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Increase class participation in discussions

Every week, Kim Marshall puts together a memo highlighting key stories from a range of publications.  Here is his synopsis of a David Brooks’ recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  It offers great tips to improve class participation and help engage learners in active learning,  including:

  • Require learners to recite passages
  • Have students give presentations
  • Hand out questions in advance
  • Launch discussions by putting solid content on the table
  • Give students time to think
  • Set discussion rules
  • Tolerate silences
  • Schmooze
  • Listen

How to Get Active Student Participation In Class Discussions

In this thoughtful Chronicle of Higher Education article with clear implications for K-12 classrooms, University of Montana history teaching assistant David Brooks suggests ways to get students to open up and talk:

Require students to recite passages. Brooks has asked students to memorize material from one of the course’s weekly reading assignments and present it in class. He’s found that having students recite authentic material from historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frederick Douglass gets discussions off to a much livelier start. “Nailing down the thesis or main points early made it easier to tackle questions of evidence, rhetorical style, or connections to lecture material,” says Brooks. “I maintain that memorizing someone else’s words or thoughts is not much different from a musician’s committing melodies to memory. It is the precursor to improvising.” In addition, when students take exams, they see the value of having key portions of historical documents at the tip of their tongues.

Have students give presentations. Brooks has students prepare and deliver short, extemporaneous talks related to the assigned material. “Because I let students pick their own topics for these talks, they owned the material,” he says. “At best, the exercise put students in the role of teacher, giving them a chance to ask and field questions. It associated a sense of authority with talking in class.” Every time Brooks did this, he found that the section ran overtime.

Hand out questions in advance. Brooks says that when he hasn’t given students questions or themes to think about before they read, class discussions usually flop. “Without reading prompts,” he says, “students seem to retain less of what they’ve read, for lack of focus. And unprompted reading leaves students, literally, on different pages: some recall specific details, others, overarching arguments, while most come to the discussion with an unorganized smattering of recollections.”

Launch discussions by putting solid content on the table. Brooks has found that starting a class by asking for a summary of a document – for example, the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – gets discussions off to a better start than asking general questions like “How did Northerners view slavery?” Asking students to recap the previous class discussion or a recent lecture is equally effective.

Give students time to think. Brooks often gives students five minutes to jot down their thoughts before launching a discussion. “Many feel more comfortable contributing to a discussion if they have a crib sheet of their own creation at hand,” he says. “I’m a slow thinker. I walk away from plenty of conversations and uncover my clearest thoughts on the topic minutes, sometimes hours or days later. Expecting students who might be grappling with unfamiliar material to have quick and ready answers is often unrealistic.”

Set discussion rules. Brooks requires that once a person has spoken in class, he or she has to wait until three others have spoken before participating again. This gets more students involved in the discussion, discourages hasty rebuttals, and stimulates extended exchanges and more robust debates. The rule applies to the TA as well, which eliminates the all-too-frequent ping-pong dynamic of teacher-queries/student-answers.

Tolerate silences. “At the very least,” says Brooks, “the awkwardness of an elongated pause in a room full of undergraduates, with a question hanging over their heads and a TA looking on, goads even the most reticent student to talk. Eventually someone will sacrifice herself or himself, and others will soon commiserate.”

Schmooze. “Rather than waltzing into class at the last minute and using my first question like the rap of a gavel to stifle energetic talk about last weekend (or the next one),” says Brooks, “I like to show up early and socialize.” Sometimes there’s a convenient segue from pre-class chatter and the subject matter of the day – and sometimes digressions during the class can help students make links to their own lives and see more clearly the importance of what they are learning.

Listen. These techniques are helpful in promoting better discussions in class, concludes Brooks, but there’s one thing that may be most important of all: “it’s hard to make people want to talk if you don’t want to listen.”

“Getting Students to Talk” by David Brooks in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mar. 25, 2011 (Vol. LVII, #29, p. A31-32),

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