Posts Tagged ‘Class Discussions’

After the frustratingly low levels of student participation in my courses last fall I implemented a form of discussion questions in the spring semester that was designed to hold students accountable for class preparation while directing their reading to some specific topics that were relevant to the day’s discussion. In general, it seemed to work, so I am using them again this semester. While I require students to bring a copy of their answers with them to class (either handwritten or typed), some students type their answers but then have issues that prevent them from printing them before class. In these cases, students often e-mail them to me. Other than the fact that they won’t have their answers to refer to in class, I don’t have a problem with this practice. What I do have a problem with is the fact that, when sending them, students often refer to them as “homework.”

I realize that the difference between “discussion questions” and “homework” is largely semantic but, to me, discussion questions imply a student actively preparing for class, while homework implies busywork. The thing is, I don’t want students to see discussion questions as busywork. It is nice that they are preparing for class, but I hope that at least a few of them actually enjoy engaging with the material.


they’re discussion questions, not homework!

See the subject.

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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.

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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.

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When I received my course evaluations for my first semester as a real professor, my previous experiences with the differences between my current and former students caused some concern.  Due to the amount of things I had to do near the end of the fall semester I had never even looked closely at the evaluation form until the registrar returned the completed forms to me.

Looking at the evaluations, I was struck by two things:  1) my teaching looked good numerically; and 2) these numbers told me next to nothing about the way students perceived my courses.  The item related to class discussions provides a good example.  I have always considered class discussions to be one of the weaker areas of my teaching, no matter how many teaching seminars on the topic I attended (maybe my students didn’t discuss things because they weren’t doing the reading).  Items asking students about the quality of class discussions reflected this (in the subtle way that a difference of .03 on a five-point scale can reflect something).  Looking over my newly opened evaluations, however, I was struck by the fact that the only question about class discussions was related to whether I encouraged them.  I did well on this item, having spent several minutes of each class prodding students to discuss things as a class.  There was no corresponding item, however, about whether my attempts at promoting class discussion were successful.  Any student assessments of the quality of class discussions would have to be offered spontaneously by students on the qualitative portion of the evaluations.

As a result, what I feel was the weakest portion of my courses received an apparently strong quantitative evaluation and a nearly-nonexistent qualitative evaluation.  While I was nervous before opening my evaluations, my feelings afterward were closer to apathy.  Nearly every semester I need to remind students that, no, merely showing up does not count as class participation.  Based on the current evaluation form, though, it seems that professors at my school are being held to this sort of “A for effort” standard.

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