This semester I am teaching a class that relies heavily on student discussion, which has led me to believe that successfully leading discussion-based classes is an art form. Obviously, I can’t put words into my students’ mouths, so leading discussions is less like painting than conducting an orchestra. Audience members see somebody standing and waving his or her arms around, but I assume that it involves quite a bit more than that in an effort to get the best out of each orchestra member. Aside from the need for students to actually come to class prepared, the danger in relying on class discussion is that students, like me at a symphony, might think that the instructor is not actually doing anything. In practice, I’ve found that there are a number of factors that need to be balanced in leading successful discussions.
First, and most difficult on a daily basis, is controlling time. A talkative class could spend an entire period covering half of the desired material while a reluctant class could move through an hour’s worth of topics in 25 minutes. As an instructor you sometimes need to cut off interesting discussions when students have gotten what you want out of them. On the other hand, you sometimes need to extend conversations by giving reticent students time to free write or brainstorm in small groups.
Second, and just as difficult but over a longer period of time, is allowing students to see the way that their daily discussions lead to something bigger than you could accomplish through lecture alone. In my current course, this involves small daily discussions that build on each other as the semester progresses. Along the way I will give plenty of signposts to demonstrate where we were earlier in the semester compared to our current location.
A third concern is related to exams. When writing exams I tend to rely on information that was clearly presented in class (by me) so that students who were paying attention and taking notes will have the necessary information. Students may take a variety of interpretations away from a class discussion, though, and each is likely to remember different highlights. I try to alleviate this by providing summaries during discussions and at the end of class but I still find myself relying more on information from course readings in discussion-based courses. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is different than some of my other exams.
At this early point in my career I have not yet had a student accuse me of avoiding my duties by relying on class discussions. I hope that my students, like people who actually know something about the symphony, will recognize that I’m doing more than waving my arms around.