously identified as important, and I found that very helpful and effective in leading the class discussion. Finally, it can be worth taking time to read something short together in class so that everyone is starting from the same place.

The following is really my laundry list of things to keep in mind when running a discussion. Make sure it’s clear how the discussion you’re devoting significant class time to is related to class goals at large. It may be as specific as preparing them for an assignment or exam question, or you may just be exploring a very broad goal of the class. Begin with questions that ask students to demonstrate comprehension before you move to a more in depth conversation. They may have missed what you need them to know. Try not to ask questions that make students guess your thoughts. Wait through silence for someone to answer, but be prepared to provide the answer if no one does. If the discussion gets off track, take control of the conversation. I know, as humanities scholars invested in dialogue, we’re reluctant to do that, but getting off course decreases the engagement of the rest of the class. Be ready to reframe, rephrase, repeat, or ask for clarification. Take what is most useful from a comment or a thread, and use it to put a new question to the class. Have far more questions/topics available than you could cover and prioritize them; then there’s less anxiety about an unpopular topic leaving you without anything to talk about. At the same time, if students are particularly enthusiastic about a topic, give it more time. But do eventually curtail it and move on, or you’ll lose the students who do not find it engaging.

There are some ways to have students participate that either replace, supplement, or encourage participation in a discussion. In class writings can be appropriate and helpful. Low-stakes presentations with discussion questions are easy to grade and give students an investment in the dialogue. You can use blackboard or the online forum of your choice to offer alternative opportunities for dialogue. If you have a technically enabled classroom and you allow electronic devices in class, there are some interesting pedagogy posts in places like ProfHacker that suggest ways of integrating Twitter into the discussion/participation process.

The last thing about leading discussion: keep in mind this is public speaking. It takes practice, and it takes confidence, which paradoxically only comes through practice. Find a way to be comfortable and be confident. Sit on the desk. Wear your jeans or your heels. Be enthusiastic about your material.

Lastly, group work is a great way to get students involved in the learning progress. Teachers love group work, but students are more ambivalent. There are some things that I think can make it a less painful, and therefore more useful, process. Make group work regular, but don’t make it repetitive, and try not to make it seem like a punishment for not reading or participating, even if it is. Put the students in groups yourself and give them a specific goal which clearly relates to a goal of the class. Make sure you have the right size groups for the particular group assignment and make sure you block out the right amount of time. This may take a little guesswork, but gauging the room works pretty well. I often require that my groups produce something tangible, either an answer to a question, or a list or brainstorm, even a piece of group writing. This gives them direction and holds them accountable.

Noticing, Writing Prompts, and Presentations: Tips for Improving Class Discussions
Erin Vander Wall

​Leading an effective discussion is something we all worry about. Its something I agonize over as I go through prep, while teaching, and in the weird post-teaching hangover where I obsessively review the class I’ve just left. I very rarely feel that I’ve managed to lead a discussion that was as generative as I’d like, but I also don’t think that people who are passionate about teaching are ever really satisfied with their teaching practices. That, of course, is the purpose of this blog series - to tap each other’s brains for strategies and tricks that we can add to our own developing arsenal. Here, I want to address 3 strategies I’ve used to get the conversation going.

Noticing: When I taught at Eastern Michigan University, we used a technique that we called “noticing”. Using whatever assigned text you may be working with, ask students to list what they notice about that text. I usually provide a few examples in order to give them an idea of the scope of what I’m talking about - the word “sun” is used three times, there are 8 dashes, there are no capital letters, etc. We then go around the room 2-3 times with every student adding one thing they notice which I usually write on the board. Once we’ve gone through the class a few times we then work on making connections. In literature classes, I’ve used this as a starting point for teaching close reading -- what do you see? Where do you see connections? How do these connections relate to the larger work?

I have also used the “noticing” strategy in writing classes to discuss the conventions of genre, teaching business students to format memos, for example. This technique could also be used to teach students how to review and contextualize articles as the first steps in acquiring critical reading practices. While everyone does not always participate throughout the discussion, going around the room a few times and having everyone add to the list on the board does get everyone involved at some point and tends to prolong engagement into the conversation.

Writing prompts: I use writing prompts more when teaching literature classes than when I’m teaching writing classes, but I think that starting class off with a writing prompt is a good way to get everyone moving in (hopefully) the same direction mentally. The writing prompt can then be used to get that initial conversation underway. The prompt can also be used to tease out points you want to discuss that otherwise get cut due to time constraints, or to tie in work from your supplemental class blog or other digital projects. (See Lori Brister’s very smart “Digital Humanities in the Classroom: Teaching Text with Technology”)

Presentations: This semester the majority of the business writing GTAs decided to incorporate short current-event presentations into the discussion portion of class. These presentations direct the students to engage with concepts addressed in the course and consider their practical application in the business world. Each presenter is required to ask at least two discussion questions; this has been successful in getting the room talking about the course material and the current readings. This is a great addition to the course because it allows students to start talking at the beginning of the class, and details from that conversation can be incorporated into later discussions.

On a parting note, despite your teaching style and your dream discussion, leading a classroom effectively is ultimately a matter of reading your room and knowing what that particular combination of students need and will respond to. Last semester I taught a class in which 12 of the 15 students spoke English as a second language and did not feel comfortable speaking in class. This made discussion difficult for them, for me, and for the three students who were carrying the discussion. The entire dynamic was off, and it took a while for me to figure out exactly what was going to work and what wasn’t so my students would still take away what they needed. Rather than keeping the focus on large group discussion I had my students work on individual in-class writing assignments or small group work that could then be presented to the entire class. This building block approach didn’t necessarily transform things overnight but it did help students become more comfortable with each other and the material. My point in this example is that this class did not fit into an effective discussion model that I, and I suspect others, strive for. Instead, it forced me to rethink my approach to the course materials, my students, and constructing an effective learning environment.

