Posts Tagged ‘Discussion-Based Classes’

Near the beginning of the semester I wrote about my most recent effort to encourage student participation: requiring students to write answers to discussion questions before class. Now that I am two thirds of the way through the semester I thought that I would provide an update.

Overall, I think that the effort has been a success. On most days, nearly half of the 27 students in class participate at least once, which is a huge improvement over the last time I taught this course. I can’t be sure whether this is attributed to the fact that they are supposed to bring their answers to class with them or the fact that I only give them five student-written discussion questions for each class so it is easier for them to gather their thoughts beforehand (in the past I gave them all of the questions that students wrote rather than narrowing them down myself – in hindsight this may be the most important change I’ve made).

Despite the overall success, I have noticed some areas for improvement. The first is that a few students have developed a habit of bringing the list of discussion questions to class and answering them in class as we discuss them. If we discuss each question, then, and I collect them, there is no way for me to tell that they did not answer the questions ahead of time. Recognizing this, the last time I collected their discussion questions I asked students to write an “X” through any questions that they had answered in class and a surprising number of students did so (and received lower grades because of it), giving me the opportunity to reiterate that students need to answer the questions before class in order for them to be effective at promoting discussion.

The second area that could be improved is my own reluctance to call on students who do not volunteer to speak. Although I warned students at the beginning of the semester that I would do this I have only done it a handful of times. I think that if I were more comfortable calling on a few students who don’t volunteer in each class period I could improve the number of participants on a given day even more.

Although there is definitely room for improvement, there is a night and day difference in both the level of participation and the classroom atmosphere between this semester and the last time I taught this course. Last time, I would pose a question and wait in silence before one or two students would volunteer answers. This semester, it is common for five or six students to give their perspectives on each question, sometimes leading to broader conversations that I can connect to previous course material. The bottom line is that these changes have made my time in the classroom fun again, which is exactly what I needed after a frustrating experience last semester.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »