Friday, March 4, 2016

How to conduct a classroom discussion

Sample Guidelines for Classroom Discussion
Argument and Inquiry Seminars:
Potential Activities to Set Classroom Discussion Environment
1.      Create a safe environment for productive classroom discussion
2.      Set expectations for class participation and discussion content

Activity 1: Students set discussion criteria and rules
Time: 45 minutes
The class I use this exercise for is an upper-level seminar of about 15 students.  I expect students to attend and actively participate in class – both speaking and listening to others.  There are two student discussion leaders assigned to lead each class, which includes a discussion of several readings, connections with earlier course material and with everyday experience.  I tell students that one of my objectives, as a professor, is to give them experience expressing their ideas orally and in leading a group discussion – two important skills in the post-collegiate “real” world.
I start the class off by telling students that class discussion is the core of the class – they will get more out of the class if they attend and participate in discussion, and they will get much less enjoyment and information out of the class if they opt out of these activities.  In fact, they have to attend class in order to pass – too many absences results in an automatic no credit.
I then challenge them to think of elements that make a good discussion – either a casual discussion with a friend or a larger classroom discussion.  I write everything down on the board, even if it doesn’t initially seem relevant, using commentary and arrows to draw connections between different ideas and to draw out elements that were not clearly stated.  Sometimes I will try to group related ideas on the board.  If items that come up later would better fit a follow-up question, I’ll write it down, then use an arrow to move it later in discussion.  We end up with a messy map, and it usually includes many of the following ideas (roughly organized and edited here).
1.      What are qualities or characteristics of good discussions?
a.       Participant engagement
    i.      Meaningful conversation
    ii.      Fluid discussion
    iii.      Balanced participation
    iv.      Active listening
    v.      Leave wanting more
b.      Participants have mutual trust and respect
      i.      Development of intellectual relationships
1.      Honesty
2.      Develop mutual respect
3.      Everyone is heard
4.      Mutual sharing
5.      Acknowledge others’ contributions
    ii.      Open-mindedness
    iii.      Safe space
1.      Freedom to question, disagree, or admit non-understanding
2.      Sensitivity  
c.       An opportunity to affirm and develop existing ideas
      i.      Validate ideas and theories
      ii.      Deeper understanding
      iii.      Understanding pushed to new areas
d.      An opportunity to explore new ideas
       i.      Learn something new and interesting
       ii.      Contribute something new and interesting
       iii.      Spark new ideas and directions for thought
       iv.      Feeling unsettled
       v.      Explore new ideas
       vi.      Variety of viewpoints
       vii.      Take risks
Next, I ask students to set ground rules for discussions.  What kind of expectations do they have for themselves and their peers in a discussion that they want to be productive?  They need to set up a set of criteria that will nurture good discussions.  These should be more concrete than the responses to the first question.  I tell them that I will be using these criteria to evaluate their class participation.  While the students don’t always realize it explicitly, they generally have criteria that address each of the main qualities discussed in (1).  If they don’t include any guidelines that address a particular goal, I might explicitly point out the parallels.
2.      What ground rules / guidelines should we follow in discussions?
a.       Participant engagement
   i.      Participate (Equality of participation?  Quality vs. quantity)
1.      Consider “talkers” vs. “listeners”
2.      Encourage participation of peers
3.      Turn-taking (raising hands?)
4.      Be aware of talking patterns: attend to body language; be aware of who else might want the floor
    ii.      Prepare in advance
1.      Do readings
2.      Come up with specific comments and questions
3.      Read Moodle discussion before class – use it to define terms and establish common ground
4.      Bring in ideas from outside class
    iii.      Active listening
1.      Stay on topic, but know when to move on
2.      Be brief – try not to repeat self or others
        iv.      Have fun!
b.      Participants have mutual trust and respect
         i.      Be respectful of peers
         ii.      Address other students, not the professor
         iii.      Assume best intent of others
         iv.      Have patience with others
        v.      Maintain eye contact with peers
        vi.      Criticize and comment on ideas, not people
       vii.      Don’t interrupt or make careful use of interruptions
       viii.      Maintain confidentiality of others’ opinions
c.       An opportunity to affirm and develop existing ideas
     i.      Support arguments and contextualize knowledge
1.      Refer to readings explicitly
2.      Use concrete examples
3.      Opinions should be supported by evidence
4.      Limit use of anecdotes and examples to illustrations, not social responses
      ii.      Draw conclusions, summarize, end discussions
d.      An opportunity to explore new ideas
      i.      Be willing to take risks – to think out loud
      ii.      Be open to questions
     iii.      Make constructive critiques of others’ ideas
     iv.      Consider bias in own and others’ opinions and assertions
     v.      Contribute new ideas
     vi.      Be flexible
Finally, I ask the students to brainstorm suggestions for discussion leaders to help the class maintain the ground rules and encourage the elements of good discussion.  These suggestions give students who are more experienced in leading groups a chance to share their experiences with students less experienced.  I like this because it is an opportunity for students to start learning from each other.  It makes explicit the various types of work that the discussion leaders need to do aside from just bringing in a few questions and is an opportunity for students to open the floor to more creative methods for fostering discussion.
3.      What guidelines should discussion leaders follow?
a.       Come prepared
      i.      Leaders should meet in advance and collaborate on all activities
      ii.      Read all readings (including optional material)
      iii.      Think critically about readings
      iv.      Print out Moodle discussion
      v.      Provide discussion questions and diverse activities
      vi.      Short videos can be good
      vii.      Have a backup plan
b.      Start with a point of common ground in discussion
      i.      Give overviews of main points (PowerPoint or lecture?)
      ii.      Give handouts
c.       Manage discussion
    i.      Participate in discussion
    ii.      Use different techniques for discussions, e.g. round robins, jigsaw methods
    iii.      Mediate participation
    iv.      Define terms and scope of discussion
    v.      Help discussion move on if it gets stuck
    vi.      Avoid tangents
    vii.      Present all sides of discussions
    viii.      Make decisions and commitments
    ix.      Give summary statements

Generally speaking, students give remarkably similar sets of responses to these questions each term.  At the end of the discussion, I review what they came up with, add anything large that I see is missing, and emphasize that these will be the criteria by which I will grade both their class participation and their discussion leading. I write down all of the comments and post them to Moodle.  A little before mid-term, I administer mid-term evaluations that include a list of the ground rules.  I ask students to rate themselves on meeting the ground rules and ask them to come up with 1-2 things they can do to improve class discussions.  I like that the students generate the criteria, and that gives me additional freedom to hold them accountable for meeting them. 

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