Table of Contents
Tactics to Increase Student Participation
Plan an icebreaker activity early in the semester
Ask students to identify characteristics of an effective discussion
Periodically divide students into small groups
Assign roles to students
Use poker chips or “comment cards” to encourage discussion
Use electronic mail to start a discussion
Tactics to Keep Students Talking
Build rapport with students
Bring students’ outside comments into class
Use nonverbal cues to encourage participation
Draw all students into the discussion
Give quiet students special encouragement
Arrange small group (two to four students) discussions
ENCOURAGING STUDENT PARTICIPATION IN DISCUSSION
Barbara Gross Davis, University of California, Berkeley, from Tools for Teaching
Students’ enthusiasm, involvement, and willingness to participate affect the quality of class discussion as an opportunity for learning. Your challenge is to engage all students, keep them talking to each other about the same topic, and help them develop insights into the material. Roby (1988) warns against falling into quasi discussions – encounters in which students talk but do not develop or criticize their own positions and fail to reflect on the process and outcomes of the session. Two common forms of quasi discussion are quiz shows (where the teacher has the right answers) and bull sessions (characterized by cliches, stereotypes, empty generalizations, lack of standards for judging opinions, and aimless talking). The following suggestions are intended to help you create a classroom in which students feel comfortable, secure, willing to take risks, and ready to test and share ideas.
Encourage students to learn each other’s names and interests.
Students are more likely to participate in class if they feel they are among friends rather than strangers; so at the beginning of the term, ask students to introduce themselves and describe their primary interests or background in the subject (Tiberius, 1990). These introductions may also give you some clues about framing discussion questions that address students’ interests. See “The First Day of Class” for ideas on helping students get to know one another.
Get to know as many of your students as class size permits.
In classes of thirty or less, learn all your students’ names. (“The First Day of Class” lists several ways to do this.) If you require students to come to your office once during the first few weeks of class, you can also learn about their interests. Class participation often improves after students have had an opportunity to talk informally with their instructor.
If your room has movable chairs, ask students to sit in a semicircle so that they can see one another. At a long seminar table, seat yourself along the side rather than at the head. If appropriate, ask students to print their names on name cards and display them on their desk or the table. Research reported by Beard and Hartley (1984) shows that people tend to talk to the person sitting opposite them, that people sitting next to each other tend not to talk to one another, that the most centrally placed member of a group tends to emerge as leader, and that leaders tend to sit in the least crowded parts of a room.
Allow the class time to warm up before you launch into the discussion.
Consider arriving two to three minutes early to talk informally with students. Or open class with a few minutes of conversation about relevant current events, campus activities, or administrative matters. (Sources: Billson, 1986; Welty, 1989)
Limit your own comments.
Some teachers talk too much and turn a discussion into a lecture or a series of instructor-student dialogues. Brown and Atkins (1988) report a series of studies by various researchers that found that most discussion classes are dominated by instructors. In one study (p. 53) faculty talked 86 percent of the time. Avoid the temptation to respond to every student’s contribution. Instead, allow students to develop their ideas and respond to one another.
Tactics to Increase Student Participation
Make certain each student has an opportunity to talk in class during the first two or three weeks. The longer a student goes without speaking in class, the more difficult it will be for him or her to contribute. Devise small group or pair work early in the term so that all students can participate and hear their own voices in nonthreatening circumstances.
Plan an icebreaker activity early in the semester.
For example, a professor teaching plant domestication in cultural geography asks students to bring to class a fruit or vegetable from another culture or region. The discussion focuses on the countries of origin and the relationship between food and culture. At the end of class students eat what they brought. See “The First Day of Class” for other suggestions.
Ask students to identify characteristics of an effective discussion.
Ask students individually or in small groups to recall discussions and seminars in which they have participated and to list the characteristics of those that were worthwhile. Then ask students to list the characteristics of poor discussions. Write the items on the board, tallying those items mentioned by more than one student or group. With the entire class, explore ways in which class members can maximize those aspects that make for a good discussion and minimize those aspects that make for a poor discussion.