On Deep Thoughts, Savory Stews, Crickets, and Nudes: Practical Matters in Course Design
Mo Kentoff

For many of us, the pleasures of course design are found in the initial brainstorming of its major themes, crafting the chef d’oeuvre that is your course description, and receiving daily fixes of our gateway drug: the desk copy. But as I suggested yesterday, the devil, and the delight, is in the details. This includes developing various assignments to augment learning, and strategizing classroom dynamics for maximum student involvement. Although the major assignments and activities developed for a given course often involve short or long essays, student presentations, and exams, this post focuses on ways in which students can sustain their engagement with the texts on a daily basis.

Deep Thoughts: For all of my English courses (WID or not), I require students to post on Blackboard by noon the day of each class (which begins at 2:20pm). At the beginning of the semester, I set up all of the class discussion threads, with sub-entries for each text, and give the students specific guidelines for this process. They are expected to post their thoughts on how a quote or key terms (of their choosing) from the primary text addresses one of the major course themes. The catch is that their entry can be only 3-4 sentences long, quotes included. I don’t want the assignment to turn into a word-length contest; and, more importantly, the objective is to hone their ability to write clear and concise “deep thoughts.” These posts are stepping stones toward the effective writing of critical scholarship—skills which they can then apply to their paper assignments. In the interest of time (and my sanity), I do not respond to their posts on-line. Rather, I print them out before class and review them for the major ideas and common themes that develop. I then quickly restructure my objectives for that day from this organic process of gathering their input. I require the students to bring their posts to class so they can share and expand on their ideas. These assignments constitute 10% of their final grade—and at the mid-point of the semester they receive an e-mail with feedback from me on their Blackboard comments, as well as class participation (another 10%). I also give tips in class based on their progress as a group throughout the semester. It is one of my greatest joys to see the quality of their writing and critical thinking evolve, and I share my enthusiasm with them daily.

Savory Stews: As the course themes unfold in each class, students come to realize that it is virtually impossible to tease out these concepts as discrete entities or analytical “bites.” Rather, the overarching ideas or theories are all inextricably linked, with different topics emerging or receding depending on the particular contexts and contingencies of the work. As our discussions proceed, we move inductively from the close readings posted on Blackboard toward the broader themes of the course, while never losing sight of the interdimensional differences that each author or character brings to the table. Hence, I liken this process to that of our discussion (or our discipline, or our society) emerging as a “savory stew” of ideas and subjectivities. I argue that this serves as an alternative to the classic metaphor of the melting pot, or the more recent model of a tossed salad—for each component of the savory stew remains intact, while the broth and seasonings produce a confluence of various flavors, resulting in a new, yet familiar course that never forsakes the wholeness or fullness of the individual components. Of course the reward for all of this work is that my students and I are always ready to dig into whatever stew we’ve cooked up for that day.

Crickets: In the ideal world, many of us might imagine a class of around 15 students seated comfortably in a circle with all of our technological and audio-visual needs met in a well-lit classroom far, far away from any construction sites. But what if it gets a little too quiet? What if your class happens to be populated by introverts, quiet geniuses, or victims of the latest flu (or beer) outbreak? One solution is to assign 10% of their final grade to class participation. Yes, it works. My students know that they cannot get an A in the class if they don’t offer at least 1-2 comments per class. Of course I’m flexible with those who are generally reserved, but I still challenge them to participate, and I don’t hesitate to call on students (always in a positive, non-threatening way). I review these expectations on the first day, state them clearly in my course guidelines, and invoke them throughout the semester. Of course there are more subtle ways of encouraging dialogue. If it gets too quiet, I can always reference the emergent Blackboard post themes by asking students to read their comments and expand on them. In my discussion summaries and transitions, I also refer to earlier remarks made by students and ask them (or the class) to consider how their ideas might apply to other themes or texts. When all else fails, and the crickets are deafening, I’m never too shy to allow the pregnant pause to hang there until the cringe-factor becomes so painful that someone (not you) inevitably breaks the silence—wait for it, it will happen. In fact, if you hush those crickets too early, your students have trained the instructor well to do the chirping.

Nudes: Remember my earlier comment about the ideal setting of a well-lit classroom? Well, sometimes we are faced with classrooms that are a little too bright. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience when it’s a gorgeous day outside, the blinds are drawn back on your big picture windows that overlook one of our verdant campus quads, or perhaps your view is of other classrooms across the narrow walkways between our stately buildings. So far your class is going well that day. But soon you notice that you’re losing the attention of some of your students as they gaze out the window. Oh, they’re probably just daydreaming a bit, envisioning the exciting adventures they’ll have over Spring Break. Or perhaps they’re pondering the weighty question of whether to visit the Cheesequake or Yumpling truck for lunch. But, as I’m sure we all know, it’s more likely that they’ve simply become distracted by the art class just across the way where students are quite obviously doing a study of a live male model. That’s right. The one who is facing the big picture windows, on a pedestal, standing nice and tall, utterly and completely in the nude. (Yup, this happened to me.) Did I mention that classroom was well lit?

Questions? Comments? Lunch? Feel free to contact me any time at

Leigha McReynolds is an ABD PhD candidate in the GW English department and teaches business writing for the Writing in the Disciplines program.

Erin Vander Wall is an ABD PhD candidate in the English Department of the George Washington University.

Maureen Kentoff is a 5th-year doctoral candidate in English and lecturer in American literature at GW. Her work focuses on 20th-century women's personal/political narratives and feminist theory.

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