Squelching Class Discussion

Last week, I wrote about some things I do to encourage students to talk in class.  This week, I had one of the best, if not the best, class discussion I’ve ever had.  It was so good that there was a span of about ten minutes (I looked at my watch, actually, as I could see what was happening, and I was enjoying every minute of it) where all I did was call on students to help manage who was talking when, making sure everyone who wanted to get heard got heard.  Out of a class of 26 students, 14 of them spoke and made good contributions to the class.

However, in another class this week, a first-year writing class, I had the opposite situation.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t having class discussion; instead, I had one or two people who were dominating.  They were even talking over each other, sometimes apologizing, but sometimes not.  It was clear that one of them was frustrated with the other.  I could have done what some professors do:  “Let’s hear what someone from this of the room has to say” or “What does one of you who hasn’t spoken think?”  For some reason, though, those questions have never seemed genuine coming from me, so I have to find other ways to engage students who aren’t contributing.

I used to use a good deal of group work in this class, dividing students into small groups where they would work on one or two questions I wanted us to consider that day.  I would then select a random spokesperson from each group (whose birthday is nearest to Christmas or who has the most vowels in their name, silly ways, granted, but truly random ones, given that I don’t know that information) to make sure people were accountable.  What I found, though, was that groups would work well for a few minutes, then quickly get off the subject.  When I wandered around, they would come back to what they were supposed to do, but dividing the class encouraged them to drift off, which I felt was wasting class time.

Thus, last semester, I switched to more of an all class discussion set up with me very much in front and in charge to try to get them to see how we could have an extended conversation on one subject, essentially teaching them how to have a discussion.  That went really well, as I later broke the class into groups, and they were more focused.  This semester, I planned to do the same.  However, the dominance of the two students led me to bring out the groups much earlier.  As with previous semesters, I spent the first fifteen minutes or so talking about some literary terms, then I divided the class into groups to find examples of those in the stories we had read.

When we came back together as a group, the discussion was much better than it had been the previous week.  Not only did I force several students to talk who might not have otherwise, several other students who had not spoken the previous class, either because they were unable to get into the conversation or they were unwilling to do so, made strong contributions to the discussion.

I might try switching back to the all class discussion on Tuesday to see how it goes, but I’m not sure yet.  I want to make sure I can build on the good discussion from Thursday and not lose that momentum.  If you have good ways to create class discussion, feel free to post them below.

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