Periodically divide students into small groups.
Students find it easier to speak to groups of three or four than to an entire class. Divide students into small groups, have them discuss a question or issue for five or ten minutes, and then return to a plenary format. Choose topics that are focused and straightforward: “What are the two most important characteristics of goal-free evaluation?” or “Why did the experiment fail?” Have each group report orally and record the results on the board. Once students have spoken in small groups, they may be less reluctant to speak to the class as a whole.
Assign roles to students.
Ask two or three students to lead a discussion session sometime during the term. Meet with the student discussion leaders beforehand to go over their questions and proposed format. Have the leaders distribute three to six discussion questions to the class a week before the discussion. During class the leaders assume responsibility for generating and facilitating the discussion. For discussions you lead, assign one or two students per session to be observers responsible for commenting on the discussion. Other student roles include periodic summarizer (to summarize the main substantive points two or three times during the session), recorder (to serve as the group’s memory), timekeeper (to keep the class on schedule), and designated first speaker. (Source: Hyman, 1980)
Use poker chips or “comment cards” to encourage discussion.
One faculty member distributes three poker chips to each student in her class. Each time a student speaks, a chip is turned over to the instructor. Students must spend all their chips by the end of the period. The professor reports that this strategy limits students who dominate the discussion and encourages quiet students to speak up. Another professor hands out a “comment card” each time a student provides a strong response or insightful comment. Students turn back the cards at the end of the period, and the professor notes on the course roster the number of cards each student received. (Source: Sadker and Sadker, 1992)
One faculty member in the biological sciences poses a question through electronic mail and asks the students to write in their responses and comments. He then hands out copies of all the responses to initiate the class discussion.
Build rapport with students.
Simply saying that you are interested in what your students think and that you value their opinions may not be enough. In addition, comment positively about a student’s contribution and reinforce good points by paraphrasing or summarizing them. If a student makes a good observation that is ignored by the class, point this out: “Thank you, Steve. Karen also raised that issue earlier, but we didn’t pick up on it. Perhaps now is the time to address it. Thank you for your patience, Karen” (Tiberius, 1990). Clarke (1988) suggests tagging important assertions or questions with the student’s name: the Amy argument or the Haruko hypothesis. Tiberius (1990) warns against overdoing this, however, because a class may get tired of being reminded that they are discussing so-and-so’s point.
Bring students’ outside comments into class.
Talk to students during office hours, in hallways, and around campus. If they make a good comment, check with them first to see whether they are willing to raise the idea in class, then say: “Jana, you were saying something about that in the hall yesterday Would you repeat it for the rest of the class.”
For example, smile expectantly and nod as students talk. Maintain eye contact with students. Look relaxed and interested.
You can involve more students by asking whether they agree with what has just been said or whether someone can provide another example to support or contradict a point: “How do the rest of you feel about that?” or “Does anyone who hasn’t spoken care to comment on the plans for People’s Park?” Moreover, if you move away from – rather than toward – a student who makes a comment, the student will speak up and outward, drawing everyone into the conversation. The comment will be “on the floor,” open for students to respond to.
Quiet students are not necessarily uninvolved, so avoid excessive efforts to draw them out. Some quiet students, though, are just waiting for a nonthreatening opportunity to speak. To help these students, consider the following strategies:
Arrange small group (two to four students) discussions.
Pose casual questions that don’t call for a detailed correct response: “What are some reasons why people may not vote?” or “What do you remember most from the reading?” or “Which of the articles did you find most difficult?” (McKeachie, 1986). Assign a small specific task to a quiet student: “Carrie, would you find out for next class session what Chile’s GNP was last year?” Reward infrequent contributors with a smile. Bolster students’ self-confidence by writing their comments on the board (Welty, 1989). Stand or sit next to someone who has not contributed; your proximity may draw a hesitant student into the discussion.
Discourage students who monopolize the discussion.
