Shelley Reid .


Shelley's Quick Guides:
Engaging Students in Discussion

Remember why you're having a discussion. You're teaching a writing class, so students could conceivably learn much of what they need to learn without having a whole-class discussion. Discussions are optional, and should thus be chosen for particular reasons. If you remember your goals, you and your students may be less likely to get frustrated.

  • Don't "discuss" when what you really need to do is lecture or convey information. Sometimes a mini-lecture is educationally preferable to trying to get students to guess what you want them to say

  • If you're discussing in order to have students engage with a topic, or to generate energy or classroom community, remember that getting right answers or staying on a single focus may not be as important as having as many students as possible contribute and interact

  • If you're discussing to help promote critical thinking about a topic or reading, remember that for many people it's difficult to think critically and perform in a fast-moving, public discussion: set aside time before and/or after the discussion for students to analyze and reflect

Warm up the room.  Ask a question everyone can answer; give everyone a moment to concoct an answer, or have assigned it as homework; then go around the room and hear briefly from everyone.  (Remember that "briefly" times 20 is a fair amount of time!) Encourage others to listen by asking them to note down one answer that matches and one that differs from their own. (One option is to have an "attendance question" -- what movie comes closest to your life right now? what do you always carry with you? -- and consider taking suggestions for these from your students.)

Try setting a low but specific threshold, to start.  Ask a question that most anyone can answer and have their answer be right, to build momentum & comfort.

  • Do a survey, show of hands:  Who thought this essay was more interesting than the last one? who didn't?   OR, How would you grade this author's use of specific evidence:  A?  B?  C?  OR, Who was surprised by  the last paragraph?  who wasn't?  Jose, what surprised you?  Jeanne?

  • Ask a series of questions most everyone will know the (or "an") answer to (often summary/description questions): So what's Kinnear's big complaint?  What happened to him?  Then what happened?  OR What's the detail or moment you remember best about Wong's essay?  Alicia?  Kris?  Bonkoto?

  • Ask for students to tell you what you've recently told them (suggest they open their notebooks, if they wish): "So we're looking at Tillisi's evidence today:  who can remind us what categories of evidence we talked about on Monday?"

Ask questions that let you "pile answers," and do so.  Again, try specific questions -- "What does Krashaw think are the main characteristics of 'Gen Y'?" and then "Where does she get it wrong or leave something out?" -- rather than general ones ("what did you think?") if your class doesn't immediately leap to the bait.

  • Decide whether you want to spark more participation or to spark more accuracy. For the former, give quick/minimal positive feedback ("good") before getting another answer ("who else? what else?"). For the latter, do more follow-up yourself: restate/elaborate on good answers, push for more detail on vague ones ("such as...?" "do you have an example?"), and/or solicit additional answers (without directly crushing the first one): "Who agrees with Rob that ___ ? Who has a different idea?"   

  • Consider noting/tallying answers on the board or screen for future reference during the discussion; you can use that second step to fine-tune or weed out the pile to get to the best points, if you want to move toward "more accuracy"  

  • Read faces and, in the middle of a list of answers, when there's been time for thought but not all the good answers have been given, call on a quieter student who seems likely to have a contribution

Ask questions you don't know the answer(s) to.  It's ok to occasionally go "fishing" for an answer -- to try to get a student in class to say something that you know but want them to discover (O, Socrates!).  But it's frustrating for students to participate in this kind of "discussion": until they give you "what you want," all the other answers are "wrong," and the stress builds.  Try only to "fish" when you know the trout are biting: students are warmed-up, and it's very likely they know the answer.  Otherwise, start by asking questions you really don't know, or don't have an exact answer in mind for:  "Has this happened to anyone here?" or "Which argument seemed most persuasive to you?"

Watch your language.  Which sounds more like the teacher really expects more contributions, "Anyone else have an idea?" or "Who else has an idea?"  Think like a student: mightn't that first one seem to say, "We're moving on, here, unless one of you really has something brilliant to say?"  How about, "Let's get three more details up here"?  How about, "Amina, do you have another example?" vs. "Amina, what could be another example?"

