What makes a silence awkward? The standard advice is to wait for four seconds. And that’s easy, right? It’s just four seconds. Except… each one of those four seconds tick by like dog years after you’ve posed a provocative question to your students.
Every instructor dreams of a good or (let’s admit it) even a mediocre discussion to get the intellectual juices flowing during class time. Discussions are the bread and butter of a successful lecture (PowerPoint slides are more like the lima beans of a lecture) and represent a more lively, two-way exchange of ideas and concepts between students and teacher. While there are no secrets to facilitating a discussion so profound it practically compels students to hammer out passionate LiveJournal posts after class, a few guidelines may help lay the groundwork for successful communication.
To use the analogy of a garden, you don’t expect to walk out your back door and pick a few tomatoes unless you have prepared some soil, planted seeds, tended seedlings, and weeded before you can make that fabulous BLT with homegrown tomatoes.
- PREPARING THE SOIL:
Creating a foundation for discussions ensures that at least some vocalization has a fighting chance to sprout among your students. By that, I mean you can’t reasonably expect students to suddenly begin speaking up in class when you’ve been delivering monologues for five weeks. Start the first day, if possible, by having students “speed-date” one another with banal topics like what their favorite dessert is, if they have met anyone famous, or what they want to be doing in ten years. Though time-consuming, it’s well worth calling roll the first few class periods by asking students to respond with their favorite movie or music group to open dialogue (however, the “roll call” technique certainly has its limits when teaching a class over forty).
- PLANTING SEEDS:
If a topic for discussion ends with, “Do you agree or disagree?” consider this a closed-ended question. When called on, if students can get away with a yes or no answer, they will do it! More provocative open-ended questions, such as, “Tell us some of the social norms in your sorority/workplace/lacrosse team,” begs longer explanations and may provide a more relevant context in which to discuss sociological topics. One way to “force” discussion is by awarding points for discussion questions submitted by students. In the syllabus, explain that students will be responsible for bringing a question to class that relates to the current material. Call on students to read their questions and require them to facilitate a one to two minute discussion among the rest of the class.
- TENDING THE GARDEN:
Remember to thank your students for participation! Speaking up in class is a great risk, especially to introverts, English as a second language (ESL) students, and freshmen. It seems a small thing, but acknowledging a response goes a long way toward showing students that everyone’s input is valued and that your classroom is a safe place to voice an opinion. Care for your students and acknowledge the bravery it takes many people to participate in an unfamiliar setting.
Fostering a “discussion-friendly” classroom is not without its hazards. Students may participate in ways that are hostile, derogatory, or off-topic. Like those stubborn weeds that seem to pop up daily in a garden, you may have one or two students that completely dominate conversations during every lecture. Many resources exist that can aid you in troubleshooting discussion hijackers and antagonists (for example, check out this article. Do not hesitate to ask colleagues and consult teaching newsletters for advice about these sorts of disturbances.
Take stock of what worked and what did not work during the semester. Save the good ideas (and remember the bad) for the next class. Use student evaluations to assess the successfulness of class discussion (you may want to create your own “discussion” evaluations, as the college’s more generic evals may not touch on this topic specifically).
Engaging classroom discussions can be one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching. Remember, though, you can’t expect to reap the benefits of a vibrant classroom if you don’t put in the work yourself. Happy discussing!
Ami Stearns teaches at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City Community College.