Too Much Discussion? Part Two

Last week, I wrote about a class where I have one student who tends to dominate the discussion, leading other students to largely check out (or, worse, roll their eyes whenever they (the student who talks a good deal) starts to say anything).  I talked about using a technique of dividing the students into rows first and calling on each row, then, this past week, dividing them into groups.  This week, I’d like to talk about how last week’s classes went, both positively and negatively.We only had class two days because of Fall Break, and each day was rather different.  On Monday, I used a deck of cards to divide the class into random groups.  What I found interesting is that the student who talks much of the time was paired with a student who rolls theirs eyes at the student on a regular basis.  They actually got along in their group just fine and had a productive conversation.  I don’t know if the more talkative student consciously backed off on the amount of talking, but, whenever I was near that group, they seemed to be functioning just fine.

The group approach accomplished what I had hoped.  Apart from a few comments when I was trying to introduce the author for that day and get them started in groups, the talkative student didn’t speak the rest of class.  Instead, since I called on students randomly, a number of other students, some of whom don’t talk, carried the conversation.  In both ways, then, this approach was a success.

However, there was a distinct drawback to this approach.  The discussion was not as fluid as it usually is in my classes.  There are two reasons for this problem.  First, the groups were very focused on one question, so when I called on them, they answered their question, and that was about it.  They didn’t springboard from that question to something else, nor did other groups, as they had their questions to deal with.  In a normal, all-class discussion, students would build on one another or me, but that didn’t happen.

Second, we were rushed to get through everything I had hoped to talk about that day.  Because it took them a few minutes to get into their groups, then to work on the question their group was dealing with, we lost about 10-15 minutes of a 50 minute period.  Add on the fact that we also had  a quiz, and I spent a few minutes introducing the author, and we’re now talking about half the class period gone before we really start discussing the material.

Granted, one could argue that they were already discussing the material in their groups, so they were already learning.  That’s true, and it’s not to be discounted.  However, they were focused on very narrow questions during that time, not the larger questions I wanted to get them to.  If we would have discussed the story as I normally would, as an entire class, we could have covered much of the same material in the same time in more depth.

If I wanted to keep taking this approach to the class, I could develop a better routine and structure to the class to alleviate some of these problems.  I would also put together better questions the more I worked on the class in this manner, I’m sure.  It wouldn’t require completely rethinking the class, but there would be some major adjustments.  I’m not opposed to that, but Wednesday’s class showed me why I don’t want to do that.

On Wednesday, we had several students out for Fall Break (several absences were because of school-related activities), one of whom was my talkative student.  Because I knew they were going to be absent, I planned to teach class exactly as I would otherwise.  We had a great discussion.  A wide variety of students got involved, and the discussion flowed naturally.  They asked interesting questions and took the conversation in a few directions other than what I had planned, as I always like to see happen.

When I have class periods like this one, I realize how well class discussion can work when everyone seems to be on board with it.  Perhaps the group work on Monday loosened a few people up to talk more than they would have otherwise.  Perhaps it was simply a smaller class size (maybe 20, as opposed to 28).  Perhaps it was simply that the material was more interesting to them.  There are lots of reasons Wednesday could have gone better.  The one thing I do know, though, was that I had changed back to the normal discussion method.

So, what will I do in this class from now on?  That’s a good question.  I’ll probably look at each day’s reading and see if it would lend itself to the group approach (or some other) and consider doing that.  If I do that every other week or so, I might be able to shift the balance of discussion in the class, but I want to make sure that approach doesn’t pull away from what I need to cover, given how I’ve set up the course.  On other days, I’ll try to lead class discussion as I normally do and see if I can’t limit how much that student contributes.  I’m sure some days will be better than others, no matter what I do, but the good days make the effort worthwhile.

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