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Tips for Effective Classroom Discussions

Page history last edited by Angela Kelling 3 months, 3 weeks ago Saved with comment

 

Main -> Pedagogy: Tips for Effective Classroom Discussions



 

Summary of Responses from PSYCHTEACHER “Effective Classroom Discussion” Post (September 2011)

 

Read the original post that generated this discussion.

 

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From Lauren Doninger, Gateway Community College

 

I think that the biggest issue may be the class size.  I think 30 is too many for students to feel a sense of accountability.  Perhaps break them down into small groups of 5, divvy up the questions (Q1, Q2, Q3, etc.) so there are a couple of groups that address each question.  After the groups of 5 come to consensus on a question, they then expand so that all groups who addressed Q1 meet to compare answers and come to consensus. All groups that addressed Q2 get together, etc… Then have the groups report back to whole class on the answer and process to which ever question they addressed.

 

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From Claudia Stanny, University of West Florida

 

I think you have many good things in place.  A quiz at the get-go to ensure that students actually prepared and reward those who did prepare.

 

I might try adding a clicker question that doesn't have a clear correct answer as a prompt for discussion.  If you are awarding points for "correctness" I think you can set up these questions so that all answers are correct.  Or you could presented these as a questions that are clearly independent of the "graded" part.  Posing a question about a debatable issue might be interesting (e.g., for a particular development in psychology, you could post the "great man" vs "zeitgeist" question) and then use that as the starting point for group discussion followed by collective discussion.

 

I had some success with a discussion-only graduate seminar recently.  I assumed students had read the material in advance.  I centered class discussion around questions about what students found confusing and/or especially interesting or noteworthy in the readings.  We started with the confusions, which sometimes led to a mini-lecture on my part (but never longer than 5 minutes or so).  These usually included questions for clarification.  As we segued into the interesting/noteworthy discussion, we generally managed to hit all the key items that I had prepared on a list of "big ideas" that I thought we needed to discuss at some time during the class.  It was a lively discussion every day and turned out to be a lot of fun.

 

I think having the short list of what needs to be discussed helps.  Sometimes (on a rough day) I end up plowing through that list and dragging stuff out of students.  On these days, the session feels more like an interrogation than a discussion . . . but I make the students talk.  I've been a student in seminars that sometimes devolved to this, so I know I'm not alone.  :-)

 

I've also tried assigning students the role of primary reader.  This alerts them that they will be on the hot seat for questions from me if discussion lags.  The good thing about this, is that they know when they are on rather than fretting about the luck of the draw on any given day.  I attended a seminar once where the instructor did this, using a random process to assign primary reader role to a few students for the following week.

 

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Brian Johnson, University of Tennessee at Martin

I just wanted to directly comment on a couple of things I found when teaching our Senior Seminar course (which the Department envisioned as a capstone course) and I too worked discussion in and always wondered about its impact. Let me start by giving the disclaimer that I never had a section that was any bigger than 21 people when I taught the course and I always had smaller classes in the Fall (7 and 4) than when I taught it in the Spring (21):

1) The way I always started the discussion using the Stanovich text (8th and 9th editions while teaching) is that I would ask the students what they found to be most interesting, confusing or unclear, and the key points to the chapter. This took the discussion in directions I hadn’t considered and often gave me a way to work back to the 3 – 4 points I wanted to make while allowing the students to guide the discussion and made me more a facilitator and “reminderer” of things that they had learned in earlier classes (i.e., just because you think that an opposing theory is right because it coincides with your belief, what did you learn about identifying the “best” theory in your research methods class). For your description of the class, it might be something that you could quickly get feedback before the clicker quiz and then add into your 4 points you wish to make during the class discussion and have it be something where students see that you are putting their good ideas into the discussion.

2) I had key points that I wanted to make, and often repeated them throughout the semester, so that students would sometimes get to the point that they would work those into their comments and “steal my thunder.” Which they loved and it made for a better learning atmosphere in the class and we got into more substantive discussions as the course went along because the students knew what criticisms or questions from me they’d have to address.

3) You might think about having the different discussion groups have a specific assignment that they bring back to the full group to avoid social loafing and the negative aspects of group decision-making. For example, one group might try to think of examples where they’ve seen two experts argue over the essential elements of what makes a group (how many people, etc.) rather than addressing how to operationally define and test an idea. Another might be asked to consider what disciplines might be most likely to favor the idea of essentialism in examining topics and what others in addition to psychology would focus on operationism. That way each group is held accountable for what it does during discussion time.

