Over the past few years I’ve had a variety of experiences with discussion-based courses. In a few cases, students have come to class prepared and I was fairly successful at engaging most of them in class discussions. In a number of recent courses, however, students have either not done the reading , not engaged with the reading on a level deep enough to answer questions about it, or not willing to answer whatever questions I’ve prepared about the reading in class. In one course this semester I have implemented two changes in an effort to combat these problems: distributing discussion questions before class and (gasp!) requiring students to write answers to these questions that they bring with them to class.
I’ve used discussion questions in several previous courses, including last year’s version of this semester’s discussion-based course, but it was often evident that students weren’t actually thinking about the questions beforehand. Since my goal is to encourage students to take more responsibility for their learning outside of class, my implementation was clearly missing the mark. Reading quizzes also failed to prepare students for class discussion. This semester I decided to hold my students accountable by requiring them to answer the discussion questions outside of class, which I have been collecting periodically. I also told them that, since they are required to answer the questions outside of class, I will sometimes call on them to participate in class when they have not volunteered to do so. So far, at least, that has not been necessary since students have done a good job of coming to class prepared to participate. I’ve also had participation from a larger number of students than in previous semesters. I recognize that I need to work hard to keep the participation distributed evenly around the classroom, but at this point I am cautiously optimistic.