An Easy Way to Encourage, Track, Assess, and Regulate Class Discussions

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For me, one of the more difficult aspects of teaching a seminar-style class has been encouraging, monitoring, and assessing open-ended discussions. There are several things that make whole-class discussions difficult to pull off successfully. The most problematic is simply getting the students to talk to begin with. This is often due to lack of preparation, but it is as often due to the fact that students have not had proper training in how to participate in an open discussion, having spent much of their educational lives in drill-and-test, top-down “learning” environments, and many of them are simply afraid of saying something that is “wrong” (because in these kinds of environments there are only right and wrong answers) and/or of appearing “dumb” in front of their peers. If you are successful in getting students to open up and talk, a scenario usually develops in which a few students dominate the discussion, either because of lack of participation by others or because these students have dominant personalities and tend to “over share” their knowledge and opinions. And then there is the issue of tracking, recording, and assessing discussion participation. I have seen various methods suggested over the years, from putting names on popsicle sticks and cold-calling on students whose stick is selected to marking hashmarks for each contribution to giving students a plus, check, or minus for the number and quality of their contributions. But I have never found any of these systems to really work. So, when planning my seminar-style Graphic Novel Survey class this term, I had to figure out a way to address all of these issues. This is the method that I came up with and which is working quite effectively.

Encouraging Discussion

First, I needed to figure out a way to encourage students to not only participate in discussion but come properly prepared to do so. If the students were thoroughly prepared, I felt certain that they would be more comfortable talking. I also needed to ensure feelings of responsibility and accountability on every students’ part; they each needed to know that they could not just let someone else carry their load, so to speak. I tackled these two related issues in the following ways.

I addressed the aspect of preparation by having our discussion days at the end of each unit, so that students had already completed several virtual and in-class activities that ensured that they had read the novel we would be discussing and had had ample opportunities to work with it via interactive lectures, small-group activities, and individual analysis, and by requiring that every student bring a potential discussion question to class on the day of discussion. I also had students volunteer to be discussion leaders for each novel; this meant that students’ peers were responsible for previewing and selecting from their submitted questions, determining what order in which to ask the questions, ensuring an active discussion via prompting and encouragement, and moving on to the next question when discussion waned. I felt that students would feel more comfortable if their peers were facilitating the discussion and, since students tend to be more sympathetic to each other than to me, they would actively participate rather than watch their peers struggle to carry out their assignment. Lastly, on the day of discussion, I had students sit in a circle so that everyone was facing each other; this helped communicate mutual responsibility and accountability, since all students could see each other and make eye contact.

Tracking, Assessing, and Regulating Discussion

Next, I worked on determining an efficient method for keeping up with which students contributed, how often they did so, and the quality of their contributions. Since this class usually contains its fair share of fanboys and fangirls, groups that can quell other students’ enthusiasm with their encyclopedic knowledge and exuberance for sharing it, I also had to figure out a way to allow students to self-monitor their contributions, since I needed to focus on recording and assessing contributions and I knew that the student discussion leaders would not know how to diplomatically handle a domineering peer. I managed to kill all of these birds with one stone in the following way.

I adapted the popsicle stick method, using sticky notes instead and making the students responsible for selecting when they contributed. I gave each student four sticky notes and had them write their name on each.  Whenever they wanted to contribute to the discussion, they had to give me a sticky note; once they were out of sticky notes, they could not contribute until everyone else had used up all of their notes. This facilitated two aspects of the discussion: in terms of equalizing participation, it forced those who would normally over-contribute to self-monitor and be more selective about when they spoke up, and for those who normally would not have contributed, it forced them to speak up because they could no longer rely on the dominant students to do so and they had a visual reminder of how much they were expected to contribute. This method also allowed me to easily track who had spoken up and how often.

In terms of assessing contributions, after receiving a sticky note from a student, I would listen to their remarks and then quickly make note of their quality on the note (a plus for excellent quality, a check for good quality, and a minus for all other remarks). I stacked each student’s notes on top of each other on a page of my legal pad. After class, I could then very easily assign a grade to each student for the discussion: 4 stickies equalled an A, 3 equalled a B, 2 equalled a C, and 1 equalled a D. I used the plus/check/minus notations to determine whether they received an A+, A,  A-, etc.; if the majority of notations were pluses, then the student earned a plus, if the majority were minuses, the student earned a minus, etc. While it is not a perfect system (a student could potentially earn an A for making 4 remarks of poor quality), so far, for this class, it has been very accurate thanks to the preparation and responsibility components that I have combined it with.

The open discussions that my students have had so far this term have far exceeded my expectations. They have made connections between novels and with both their personal lives and society at large without my prompting them to. They have submitted thought-provoking questions and raised additional questions during their discussions. They have taken to the task of facilitating their own discussions with enthusiasm and finesse. And, without fail, on discussion days, we have consistently lost track of time and went over our 90 minute discussion period. I have no real way of knowing how much of this is attributable to the students themselves and their enthusiasm for the course materials and how much is attributable to the methods that I have used to encourage, track, and regulate their discussions. I plan to try these methods with my freshman in the fall and see if I have similar positive results. I’ll certainly blog about the results, whether positive or negative.

Hopefully, if you have struggled with encouraging and recording open student discussions as I have, you will give some or all of these methods a try or adapt them for your own needs. Please let me know if you do so and how it works so that we all can learn together!

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