As reported in “The One or Two Who Talk Too Much” (1988), researchers Karp and Yoels found that in classes with fewer than forty students, four or five students accounted for 75 percent of the total interactions per session. In classes with more than forty students, two or three students accounted for 51 percent of the exchanges. Here are some ways to handle dominating students:
Break the class into small groups or assign tasks to pairs of students.
Ask everyone to jot down a response to your question and then choose someone to speak. If only the dominant students raise their hand, restate your desire for greater student participation: “I’d like to hear from others in the class.” Avoid making eye contact with the talkative. If one student has been dominating the discussion, ask other students whether they agree or disagree with that student. Explain that the discussion has become too one-sided and ask the monopolizer to help by remaining silent: “Larry, since we must move on, would you briefly summarize your remarks, and then we’ll hear the reactions of other group members.” Assign a specific role to the dominant student that limits participation (for example, periodic summarizer). Acknowledge the time constraints: “Jon, I notice that our time is running out. Let’s set a thirty-second limit on everybody’s comments from now on.” If the monopolizer is a serious problem, speak to him or her after class or during office hours. Tell the student that you value his or her participation and wish more students contributed. If this student’s comments are good, say so; but point out that learning results from give-and-take and that everyone benefits from hearing a range of opinions and views.
Tactfully correct wrong answers.
Any type of put-down or disapproval will inhibit students from speaking up and from learning. Say something positive about those aspects of the response that are insightful or creative and point out those aspects that are off base. Provide hints, suggestions, or follow-up questions that will enable students to understand and correct their own errors. Billson (1986) suggests prompts such as “Good–now let’s take. it a step further”; “Keep going”; “Not quite, but keep thinking about it.”
Reward but do not grade student participation.
Some faculty members assign grades based on participation or reward student participation with bonus points when assigning final grades. Melvin (1988) describes a grading scheme based on peer and professor evaluation: Students are asked to rate the class participation of each of their classmates as high, medium, or low If the median peer rating is higher than the instructor’s rating of that student, the two ratings are averaged. If the peer rating is lower, the student receives the instructor’s rating. Other faculty members believe that grading based on participation is inappropriate, that is, subjective and not defensible if challenged. They also note that such a policy may discourage free and open discussion, making students hesitant to talk for fear of revealing their ignorance or being perceived as trying to gain grade points. In addition, faculty argue, thoughtful silence is not unproductive, and shy students should not be placed at a disadvantage simply because they are shy.
There are means other than grades to encourage and reward participation: verbal praise of good points, acknowledgment of valued contributions, or even written notes to students who have added significantly to the discussion. One faculty member uses lottery tickets to recognize excellent student responses or questions when they occur. He doesn’t announce this in advance but distributes the first ticket as a surprise. Tickets can be given to individuals or to small groups. Over the term, he may hand out fifteen to twenty lottery tickets. In a small class, you maybe able to keep notes on students’ participation and devote some office hours to helping students develop their skills in presenting their points of view and listening to their classmates (Hertenstein, 1991).
Beard, R. M., and Hartley, J. Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. (4th ed.) New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Billson, J. M. “The College Classroom as a Small Group: Some Implications for Teaching and Learning.” Teaching Sociology, 1986, 14(3), 143–151.
Brown, G., and Atkins, M. Effective Teaching in Higher Education. London: Methuen, 1988.
Clarke, J. H. “Designing Discussions as Group Inquiry.” College Teaching, 1988, 36(4), 140–143.
Hertenstein, J. H. “Patterns of Participation.” In C. R. Christensen, D. A.
Garvin, and A. Sweet (eds.), Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1991.
Hyman, R. T. Improving Discussion Leadership. New York: Teachers College Press, 1980.
McKeachie, W J. Teaching Tips. (8th ed.) Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1986.
Melvin, K. B. “Rating Class Participation: The Prof/Peer Method.” Teaching of Psychology, 1988, 15(3), 137–139. “The One or Two Who Talk Too Much.” Teaching Professor, 1988, 2(7), 5.
