Too Much Discussion?

It’s not often I complain about having too much discussion in class, but I have one class this semester where I have that student.  Anyone who has taught knows about that student, in relation to discussion.  They (I’ll use plural to protect anonymity) feel like they have to contribute to every single conversation that goes on.  Even when I’m simply talking about an idea or even a technique to do something, they feel the need to chime in with their thoughts on the matter.  On the rare occasions when they’re not sharing thoughts with the entire class, they’re usually sharing them with whomever is around them.

I haven’t handled the situation as well as I could have.  I’ve waited too long to do anything about the situation, which means fewer and fewer students have been contributing to the discussion, letting them do all of the work.  Such an approach isn’t healthy for the class, and I know it.  I also know how challenging of a situation this one is.  I don’t want to squelch anyone who’s contributing to the class, but I also don’t want one person to dominate.  This week, I knew things needed to change.I know that some people are saying that I should simply have talked to them outside of class and encouraged them to talk less frequently.  I thought about that approach, but I don’t want to make it seem I don’t value their comments, as I do.  They also seem to have a rather fragile ego, and such an approach could certainly have negative effects.  For that reason, as well as many others, I also don’t want to just shoot them down in class, which might be effect in the short term, but I can’t imagine what it would do to discussion, in general.

I’ve been reading Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom, and he definitely talks about this issue.  If you’re at all interested in class discussion, you should pick up the book and read it.  He does a good job of laying out the research around class discussion in an easily accessible approach to the subject.  I didn’t quite use any of the ideas he mentioned (yet), but I certainly pulled from his research.

I did an adapted form of what I’ve done in some of my freshman composition classes.  Given that those students are just starting college, and they’re not skilled at having an all-class discussion for an hour and fifteen minutes (I meet those classes twice a week), I tend to do some sort of group work every class.  That gives students a chance to work out their thoughts in smaller groups before coming back to the entire class and sharing them there (I have spokespeople for the group that are completely random, so everyone talks).

In this literature class, I didn’t want them to rearrange in groups and talk about the subject ahead of time, as we had too much to talk about that day.  Instead, I divided them by rows and called on each row to answer a question I posed.  Granted, the people who didn’t want to talk could still hide in their row and not have to participate in the active way that I would have wanted.  However, such an approach did negate how often my frequent talker could contribute.

They did still talk probably more than anyone else in the class, but not significantly more, as they’ve been doing.  Instead, I heard from more people than I had heard from in several weeks.  It still wasn’t ideal, but it was much better than the class meeting before.  It felt much more like a real discussion.

Today, then, I’ll continue taking such an approach.  I’ll probably put them into groups and have them do some work before coming back to the entire class.  I’ll be sure they’re not the random spokesperson for their group, so any contribution they make will make extra.  I know they’ll make some, but, again, I can limit that number fairly quickly.  After a few class periods of this, I might switch back and see if anything has changed.  I’m nothing if not an optimist.


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