Wednesday, November 26, 2008

‘On Course’, Part 5: In the Classroom: Discussions

This chapter begins with a little story of an instructor planning for class next morning. She has high hopes to “lecture” for a short to introduce the issues, ask a few provocative questions and then step back as spirited, focused, and engaging discussion erupts amongst nearly all the students. The class runs into overtime and the students spill out of the classroom to the local watering hole to keep on yakin’ about deep ideas and important stuff. 

This, of course, is just a professorial fantasy. (At least it is for most of us; is there anyone out there for whom anything like this is the norm? If so, how do you do it?!). But in this chapter Lang gives some advice on how to make your reality match this discussion-oriented ideal. His concrete suggestions to increase the quantity and quality of discuss are these:

1.      In-class writing assignments that are either ungraded or count for only a tiny percentage. These assignments can get students “transitioned” into the day’s class, gives them time to produce some thoughts about the issues, and preclude social loafing, i.e., their hoping that someone else is going to say something and so they won’t have to say anything. Also, since students have written responses, it’s less obnoxious to call on people, since it’s less threatening for anyone to, if need be, read a prepared response, as opposed to speaking off the top of their heads.

2.      Give each student one minute or so to verbally respond to some question you pose and say what she thinks is important, relevant or interesting (about the reading or whatever for the day). (p. 92). This can work in smaller classes and could work at the beginning or the end, as opening or closing statements. I suppose this response should follow some in-class writing, since that should lead to better one minute responses.

3.      Put students in small groups or pairs for brief discussion (p. 93). These are called “Think-Pair-Share” groups. They can help give students confidence if they find that other students have similar responses, questions, confusions, etc. They’ve already begun talking and thinking in a smaller group so they’ll be better prepared for doing this in front of the whole class.

4.      Ease into discussion with some fact-finding and collecting evidence. First focus on compiling information: have students get the facts out there on the board for all to see. This will get them talking and so better prepared to engage in more challenging analysis, interpretation, evaluation, etc. I suppose this would also work with review material from last class, if you’ll be building on material covered last time.

5.      Have students prepare for debates. In-class writing can be used to help prepare them to take a side.

6.      Finally, start early. The more talking the more people do the earlier in the course, the more likely the trend will continue. Lang observes that students can be encouraged to speak up by (among other options) challenging them to a “duel” of sorts (“I’ve said something interesting, now you say something interesting”) or in more of an unconditional positive regard manner where we assume that students are going to say something great (“Listen to all of these terrific ideas and comments; can we hear your thoughts as well?) (p. 97).

 Here are some other important things from the chapter.

 Lang says that participation should be graded only if you can do it fairly and consistently by really having some sense of who is and is not participating. He expresses doubts that this can be done in large classes. He mentions a method of allowing each student to grade his or her own participation, but allowing professorial veto over the student’s evaluation.

 When discussions get off track, Lang says to be OK with it for a while since students will appreciate the opportunity to discuss what they find interesting. If things get too far from the issues that are supposed to be under consideration, he advises pointing out that what they are talking about won’t be on a paper or test (p. 99!!) or, much better, asking another question to re-direct the discussion and/or finding threads in what’s been said to redirect. He notes that this ability can come with experience of leading discussions.

 If you have a few students who dominate the discussion in an obnoxious way and few others speak, Lang mentions someone’s system where, say, two comments are required per class and students who very much want to participate can do so only once everyone else has met their quota, so to speak. When some students dominate Lang also just asks the others to not allow the “repeat responder” to be the only one to participate and so to contribute because we want to hear from everyone. The goal is to prevent the majority from feeling like they can avoid participation because a few students in the class will do that. He also advises kindly and gently calling on people, not solely relying on people to volunteer.

 Finally, Lang advises giving students time to talk. Wait for them to speak up. Don’t give in to the silence and start speaking (or rephrasing the question[s]). Supposedly teachers typically only give students two seconds to respond before taking over; Lang advises waiting ten. Use those ten seconds to write on the board, drink coffee, walk around the classroom, or whatever, but give students time to respond or else they’ll think they don’t really have to do it.

 Here are some of my reactions, as I related what Lang says to some of what I do:

 On in class-writing:

One way I try to do this is just to write some moral or philosophical claim on the board. If it’s somehow unclear or ambiguous, I’ll ask, “What might this claim mean?” Or, “What might someone mean if she says this?” and give them a few minutes to write out an answer. Or I’ll ask what reasons anyone might give in favor or against this. Or write up an argument and ask how anyone might respond to it. These kinds of question would work also by considering some actual philosophers’ claim(s) or arguments from the assigned readings, if they have done the reading or are able to look at it then and discern an answer.

 I like to do this because, in addition to Lang’s reasons, it helps me find out what students are really thinking. I have found that students’ reactions to philosophical issues, conceptions of how to respond to them, etc. often tend to be very different from professors’ and so it’s good to find their reactions to try to ensure that we aren’t on totally different pages, two ships passing in the night, etc.