Roby, T. W “Models of Discussion.” In J. T. Dillon (ed.), Questioning and Discussion: A Multidisciplinary Study. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1988.
Sadker, M., and Sadker, D. “Ensuring Equitable Participation in College Classes.” In L.L.B. Border and N.VN. Chism (eds.), Teaching for Diversitv. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 49. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.
Tiberius, R. G. Small Group Teaching: A Trouble-Shooting Guide. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Press, 1990.
Welty, W. M. “Discussion Method Teaching.” Change, 1989, 21(4), 40–49.
THE GUIDED DISCUSSION
The teacher-led discussion is used in college classrooms to help students develop a deeper understanding of course material and practice basic thinking skills. This type of discussion fits easily into lecture courses and is often employed in separate discussion sections for large classes.
Although teachers appreciate the importance of class discussions for achieving higher-order objectives, they are often frustrated by students’ apparent reluctance or inability to participate. Instructors also report that, even when discussions take place, the intellectual level of the interchange is often disappointingly low. These problems, and most other common difficulties with guided discussions, can be overcome if three conditions are met. First, the teacher must try to change students’ beliefs and attitudes about their role in the classroom. Second, both the teacher and her students must prepare for discussions. Third, the teacher needs to use facilitating techniques that enhance students’ willingness to participate and, at the same time, train them in logical approaches to analysis.
One of the greatest barriers to class discussion is the students’ expectation that professors are supposed to lecture and students are supposed to sit passively and take notes. This pattern is reinforced time and again in courses in which the instructor, consciously or unconsciously, shares this belief. When discussions do take place in these courses, usually only a small percentage of students participate, and students quickly learn that they can take a free ride on the contributions of a few of their peers. Moreover, the trend toward larger classes reinforces this norm of passivity because of the anonymity conferred by membership in a large group.
If you want students to participate in discussions, you must try to establish a new behavioral norm before the old one asserts itself. This change requires that you address student expectations on the very first day of class and, in subsequent classes, consistently encourage and demand their participation. On the first day of class, talk with students about your expectation that they will all contribute to class discussions, then demonstrate what you mean by conducting a discussion in which you try to engage everyone.
Teachers often ask if they should call on students or just use volunteers. It is true that students don’t like to be called on when they are not prepared (or if they are shy), but their anxiety will be reduced if you tell them why it is important for them to participate. Explain that you will only question them on material they have prepared, or ask for their opinions.
A discussion during the first class can be based on ideas or opinions that you can expect students to bring to the course. For example, a professor who teaches Western Civilization asks students to share their favorite stories from history books or high school courses they have had. He uses their stories as the basis for a discussion of the issues that are significant for historians and how those might differ from the ones they remember. This interchange provides an opportunity for every student to contribute something and also gives the teacher a quick estimate of the level of historical knowledge that students bring to the course.
Preparing for Discussions
One of the characteristics of the Socratic dialogues is that the great philosopher seemed to know where the discussion was going and how he was going to get the student there. Similarly, we should prepare guided discussions by identifying outcomes and developing questions that enable students to achieve these goals.
Discussions should have a point, a learning objective related to some important aspect of the course. Generally, discussion objectives fall into three categories: developing higher-order intellectual skills (e.g., problem-solving and critical thinking), applying these skills to issues in the course, and changing beliefs and attitudes. For example, in an Economics course, the teacher may wish students to demonstrate the application of supply and demand principles to new situations. The discussion objectives might include the following:
Identify the economic principles that explain a current event (increase in coffee prices).
Predict the probable outcome of alternative actions involving these economic principles (e.g., fixing the coffee price at the old level by law).
Distinguish between probable and improbable outcomes of the alternative actions.
