Encouraging Better Class Discussions

This semester, I am teaching an honors section of ENGL1101, aka first-year composition. The students are awesome, and I am really enjoying the experience. Recently, though, I discovered that in addition to providing an opportunity to work with great, motivated students drawn from a close-knit learning community, Georgia Tech’s honors program also creates opportunities for faculty development by periodically bringing together those of us teaching in the program. Over lunch, we took turns talking about what we are teaching and some of us even solicited advice about how to tackle problems that we were encountering in the classroom.

When my turn came to speak, I reflected that, even though I was generally pleased with the level and sophistication of class discussion, I was still having trouble directing the focus away from myself. I still felt like I was talking too much, and the students were looking at and speaking to me, rather than engaging more with each other. In response, my colleagues around the table offered what turned out to be excellent advice: Why not talk to your students about what makes a good class discussion? In other words, why not teach them how to engage in intellectual discourse?

I realized that, although I would never presume that good writing “just happens” or that my students come to college already equipped with the strategies they will need to succeed in many of the tasks I set for them, I had simply assumed that engaging in challenging, intellectual discussions about complex subject matter was just something they could do. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see exactly how wrong I was in making that assumption, but I don’t think I’m the only teacher who has ever done this. Even using strategies such as pre-writing, small group activities, teach-backs, etc. might not be sufficient to generate really probing and self-sustaining conversations in the absence of a clear understanding, on the part of both teachers and students, of what makes some discussions “good” and others not so much.

Grammar tag cloud on Visible Tweets

My ENGL1101-HP class uses the lens of law and technology to teach multimodal writing and communication. This tag cloud was generated from the Twitter backchannel using Visible Tweets.

So I went into class the next day, and my students and I talked about what makes for a good class discussion. Because these were honors students, I could talk to them about how, in this first semester, they need to develop strategies that will enable them to succeed in future honors seminars where they will encounter similar expectations regarding in-class participation. I wanted to make clear that we were talking about more than what they need to succeed in my class, that we were talking about effective communication strategies more generally. They came up with a great list of all of the things that distinguish “good” discussions: everyone participates, everyone is prepared, people debate, students look at and talk to each other and not just to the teacher, everyone listens to what others have to say, etc. They also suggested that using breakout groups and other techniques that create structured or scaffolded engagement might help to liven things up.

Once we had collectively developed a working understanding of what we were all looking for in terms of classroom engagement, I turned the whiteboard and dry-erase marker over to one of the students, so that he could lead a conversation in which we designed an activity for generating a good class discussion. We decided to divide the class into three breakout groups, each focused on a different aspect of the reading. Each group would be given 30 minutes to create a five-minute presentation of their subject matter, which they would then deliver to the rest of the class. At that point, another student took over for a 10-minute brainstorming session to come up with topics on which the breakout groups should focus. This “preliminary” activity provided both of the students who led their peers with a chance to practice and demonstrate public speaking skills. In addition, during our brainstorming session, the second student suggested that, rather than simply eliminating items from the list of six or seven topics the class had brainstormed, we should try to see if we could narrow our options by grouping topics together. Since this is a great strategy to use during the early stages of almost any communication or composition project, I used our Twitter backchannel to reinforce her point. By getting my students to talk about what makes for a good discussion and involving them in the process of designing our classroom activity, I had already gone a long way toward accomplishing the ultimate goal of the exercise. They were already learning from and engaging with each other, rather than looking to me to give them the right answer or model effective communication strategies.

During the presentations, the students and I offered encouragement and commentary on the class Twitter backchannel.

We ended up with two big topics, so we modified our activity, creating just two groups instead of three. This incidentally gave both groups an extra five minutes to prepare for their presentations. Each group worked around a white board on which they created visual aides to assist both their discussion/deliberation process and final delivery. While they were working, I circulated between the groups to participate and answer questions. During the group discussions and presentations, a number of students offered words of encouragement and positive feedback on our class’s Twitter backchannel. I certainly felt like the class was a success.

So, I am definitely filing this with my other go-to plans for generating class discussion. What do you think and what works for you?

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Robin Wharton

About Robin Wharton

Robin Wharton is Assistant Director of Writing and Communication. She holds a law degree (1999) and a PhD (2009), both from the University of Georgia. Her current project involves exploring the influence of common law poetics in Middle English writing. Since 2005, she has been a collaborator on the project, and she is interested in how multimodal writing and communication instruction can be improved through the strategic application of digital technology. A former ballet dancer, she has also begun to consider how pedagogical methods drawn from the performing arts might be adapted for productive use in the higher-education classroom. Prior to graduate school, Dr. Wharton clerked for the Hon. Curtis L. Collier in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, and then spent a number of years as an associate in the intellectual property group of a prominent Atlanta law firm. She continues to write about law and ethics, especially as they relate to digital humanities work, and to consult in legal matters involving new and traditional media. Profile photo by R.E. Burnett, 2011.
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  1. Great post, Robin! My ENGL 1102 students are just finishing a multi-part assignment: oral presentations (with twitter backchannel peer evaluation) and wiki entries that make up a knowledge base about early modern England. The experience of interacting in so many ways with their peers (and not just with the instructor) has been challenging for some of them. Reading about your experience has spurred me to have a group debriefing next week. Rather than my pointing out to them how much they’ve learned from one another, having them examine the links they have made could be much more beneficial. Thanks!!

  2. Interesting post! I think the central difficulty is the fact that there is no “How to Learn and Engage in Academic Conversation” class offered at many Universities. There’s simply an assumption that students already know how to do this. In fact, very few students know how to engage in a classroom that isn’t teacher oriented. BTW, I think it’s awesome that you used Twitter in your lesson about classroom discussion. I wonder, though, if you were teaching them or if they were teaching you. 😉

  3. Foregrounding for students what makes for a productive discussion is definitely a worthwhile discussion in and of itself. Roger is absolutely correct that we wrongly assume students know how to engage in a academic conversation.

    Robin’s exercise reminds me of something Ed Gallagher did at Lehigh University at few years back. Ed taught an upper-level English class in which the entire grade hinged upon students’ engagement with the digital discussion board. Ed wrote up his process and findings in a terrific web portfolio and also digested them for a shorter report.

    While Ed’s work focused on virtual discussions, much of what he says can be readily adopted for face-to-face in-class discussions (for example, his “Five Eyes” and “Nine Legs” advice for students on initiating and sustaining discussions).

  4. Wow, Mark, thank you for the links to Gallagher’s work! They’re not only helpful on the immediate question of how to create better class discussions. They’re also fantastic examples of how digitally-enabled pedagogy can meaningfully engage students in creating scholarship for teaching and learning.

  5. Pingback: Hybrid Pedagogy | The Discussion Forum is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum

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