Creating the Space for Engaged Discussions

It’s a new academic year, and optimism and energy are in abundant supply. There are new ideas for class, new ways to engage students, and great questions to wrestle with as the intersections between past and present have rarely been so obvious. And it all goes swimmingly, it seems, until the first time we actually launch a discussion. Then those faces that seemed to be so cheerful–nodding along as we talked about how our class could be challenging, provocative, even FUN–now stare back blankly. It was as if posing a question triggered an actual electric shock that stunned them into a catatonic state. No…wait! Someone looked up. Eye contact? We look at them hopefully, ready for someone to bravely interrupt the increasingly awkward silence. They meet our gaze for a split second, their eyes widen in panic, and all of a sudden there seems to be something much more compelling to look at on the floor next to their chair. It’s as if the air goes out of the room. Everyone seemed to be on board with a discussion-based class until we actually gave them the chance to embark. Then, abandon ship.

It’s hard to muster the enthusiasm (and increased effort) necessary for an active, collaborative class environment when none of our students seem to reciprocate. We know an active learning pedagogy is better for student learning, but we also face circumstances like this example, or of large classes, or of rooms with desks bolted to the floor in rows. Our discipline has so many avenues into a fruitful conversation with students: primary sources, images, “what-if” questions, debates, exploration of difficult, controversial, or morally and ethically complex issues. But those conversations can’t happen if only one party participates. The key question for so much of our teaching, then, is what do we do when discussion dies?

I’d like to suggest that a flagging discussion, or one that fails to launch entirely, is most often the fault of something other than our students. Sure, there are some students who haven’t done the reading or who refuse to participate come hell or high water. But most of our students are receptive to at least the idea of engaged, active learning. The key is to turn that general willingness into specific practices. Here are some strategies and methods that have proven effective for me across survey and upper-level courses, small and large classes, in rooms that may or may not allow any deviation from the regimented rows-and-columns arrangement.

The first thing to consider is our own actions during and immediately after posing the “discussion-starter” question. Have we asked a question that is sufficiently open-ended to invite further conversation? In other words, are we soliciting actual discussion, or only mere recitation? A good, complex question that sparks thoughtful engagement–which is the ideal–is not one that can be immediately answered by our students. We know this in the abstract, but research suggests that instructors fear prolonged silences more than they value students’ having the time to think. If we wait a second or two and, hearing nothing, either answer the question ourselves or move on to something else, all we’re doing is showing our students that if they don’t answer a question, we’ll do it for them. And you can guess what the results will be. One of the most common ways in which class discussions flag is a lack of Mary Budd Rowe called “wait-time” and “think-time.” We need to provide enough of both after posing a question or problem for our students to process and determine how to best articulate their response. A simple fix is to mentally count off ten seconds after asking a question (which I guarantee will feel much longer than that initially) to allow for students to think and respond. If the silence persists, then we can go back and rephrase or clarify the question, but it’s essential for us to show our students that silence and time for thought are not only OK, but encouraged. This is one small fix that can pay much larger dividends in the quality of our discussions.

Along these lines, consider building in a short period of free-writing to launch discussions. This is my go-to method for discussions in all of my courses now. I ask students to get out something to write with–pencil or pen, laptop or tablet, clay tablet and cuneiform stylus–and pose my question. I tell them they should jot down ideas, notes, sentences, whatever helps them organize their thoughts. After two minutes or so, I ask them to share their ideas. What I like about this technique is that students tend to provide deeper and more analytic answers having had the time to think and write before being asked to share. Students who are less verbally assertive, those who may not jump right into a discussion if I just ask a question and wait for responses right away, are more confident about participating with the chance to think intentionally about how they want to articulate their ideas. And if there is that dreaded drawn-out silence, calling on someone to share their thoughts comes across much less like a “gotcha” strategy to the students, since everyone had a chance to write something. Again, this is a fairly simple technique that brings much larger results, in the form of richer and more sustained discussions with a wider range of participants.

For larger classes (anything over 30-40, really), students–even the more confident and assertive ones–tend to be much less likely to participate in a discussion where the instructor tosses out a question and waits for responses. What works well in a smaller class where students quickly come to know one another does not work at all in an impersonal lecture hall. But that doesn’t mean discussion isn’t a viable option, but it needs to be facilitated and encouraged differently. One useful technique is to work from the individual student outwards., scaffolding the discussion and allowing it to emerge more organically from smaller units, as opposed to expecting discussion to spring fully-formed from a 200-person lecture hall. After posing the question (preferably putting it up on the screen or board for students to refer to), have students free write a response for a minute or two. Then, have them work in groups of something like 2-4 people and share their thoughts with the other group members. To this point, it’s the same procedure as the venerable think-pair-share activity present in so many teachers’ toolboxes. But these groups have a more direct task-they must select a response (or synthesize one from multiple members) that speaks for the entire group. So now we have students who are explaining and defending their ideas to others, which leverages some of the learning potential that we know can emerge from a peer instruction model. At this point, if the class is small enough, each group can appoint a spokesperson to present their thoughts to the rest of the class. Or, you can combine these small group units by asking groups to pair with another group, adding another layer to the discuss-defend process. Those larger groups then report out to everyone. What this technique does is break down a larger impersonal environment that’s not conducive to conversation into personal, then small interpersonal, units that most definitely are. Moreover, the process by which students explain and defend their position to peers contains all sorts of cognitive benefits, including deeper understanding and better retention of the material. It should be noted that more complex, perhaps multi-part, questions–and questions that have no clearly defined “right” answer–work best for this exercise.

These are just three basic techniques that require little to no investment of time that can produce the results we hope to achieve as we imagine our ideal class discussions. The common denominator for all of them is the creation of space for students to think, process, and then articulate ideas they’ve worked with in complex and higher-order ways. That space is essential for good discussions, and is also contingent upon classroom climate. Have we created an environment where all of our students feel comfortable sharing ideas and taking intellectual risks? Do we, as instructors, insure that discussions are equitable–that we aren’t only calling on male students to contribute, for example? (Gender is one of principal areas in which inequities occur in the college classroom.) If we take the time to thoughtfully and intentionally construct spaces in which our students can engage with both complex ideas and one another, we can create a class that hums with conversation rather than drones with lectured monologue.


Note: two invaluable resources on fostering effective class discussions are Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for College Classrooms, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005); and Jay R. Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online (San Francisco” Jossey-Bass, 2015).

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