Once the instructional purpose is clear, the teacher can develop questions to facilitate student thinking in the discussion. It is useful to think about discussion questions in terms of a three-level hierarchy: knowledge, application, and evaluation. Knowledge-level questions simply ask the student to recall factual information (such as data, definitions, or procedures). Application-level questions require the student to use rules, procedures, methods, principles, or theories in novel situations. Evaluation-level questions demand quantitative and qualitative judgment based on criteria supplied by the student or by the teacher. Figure 1 illustrates questions at each level of the hierarchy. These categories are not prescriptive, since many questions may span levels or even fall between them; they simply provide a convenient method for checking on the level and kind of questions you plan to use.
Did Descartes believe in God? Who invented the cotton gin? What is the difference between a sodium atom and a sodium ion?
How would you use Cartesian logic to prove the existence of God? How would you explain the effect the invention of the cotton gin had on slavery in the South? How do you know how many times to use l’ Hopital’s rule in a given (differential calculus) problem?
How consistent is the logic Descartes uses to prove the existence of God? If it is consistent, does this mean that it is correct? What do you think might have been the result if the cotton gin had been invented 20 years earlier than it was? In this case study, what would you do about amortizing equipment costs if you were the chief accountant?
Effective teachers plan discussions as thoroughly as they plan their lectures, by writing questions and developing a questioning strategy to achieve the objectives. Some excellent questions will probably occur to you in the heat of a discussion, but it is unwise to rely on chance alone to provide an effective framework for the exercise. If the discussion veers off into areas that are interesting but irrelevant to the point of the discussion, the teacher can bring it back on track by returning to the prepared questions. On the other hand, if students wish to explore important ideas that go beyond the planned objectives, the instructor can allow the discussion to follow this path (and re-write the objective before the course is taught again). Planning your questions in advance does not mean that you are bound to a particular goal; it allows you to be flexible when flexibility is warranted. In practice, of course, teachers also ask many unplanned questions to facilitate discussion and focus student thinking, and these kinds of questions are discussed below under the dynamics of classroom interaction.
Prepare for discussion
Preparing your students for discussion is just as important as your own preparation, since their readiness to respond to questions provides the energy and momentum for the discussion. Discussions often focus on course readings, but if students fail to do the reading (or fail to understand it), they will not be able to respond. Most undergraduates do try to keep up with the reading for their courses, but often they have difficulty discriminating between relevant and irrelevant material. If you examine their books and class notes, you will find they tend to underline or highlight entire pages of text, and it is not unusual to find virtually every word underlined. The impossibility of remembering every detail may keep them from comprehending the basic point of the reading. It can also result in bizarre interpretations of the text, since they may remember bits and pieces that don’t fit into a rational whole. If the reading requirement for a course is especially heavy, they may simply stop reading rather than risk further confusion. By helping students learn to read for understanding, you prepare them to take part in discussions.
Teachers have used a number of different strategies to achieve this result, but one of the most common is the use of study guide questions. Figure 2 illustrates a set of study questions designed to prepare students for a discussion in Russian History. (Note how these items reflect the three-level hierarchy suggested earlier.) Other instructors assign short, reflective (graded) papers for each discussion section so students will have well-developed opinions and insights on the discussion topic of the day. A few teachers even treat study guide questions as homework assignments, making them part of the participation grade for the class. In smaller classes, particularly in upper-division courses, this step may not be necessary to insure that students prepare responses to the questions, especially if the same (or related) questions appear on the examinations. As a bonus, this technique neatly links the readings to classwork and to the tests, so students rarely complain that they don’t know what to study.
1.What is an icon? What role, according to Benz, do icons play in Orthodox theology and piety? 2.How does the Primary Chronicle (contained in Riha) explain Russia’s conversion to Christianity? 3.Does the explanation it offers strike you as convincing? If not, why not? If so, think again. 4.Why do you think the writing of the Primary Chronicle presents the Christianization of Russia the way it does? 5.What insights into the writing of history can you derive from the Christianization episode as well as other episodes contained in the excerpts from the Primary Chronicle assigned for last week and this? Or, to phrase the question somewhat differently, what pitfalls await the historian who wishes to read or write “true” or “accurate” history?
