The Problem of Class Discussion

After having completed one-third of the semester teaching two freshman seminars, I have concluded that generating an effective class discussion is the greatest challenge that I face as an instructor. Conversely, I very much enjoy courses with a lecture format on which I have had great success in the past. I will always defend this tried-and-true pedagogical method. The freshman seminar, however, presents a new realm of difficulty. I would very much appreciate any feedback.

I expect all of my students to have read closely all of the material, and come to class prepared and equipped to discuss the major problems and themes in an organized manner. This, however, rarely happens. Students, as we are all painfully aware, choose to read in the most cursory of ways, marred by the distractions of college life and social media. You, as the reader, are probably now thinking that I have a “get off my lawn” complex. Your evaluation is absolutely correct. Whereas I treat my students with immense respect, I also place high standards on their conduct and preparation, expecting an intellectual preparation for, and engagement in, each class period.

More times than not, however, I find that class discussions wane, grinding to a halt once it is clear that students have not read closely. This creates an air awkwardness in which I am limited in what I can ask because I know that they have not prepared to have an adequate conversation. My approach is simple. I have read the material long in advance and bring to class questions and themes that I consider crucially important, looking forward to hearing students’ reactions to the same substantive themes.

For example, in my seminar on American gun culture, I begin most class periods with the following question: “what can we take from [author’s name] account to help inform our perspectives on the present?” The purpose of this question is clear: I want students to see how history and the modern-day are intimately linked, the former an important determinant of the latter. Yet the ensuing conversation almost always remains on the surface. This past week’s readings dealt with the crumbling of American republicanism and the rise of American democracy during the early nineteenth century. Many of my questions centered on how these concepts related not only to the evolution of national gun culture, but also, more broadly, what this theme–the transition from republicanism to democracy–tells us about the American character, both in the past and especially in the present. Indeed, I am always trying to get students to relate themes from historical texts to modern-day conditions and problems.

The readings offered clear definitions and explanations for all of these terms; the discussion should not have been influenced by a lack of understanding. Instead, a lack of engaged reading and an absence of  adequate preparation have made some of our seminar meetings sputter when they should have thrived.

So my questions are: what are the keys to having effective class discussions? How do we keep the students focused on the major themes and implications of the readings? How do we encourage students to read and prepare actively?

5 thoughts on “The Problem of Class Discussion

  1. I struggle with this in my classes as well. I’ve been trying a few new things this term that have been helping a great deal, though. The big thing is that I assign low-stakes writing assignments that respond to the readings. It doesn’t always work, but often students at least come to the table having done a somewhat closer reading if they have had to write on it. I give them some general prompts, but they aren’t very specific (and I often have students complain about this, but they are general for a reason–I want them to give them a sense of what they should be looking for without doing all of the work for them). I was finding that I was writing a lot of comments like “I’d like to see you get more specific here… can you go a bit deeper in your analysis?” and so we took some class time to closely analyze a document together so that they can see what I mean when I say those things. The next papers come in on Monday, so we’ll see if that helped… One other thought. In my other class, I often end with the kind of question that it sounds like you’re starting with (what are the implications for the present). I start off discussion with more nuts and bolts questions, guiding them through the arguments in the articles we’re discussing before letting them loose with the big-picture questions. My experience so far has been that then, even students who did a cursory reading have had their memories refreshed, those who did a closer reading feel more secure that they got the right things out of the reading, and we’re ready to get a bit deeper.

  2. Hi Emily, thanks for the thoughtful feedback. I think your new strategies sound great. Right now, I require students to bring two discussion questions or thesis statements to class, but I have learned that these can be written very hastily with little thought involved. And, some students will simply write their discussion questions during the class discussion. I really like the idea of assigning low-stakes writing prompts. I think my biggest problem is coming to terms with the fact that freshmen simply are not nearly as interested in these topics as I am. It’s a frustrating reality, but that’s where we are.

  3. I had an undergraduate professor that had her students fill out a sort of worksheet for each secondary reading we completed. It had fields along the following lines:

    Who is the author?
    What is the author’s background and training? How might that background and training influence his/her arguments?
    What is the historical question the author is seeking to answer?
    How have other historians answered the same or similar questions?
    What is the author’s argument?
    What are the sources used to make this argument?
    What other sources could have been used?
    Are there any logical gaps involved in the argument or in how the author uses evidence?
    What is the most convincing piece of evidence the author presents?
    Are there any other conclusions that could be drawn using the author’s evidence?

    A sort of line-by-line guide in how historians should assess each other’s work. I’ve always thought of using this as a scaffolding exercise–when asking students to write a critical review or engage in a critical conversation (as in your case), having them fill out this completed worksheet for the first assignment and then slowly remove the requirements in the hopes that they will build the muscle memory as to how to think, write, and speak like a historian.

  4. Like Emily I also use low-stakes reading responses. Every day students must turn in answers to two questions I have given them about the reading for that day. I make these due before we will do the discussion because then I know the students have at least thought about the questions I’ve given them (and hopefully more) and then I am also able to draw upon or call attention to certain things during class time. I will often refer to a particularly good answer using the students’ names (which boosts confidence of even the quiet kids) or will go into a deeper explanation of a concept from the reading that the class as a group seems to have missed. The first time I did this I was concerned that the students would feel like it was a lot of work, but the exact opposite happened. Evaluations overwhelmingly pointed to the assistance having a couple of focus questions can have when reading academic history as well as the need to always keep up with the readings for class. I give these assignments a letter grade every day, drop the lowest two (most students just skip two of them), and make it the largest single chunk of their overall course grade. I keep it separate from their attendance/participation grade so that students who speak up in class and contribute on a deeper level in discussions because I have also found that some students cannot seem to write out their thoughts well, but have clearly done the reading when it comes to speaking their thoughts.

    I really like that list that Ben posted. My students seem to be struggling with understanding the point of the books they are reading for a review assignment. Many want to be taken on an exciting roller coaster ride and are frustrated that these books aren’t novels. I think this list of questions will help them understand why people write history and who it is for.

  5. I’m also teaching freshmen this fall and, like others, I’ve found that the key to good discussions is creating low-stakes writing assignments that require them to do the reading. My favorite assignments are 50 words and do double duty: 1) ensuring they read and 2) helping them practice a discrete analytic skill — summarize, compare, account for, explain, hypothesize, etc. As a bonus, they’re easy to grade and create ample opportunity for in-class revision. I find that a single focused question does more to get students reading closely and ready to talk than anything else. I’d be happy to talk/write about this at length if you’re interested in hearing more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *