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On Teaching
Michelle D. Miller, PhD

Give Them Something to Talk About:
Participation in Discussion-Based Classes

When I see the various debates about online and other “unconventional” modes of teaching, I often wonder what it would be like if online classes were the norm and seminar classes were the new trend. There would be utter hysteria: why would you think that students can learn by sitting around a table and talking for some arbitrary number of minutes each week? What if some people talked and others didn’t? How would you control what was said? How would you ever know if learning actually took place? Traditionalists would condemn this crackpot new idea as yet another plot to undermine the rigor of university education.

I think this daydream of mine highlights what is special, and challenging, about leading a class in which student discussion is the primary learning activity.  Even more than with other types of classes, you have to articulate to yourself what your goals or desired outcomes are: how should students be different after a discussion? What would your ideal class discussion be like, and why? Perhaps your students would come away with a more accurate understanding of the material, improved skills for weighing evidence and presenting arguments, or a changed view on some controversial topic. On a more pragmatic level, you probably want there to be abundant student participation; a stimulating, positive mood; and shared participation rather than just one or two students doing all the talking. Balancing between these two demands—that you want certain things accomplished and that you want a certain kind of atmosphere—drives your preparation for this kind of class.
Let’s take on some of the classic problems people worry about in their discussion seminars. First is the possibility that one or two people will dominate discussion. My take on this is unconventional—okay, completely unheard-of: don’t worry about it! Or at least, don’t worry about it to the point that you obsess every time one of your more talkative students begins to speak. I think this worry is overrated for several reasons: first, because one of the assumptions we make about discussion classes is that students learn by listening as well as talking. Second, you may find that there is a natural trade-off between the frequency and the sophistication of comments, such that when the “rare talker” finally does speak up, it is with more substance and attracts more attention from the rest of the class. Lastly, there is the practical problem of how you objectively track student contributions. I think that if you truly want to micromanage exactly who says what and when, you should move the whole discussion to an online format where this is easy to assess.

That said, there are several subtle strategies you can use to spread contributions across more students and encourage the quiet folks. Here, as in many other aspects of leading discussions, nonverbal cues are powerful. Make frequent eye contact with people you want to hear from and give them a little push (“You look like you feel strongly about this,” etc.) when you see an expression indicating that something is on their mind. Another tried-and-true strategy is to ask a question but postpone the response by asking students to spend a few minutes thinking and then writing down their reactions. This levels the playing field for people who may not be as quick on the draw and enables you to call on one of the quieter people without embarrassing him/her: everyone has an answer, so no one is put on the spot.   

Another classic problem is the possibility that no one will talk. The worst-case scenario of a totally silent class is probably more fear than reality. On a lesser scale, though, less-than-lively classes do often happen, so it is important to have some strategies for getting the conversational ball rolling. Of course, the most important thing you can do is to prepare as many questions as possible ahead of time. Don’t worry about asking all of them or asking them in a particular order, but rather use them to advance the discussion as it naturally unfolds. There are many excellent guides to developing discussion questions that can give you ideas if you’re coming up short. (Contact NAU’s Faculty Development Director, Linda Shadiow, for specific suggestions.) Most such guides stress the importance of balancing the specificity of questions so that they are open-ended, but not so vague that everyone is wondering what you are getting at.

Similarly, it helps to focus some questions on the more pragmatic, concrete aspects of the topic and some questions on the more abstract side. For example, when I lead discussion in my graduate cognition class on the “change blindness” effect in visual attention, I ask how this effect relates to practical issues such as personal safety as well as what follow-up studies would help the class understand exactly why the effect happens. Also, get to know those quiet students: what are their special areas of interest? You can then form a few questions specially designed around those areas. Failing that, some topics that people tend to get fired up about include kids, pets, work experiences, and mass media. If you can tie your material into any of those, you’ll get people talking for sure.

If you repeatedly have trouble getting your class to talk, it’s time to step back and try to diagnose the problem. Are your students bored, uncomfortable, or confused? Read nonverbal cues to find out, or have an out-of-class talk with one or two students with whom you have a good rapport. Lack of understanding of the material, in particular, can kill discussion. One classic technique to address this is to have students submit questions ahead of time, perhaps three questions per article or chapter. These are graded leniently, so students don’t have to worry about asking the wrong thing. The point is not to get them to ask the “right” questions, but rather to get them to form some kind of a reaction ahead of time. And if things get slow, you can pick out some of these questions to address.

Another possibility to consider is that you haven’t treated the time in a structured-enough way. Send the message that class is just a chunk of time to kill and you are guaranteed to see disengagement. Similarly, students can be conditioned to think that when they stop talking, class ends. Instead, try to communicate in a friendly way that you have a definite agenda for the time. I sometimes go so far as to lay out a timetable: 10 minutes on announcements, 20 minutes discussing the first article, 20 minutes discussing the second, 10-minute break, and so on.
This brings us back to the importance of being goal-directed in a class like this. When you have a definite plan in mind, you will have a richer set of questions to base discussion on, and students will be more lively in responding. You’ll also get ideas as to how to assess whether your goals were met. One very direct way of doing so is to ask students to rate their own contributions in a written self-reflection assignment. You can also look for indirect evidence that the discussion advanced understanding; for example, in how students answer test questions (if you have tests). Ideally, you point out this connection to students: e.g., telling students that you base test questions on class discussion and then following through.

In my graduate cognition seminar, I have take-home test questions set up ahead of time, but I release each one to students immediately after that topic is discussed in class rather than the more traditional approach of releasing all the questions at once a week or so before they are due. This way, students can begin each question while the discussion is fresh in mind. When I grade them, I look for evidence that the discussion influenced how students think about the issues at hand. When I don’t see it, I know that this is an area for improvement in future classes.
The paradox of teaching discussion classes is that goals and planning are paramount, yet you necessarily have to give up control over the class as it unfolds. There may be times when it is right to rule your class with an iron fist, but this is not one of those times. You start out the semester with a certain amount of student goodwill. Lose this goodwill, and you set an atmosphere of tension that kills the open, freewheeling discussion you are hoping to have. Yes, you still have to set high standards and occasionally redirect students if they stray off topic, but please do so with a very light touch.

But won’t this undermine you as the authority, leading students to openly defy you? Here again, this is probably more instructor neurosis than reality. In the many times I have dealt with problem behaviors—non-participation, negativity, disengagement—not once have I found the root cause to be a student who refused to accept me as the rightful leader of the class.

Michelle Miller, PhD

I come to my discussion courses with the assumption that students do realize that I am the authority in the class and, just as importantly, that they want to use the time productively. This simple assumption on my part frees me from a great deal of needless worry and, I hope, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

—Michelle D. Miller, Professor and Chair, Department of Psychology and President's Distinguished Teaching Fellow