Careful planning and writing well-crafted questions will not guarantee good discussions; classroom dynamics are also important. We sometimes forget that, from the students’ viewpoint, an instructor wields enormous power as judge and leader. Most undergraduates also see the teacher as the Ultimate Authority, who knows the Truth. If we don’t counter these images effectively, they will hamper classroom interactions and make teacher-led discussions difficult and unprofitable. The best instructors try to create a classroom environment in which students feel they can attempt to answer difficult questions without courting the teacher’s displeasure or the ridicule of their classmates. Laying out the ground rules for class discussion is one of the ways you can create an atmosphere of “friendly inquiry,” but you must gently enforce the rules and follow them assiduously yourself. Typical guidelines for discussion might include the following:
Everyone in class has both a right and an obligation to participate in discussions, and, if called upon, should try to respond. Always listen carefully, with an open mind, to the contributions of others. Ask for clarification when you don’t understand a point someone has made. If you challenge others’ ideas, do so with factual evidence and appropriate logic. If others challenge your ideas, be willing to change your mind if they demonstrate errors in your logic or use of the facts. Don’t introduce irrelevant issues into the discussion. If others have made a point with which you agree, don’t bother repeating it (unless you have something important to add). Be efficient in your discourse; make your points and then yield the floor to others. Above all, avoid ridicule and try to respect the beliefs of others, even if they differ from yours.
The best discussion leaders strive for a balance between demanding a high level of performance from students and supporting them in their struggles to achieve the goals you have set. This skill requires that you know your students’ strengths and weaknesses so you can calibrate your questions to their needs at various points in the discourse. For example, some students need more encouragement and direction than others; some can usually be counted on to inject new ideas into a discussion, and a few are always ready to play devil’s advocate. Asking easier questions of slower students can give them confidence and encourage them to try harder. Challenging top students with very difficult questions helps them develop even further.
If a student tells you that he is paralyzed by fear when called upon, you naturally would want to avoid directing questions to that student, but fortunately these cases are rare. More often, a student may try to dominate the discussion, possibly to the point of confrontation with the teacher. In such cases it is wise to meet with the student outside of class to remind her of the class rules for discussion.
Good discussion leaders are good listeners.
They respond to all student contributions, both to reward participation and to verify their understanding of what the student said. They make few declarative statements during discussions and usually respond to student questions with other questions, using them as building blocks in the architecture of the discussion.
In these interactions the teacher uses various facilitating questions to prompt, clarify, and extend student contributions. Unlike the base questions for discussion that are planned ahead of time, facilitating questions are the product of transitory interchanges occurring in the midst of fast-moving discourse. Facilitating questions, part of the repertoire of every experienced discussion leader, fall into five groups:
When a student’s contribution is weak or incorrect, asking prompting questions will help him/her identify the weakness. If you suspect that a student doesn’t understand why a contribution is incorrect (or correct), ask him/her to justify the answer. Poorly organized or incomplete responses can be made stronger by asking clarification questions. All three of these non-punitive techniques help students modify poor or incomplete responses and, over time, become better thinkers.
Extension questions help students explore the implications of their responses. Typical extension questions ask for an elaboration of a response, for more detail or additional explanation. Asking several students the same question (redirection) distributes responsibility and usually provides a richer variety of responses. If the teacher follows redirection by asking students to respond to or evaluate each other’s contributions, the focus will shift from teacher-student to student-student interaction.
At the end of a guided discussion it is important to verify that students have achieved the objectives for the exercise. Many teachers summarize the main points of the discussion and ask for questions. Some instructors ask students to write down one important point they learned; the instructor then calls on students at random to read their points. This method also provides an evaluation of the success of the discussion.
The dynamics of discussion-leading can only be mastered through practice, but observing an experienced leader in action is an excellent way to see how these techniques are applied in the classroom. When you are ready for feedback on your own technique, ask an experienced discussion leader to sit in on your class and make suggestions. You can also arrange with CTL to videotape your discussion and provide a confidential critique.
