Discussion by way of Scattergories

Is it right to use competition as a way to foster discussion in class? I am a competitive person, and one of the biggest adjustments I had to make when I began college was realizing that, unlike a high school debate, collaborative discussion doesn’t have a winner (although there are plenty of ways to make everyone lose).

Today I am ducking the larger issue and will just describe a competitive activity that I have found works in classes with fewer than thirty students. I adapted/borrowed heavily/ripped it off from Scattergories. If you haven’t played that game before, it consists of trying to list answers to questions distinct from the answers your competitors come up with.

The goal of this adapted scattergories is to assess student knowledge on a subject while also engaging them in discussion. Have the students take out a sheet of paper and list five things they know/think they know about a subject like World War II. When I conducted this, I framed the task as listing five things that made World War II similar or different to other historical events that we had studied in class. I told students that tiny bits of trivia are out of bounds.  The goal is to write things that both no one else comes up with and are defendable. Once the students finish (give them about five minutes), start going around and asking them what they wrote (my summer class was only fifteen students and was held in a room with three big whiteboards, so I had them all write their answers on the board). If some other student has written the same answer, then the two cancel each other out. The student with the highest amount of original items wins.

On anything that is questionable, or in a gray area of being too vague or too trivial, have the students discuss and vote if the answer qualifies. The same goes if there is disagreement about whether two students’ answers are actually the same, or have distinct enough wording. When I tried this a couple times with my summer class, I was struck by how far the students got into debating the answers, and how many wanted to voice their opinions. For example, one student wrote for the different/same World War II topic that the Holocaust was the first genocide in history. That sparked a debate about the definition of genocide and what prior events we had looked at in class could be seen as genocidal (this was a US survey that began with Columbus, so you can guess some of the counter precedents that students raised). One student wrote that World War II was like World War I because new technology was used in the fighting, but another student forced a debate by objecting that the answer was too vague because new technology was always being developed in history.

I enjoyed moderating this discussion because the questions raised were generated by students in response to statements written by the students. I tried to step back more than usual, just pushing along questions and timing when to ask for a vote. How much you intervene somewhat depends on the answers, a couple times I did have to gently shoot down some  good attempts that were factually wrong, but not at a much higher rate than I would have to in any discussion.

I like occasionally switching things up from the usual mix of lecture and primary source discussion.  So far I’ve only used this activity before starting a unit, to access prior student knowledge as well as get the students thinking on a topic, but I could also see it as a tool for review. An issue I’ve had with this adapted Scattergories is the time it can suck up. One solution is to group the students into pairs, threes or fours and have them come up with shared answers. One could also condense the number of answers from five to three to speed things along. I also could have been better about forcing a time limit on discussion of a given answer, but I am a sucker for letting a discussion go as long as it stays productive/interesting.

Anybody have games like this that they would recommend? Do you find it helpful to use competitive activities with students, or do you see this as counterproductive to what studying history in a college classroom should be?

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