 On debates:

For better or worse, I have always been leery of “debates” and have never used them in classes. My vague sense is that they are needlessly adversarial and polarizing, aren’t an ideal method for open-minded, dispassionate inquiry and – my main worry – can reinforce a common, and false, sense that, for every controversial issue, most major positions on the issue are equally rationally defensible. I might be totally wrong about this and a debate forum would typically not have the skeptical “all views on this topic are OK” result. What have people found?

 On the one minute verbal response:

This again allows the instructor to find out what students are thinking and adjust accordingly, which is good. I would worry about this activity though because if students say something significant, then you’d want more than one minute to discuss it: you wouldn’t just want to drop the interesting comment and move onto someone new. Perhaps interesting themes or patterns in commentary would emerge that could be picked up later, but you might miss a lot. You could wind up with a variety of reactions and only some of them could be pursued in detail which might be OK. I think this would work out best only if the instructor is quite able to think on her feet really well; I suspect most philosophy teachers have this ability, but I am not sure.

 This was just a short summary of Lang’s interesting and helpful chapter. I look forward to people’s responses and questions!


  1. I believe that something crucial has been missed in respect to why it is often hard to start up discussions and keep students engaged and active in these discussions. They just don't do the readings. What I've found is that in courses where I set weekly assignments based on the readings the class participation increases greatly.

    The way I've often done it is to have them prepare an answer to a question aimed to focus them on a certain passage from the reading and then just give them 1% if they've done it.

    In other courses I've found the in-class writing assignments (always open book) to also be very helpful in facilitating discussion and it is my favourite method to use, however, I do worry that it eats up valuable "lecture" time, and therefore have come to prefer having my students prepare a writing assignment before class - but, this does have the effect that some students decide they can't be bothered to do them and are fine with losing 10-11% (as there are usually 10-11 weeks of class).

  2. Good summary Nathan.

    I'm not keen on debates either. In addition to the false black/white dichotomy you mention, I've found them to be logistically challenging (it's tough to get 40 students involved in a debate) and the same students who are most voluble in typical class meetings are most active in debates.

    I should give in-class writing assignments more of a try. I like the idea of having people read their responses aloud. I wonder if an interesting (and useful) side effect of this is that students who've come to class having read and thought about the material will produce stronger responses, which might light a fire under those who are less prepared. I'd love to hear more specifics about the kinds of in-class writing people do.

    I'll close this comment echoing a question I offered before about students learning from lecture: Do students know how to learn from discussion? I have doubts here as well. Students almost invariably say they want plenty of "discussion," but what many of them want from it is not what we want from it. They want something that they think they can be involved in with little preparation, that's more social and interactive, etc. I gather what we instructors want is discussion that is focused, guided, and informed. So I'm not sure students have a picture of what a genuinely philosophical discussion is supposed to be. And as with lecturing, most students don't seem to take very good notes. I've noticed students often put their pens down when they see that a "discussion" is breaking out! Many of the same students are later flummoxed on exams and papers when questions are asked that relate to previous in-class discussion.

  3. I have used class discussions for many years now with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they do not. The major reasons for failure is that 1) I do not prepare the groundwork for the discussion well enough and/or 2) students come to class ill prepared. To minimize these problems I have students write a weekly short paper (1-2) pages) dealing with a specific topic associated with the readings that I use as the focal point of class/group discussion and/or give an in-class assignment also on a specific topic. These in-class assignment are either done individually and then in conjunction with another student where they compare what they have written and try to arrive at a consensus if there is disagreement or in small groups that are assigned to bring out issues associated with the topic and offer possible solutions. I have found much better participation when I take the time to prepare students for the discussion.

    As far as grading participation, I simply subtract points if students are not present. My belief is that people will participate but only if they are in class. If I notice that someone is not actively involved in a group discussion I will choose him or her to start the discussion when we get back into the larger group. I also select students at random to discuss their responses, so no one knows who is going to be asked to talk. I am not opposed to embarrassing students to get them involved. It works!

  4. "The more talking the more people do the earlier in the course, the more likely the trend will continue."

    I think this is the most important thing that could be said about classroom discussion, and it is something I'm going to pay more attention to in the future. While I've certainly noticed the trend--that courses where no one talks rarely improve with time and courses where students talk early often become great by the end of the semester--I suspect I haven't paid as much attention as I could have on new strategies to get that ball rolling.

    I know that the next time I'm at the front of a classroom, I will be using the strategy of beginning the class with a five-minute open-book writing task on the topic of the day. (Lang suggests ten minutes. Does that seem excessive to anyone else?) I think this would get the less-prepared students to at least have glanced at the reading assignment before the discussion starts, giving them at least a possible meaningful contribution to make.


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