Addressing student expectations, preparing yourself and your students, and conducting discussions in a supportive and demanding way will greatly improve your chances for success in guided discussions. The teacher-led discussion is only a short step away from lecturing, since the instructor remains in control of the classroom process. However, teachers who have mastered this technique find it easier to move into other discussion methods that are less teacher-centered. If you are interested in learning more about guided discussions or other interactive techniques, please call CTL for an appointment with one of our consultants.
Fuhrmann, B. S. and A. F. Grasha (1983) A practical handbook for college teachers. Boston: Little, Brown.
Hansen, W. L. (1978) Improving class discussion. In P. Saunders, A. L. Welsh, and W. L. Hansen (Eds.) Resource Manual for Teacher Training Programs in Economics. New York: Joint Council on Economic Education.
Lowman, J. (1985) Mastering the techniques of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Welty, W. M. (1989, July/August) Discussion method teaching. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, pp. 41-49.
When I entered my Master’s program in English literature, I participated in a one-day training session for new teachers the week before classes commenced. Shortly thereafter I became a college composition teacher. I was twenty-one years old, and my sole qualification for the position of an adjunct lecturer was that I had been judged a sufficiently competent writer to take up a course of graduate study in English literature.
As you may well imagine, the first few courses I taught represented some pretty rough terrain, for both myself and my students. Not only did I not know what I was doing, but I didn’t even have the conceptual vocabulary to understand what I might have been doing wrong–much less what I might have done to improve. As my course of study progressed, and as I graduated from my M.A. program and continued into the Ph.D. program at Northwestern, the maturation I underwent as a scholar–coupled with a closer attentiveness to the way I was being taught in my graduate courses–led to some improvement in my teaching. I began to recognize more clearly obstacles to student learning, and the techniques to overcome those obstacles, although I still had trouble mastering and implementing those techniques. I had at least reached the point at which I knew what my problems were, and I understood–if only abstractly–what was necessary to solve them. I knew primarily that I wanted to conduct my classes through discussions. Whether I was teaching a composition course or a literature course, what I wanted most to see in my classrooms–what I enjoyed more than anything in my professional life–was an animated intellectual conversation about writing and literature.
I knew that students learned best when they participated actively in the learning process, and I felt it was possible to direct classroom conversations in such a way that my students learned from them the basics of critical reading, thinking, and writing. Unfortunately, what I experienced most frequently was a classroom situation either in which student silence compelled me to do most of the talking, or in which a few excessively vocal speakers dominated the discussion. My reaction to this situation was to continually redesign the course as I went along: if the students are not participating, I reasoned, it must be because I have not designed an interesting and engaging enough course.
It was not until I came to the Searle Center and began to do some reading in the teaching literature that I emerged from this impasse and finally managed both to conceptualize and actually to resolve some of my difficulties in the discussion classroom. One of the first ideas I encountered in the teaching literature was the notion of a course as a piece of intellectual work comparable to a piece of scholarship. A course should be a well-planned, moderated, and dynamic intellectual construction upon which teacher and students collaborate during the quarter. When I first encountered this idea, I realized that I had intuitively been searching, in my own course creations, for just this kind of intellectual construction. It took me only a brief few days of reflection to realize why I had never quite managed to effect the construction I envisioned–why, in other words, there always seemed to be some slippage between my theoretical constructions and the actual shape my courses took in practice.
That slippage lay in the expectation I had that my students would share the excitement and enthusiasm I felt over a carefully sculpted, collaborative, and measured intellectual endeavor. Once I had done the initial work of creation, I expected that my students would play the roles I had assigned to them–I had only to stand in the wings directing the growth and development of my creation. What I understand now, and have at last begun to devote serious attention to, is that I must spend as much time inviting students to assume their share of the collaborative burden as I do on the actual construction of my share of that burden.