Solicit impersonal alternatives.  If "who had a different response?" doesn't work, try "What might be one way someone could object to this?" or "What might a single mother of three say to Wooten?"  Students holding minority viewpoints -- or quiet students who hold a majority viewpoint but are brushed aside by a loudmouth -- may need this "cover" to feel comfortable.  (Again, think of your language:  how might those questions fizzle if each began, "Is there any other...?")

Tackle a small problem for a longer time.  Choose a paragraph, an example, a question (pathos v. logos), a couple of sentences.  Stay with it (come prepared with several questions you could ask about it) long enough for some class knowledge to build at that point, for students to glean enough to feel smart about it.

Reach for emotional intelligence.  Help students connect emotionally, particularly to more abstract or historical texts -- back away from the text a moment, set the scene.  "Imagine you're Susan B. Anthony and you're in this room full of powerful men who want to send you to jail for voting.  What might you be feeling?"

Allow discussion underlife.  If the discussion of the article by Studs Terkel on working-class Chicagoans gets off on a tangent about who has ever been to Chicago and whether it's a better City than DC, and there's some energy to that discussion, consider letting it run a minute or two -- something may come up ("yeah, but who can afford to even live in DC?") that gives you a segue back to your topic, and if it doesn't, you can always step in and intervene:  "Ok, ok, excellent, but let's get back to the text." (See Robert Brooke's article on "underlife" in writing classrooms for more ideas about learning to appreciate what seems to be "off-topic" behavior in classroom settings.)

Discuss on paper. One advantage teacher-scholars have found from the use of online discussion boards is that written comments free some students to "speak" more fully: quiet or contemplative students, students from underrepresented minorities or those holding minority viewpoints, shy or inexperienced students, non-native English speakers.

You can take replicate some of these advantages in a low-tech classroom by asking students to write a comment, pass it to someone else, and write a response. You can request particular kinds of responses ("how might someone disagree with the first response?"), and do several passes to "pile evidence." Discussion-notes can circulate within a small group; they can be signed or unsigned; they can happen on paper or on smaller notecards. (For full anonymity, and an energy generating physical activity, ask students to stand and exchange their note with one other person, then repeat that with another person, before sitting down to respond.)

After a few responses, test the waters: are students willing to read what someone else wrote, as a way of making the discussion more verbal and public?

Have a backup plan.  Some days, the discussion karma just isn't there -- your top three participants all have the flu, the Eudora Welty essay that you adore put everyone else to sleep, 80% of students didn't really read the essay, the whole class has caught Mordor Gloom, whatever.  If you've tried two or three tactics and are getting nowhere, switch and do something else -- because a "beating a dead-horse" discussion is painful for everyone, and lessens the comfort-level for the next discussion. 

If you have no other plan to fall back on, you'll be tempted either to haul the horse around or to step in and lecture on the topic.  If you have a plan -- even an unrelated one, an "emergency" set of handouts on commasplices or a "critique a recent advertisement" activity or even a "take 10 minutes and write in your journals" move -- then you can just move on.

Don't pursue your students: pushing too hard at quiet students, or chastising a quiet class for being quiet, is likely to make them...more quiet. (An unprepared class can be put on notice, but try not to repeatedly make it a personalized accusation or to give too much vent to your personal frustration over lack of discussion overall.)

Be reasonable.  Outside a classroom, when was the last time you had a thoughtful, fully-participatory, respectful, in-depth, under-control discussion with 20 people all focused on one complex topic, with nobody moderating?  (Or even inside a classroom?)  And remember, We're Weird: we like talking about complex ideas in a public setting. 

If you really want everyone to speak, with no ongoing interference or nudging from you, put people in pairs and say "ask your partner what she thinks."  If you want a broader forum for listening to and considering a range of ideas, you may need to relax your expectations about who will contribute what. The larger the group, the harder (and the less necessary) to actually involve everyone equally, and the less likely the discussion will thrive, on-topic, with increasing depth, "naturally," unless you intervene.  And as soon as you intervene, the illusion that this is a natural "conversation" is broken, and students will talk to you instead of (or perhaps "as well as") each other.  

So if you have a few moments of Discussion Nirvana, where what seems like a "real" discussion is thriving among students in a whole class without you, enjoy them -- but when you have something else, enjoy and make the most of that, too.







Last updated October 2008.Email Shelley Reid