One specific technique I employ to issue those invitations to collaboration will occupy the remainder of my attention here. The principle which animates this technique is my conviction that class discussions invariably benefit when students spend a few minutes at the inception of every class period doing some thinking on paper. Having students write at the beginning of a class discussion accomplishes three essential tasks: it forces students to focus immediately on the problem or issue or text at hand; it establishes, at least initially, a common agenda for discussion; and, for those students who normally may not feel comfortable contributing to the class discussion, it provides them with something, if only a kind of default statement, which they can offer to the class.
The technique is called a whip sentence. I used it very successfully in the freshman seminar I taught last quarter on existentialism and 20th-century fiction. At the beginning of class I begin writing on the board a sentence which is clearly moving towards a strong interpretive thesis about a novel. For Albert Camus’s The Stranger, which explores the philosophical and ethical implications of a seemingly senseless murder committed by the narrator, the sentence runs like this: “[The narrator] Meursault shoots the Arab because . . . .” The students take a few minutes to reflect on this idea and then finish the sentence in their notebooks. After five minutes or so of reflection and writing, I solicit from each student (always leaving students the option to pass) his or her sentence. With the contributing student’s help, I characterize each idea in a brief word or phrase on the board. Then I step away and we study the tableau we have all created.
At this point the discussion begins. I initiate the conversation by noting trends or patterns in the solicited ideas. I try to group their ideas into three or four manageable sets: those who attribute the shooting to Meursault’s irritation with the heat and the sun, those who see it as an expression of his free choice, and those who see it as a completely meaningless action in a meaningless universe. We struggle to understand how these vastly different interpretations could all arise from the same text. I am continually sending them back to the novel; they must defend their explanations with specific passages from the text. Thus a whip sentence which might seem initially to encourage sterile speculation about the psychological motivations of a fictional character gradually evolves into 1) a discussion about the manifestations of existentialism in this particular novel, 2) a lively debate about interpretive motives and methods, and 3) an exercise in using textual evidence to construct an argument.
In addition to stimulating discussions, this exercise reinforces a point I am continually making to my students about the relationship between thought and expression. Students who don’t contribute very frequently in class will occasionally defend their silence to me by explaining that they know what they think about the book, but that they just can’t figure out how to say it. What most of us who write and teach for a living understand–and what we have an obligation to communicate to our students–is that we don’t really know what we are thinking until we try to articulate it, either on paper or in conversation. The struggle to express our thoughts defines those thoughts; equally significantly, only by articulating our thoughts do we lay them open for the kind of public and private critiques and revisions which clear, critical thinking requires. Forcing students to answer complex questions with half-sentence responses may seem reductive; it is reductive, but those initially reductive responses become a concrete foundation upon which we build our increasingly complex conversations.
Finally, this technique solves another problem which many teachers have with discussion classes. Even those of us who work very hard to let student concerns and ideas determine the specific content of class discussions will have some ideas and themes which we know are essential to a complete understanding of a text or a theory. I am open to the discussion of any number of issues in The Stranger, for example, but any reading of the novel which ignores the philosophical issues raised in Meursault’s confrontation with the prison chaplain in the novel’s conclusion will be an incomplete one. Concerned about this problem, sometimes teachers– and I have done this in the past–stifle discussions by setting out a rigid discussion agenda which ensures that the conversation touches upon all the major points.
A technique such as the whip sentence, in which fifteen students offer fifteen different responses to some central theme of the novel, allows you to sidestep this dilemma. First, you still set the initial agenda simply by virtue of the fact that you create the sentence. Second, with such a variety of responses, you will invariably find that the students have raised, if only indirectly, at least some of the issues you wish to discuss. You should begin the discussion by attending to the dominant themes that the class tableau raises, but you can eventually guide that discussion into other areas by occasionally returning to the board: “We haven’t yet touched upon what Brian has implied in his response that . . . ” Proceeding in this fashion ensures the students that you are responding to their concerns, but also allows you to ensure that the students have engaged with the aspects of the text that you–as the more experienced reader–know are essential to a full understanding of the issue at hand.