4) Consistently remind them, at least early on with discussion, that everyone is to use the skills they’ve developed to that point as a major in addressing areas where they disagree (anecdotes aren’t acceptable evidence, attack another’s logic rather than him or her personally, etc.). I would also remind them that these skills would be used whether they are going to a job after graduation or to graduate or professional school, so I was giving them the opportunity where practice and mistakes were encouraged and didn’t negatively impact their grades.

5) Might do something where you ask people to develop no more than a 1-page outline with the key 4 – 5 points listed and elaborated on that they will turn in daily or on whatever days they have class discussion (either for credit or not; may make it part of the points related to the clickers quizzes). In did this in my social psychology course and found for the students who took the assignment seriously, that they quality of their outlines increased—especially as I gave feedback; both constructive and positive/praising—and they’re larger and more important writing assignments were better as feel. Now, those students also performed on quizzes and exams, so I’m not sure the outline was the causal mechanism for their performance. But it helped all students because they had the outlines to refer back to during discussion and that eliminated the student’s forgetting a point. It also allows those who wish not to speak up during class (as I did when an undergraduate) to get credit for their ideas and a chance for me to tell them why their understanding was good and why he or she should contribute more to discussion but left the choice with the student. I used this idea from a research article (I believe from Teaching of Psychology) but I can’t currently find it. I’ll e-mail if I do, so you can look at it.

Here’s the citation information for Outline assignment I described in my previous e-mail (I referred to them as Daily Talking Points in my syllabus for my Social Psychology class and can send you a copy of those instructions if you wish).

Connor-Greene, P. A. (2005). Fostering meaningful classroom discussion: Student-generated questions, quotations, and talking points. Teaching of Psychology, 32(3), 173 – 175.

The short-version of what the author discusses is an assignment in outline (or narrative form) with the following:

(a) A question prompted by the assigned reading for that day (e.g. If a theory does not grow into a law, how do we get “laws” in Psychology?)

(b) A quotation from the reading, selected a particularly compelling or controversial

(c) A brief outline of ideas prompted by the readings that the student can use as “talking points” in class discussion

One caution is that some students will use class time to complete this, which I suspected, so I added additional work in terms of developing 2 of these daily talking points further into longer essays by the end of the semester. I also would take some of them up at the beginning of class and would not accept any from students after taking them up.

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Alisa Beyer, Dominican University

 

This is not new teaching news, but has worked really well for me.  I have students come with a note card that has 2 questions on it (thoughtful questions about reading)--you might choose to have 1 given the number of students you have.  I am usually generous and hand out the note cards they will need the first day of class (big money spender).  I have them write their name on the back of the card.


Each day I collect these and run through them myself while they do a similar activity to yours.  I sort them by theme, etc.  At some point in the class, I take some time for discussion of their questions.


I like your active learning approach with group discussions prior.  I would not let the small groups go too long with the discussion or they may not feel like reporting to the class afterwards.  Perhaps you want different groups to address different discussions, so there is more engagement for the entire class discussion.

 

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Laura Lunsford, University of Arizona South Campus

 

I'm teaching the same class this semester and starting off with the same book.  My classes are hybrid (online and with alternating face to face meetings).

Your strategy sounds good. The other things I am doing are to have them identify examples of folk psychology in the news and bring them to class - lots of small group discussion where they bring back answers to the group (I have them write on the board a summary of the responses to keep things moving).

I also am showing some of the Amazing Randi videos (on youtube and elsewhere) to go along with it. So I break things up every 20 minutes - talk, questions, video, small group and so on...

The other thing I'm doing (this is my first time teaching this course) is for students to create 'dialogues' between a folk psychologist and a historical figure from the period under study. They are short and they have to work in pairs to do this.

Below is a sample dialogue - they have to identify the 'fallacy' in the argument and name it correctly (using the book How to Win an Argument).

Good luck!

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Folk Psychologist (FP): Why are you studying 1,000 children with high IQs? Everyone knows that if you give children advanced work they will burn out quickly. You know the saying, “early ripe, early rot.”*

Terman: Do you mean to say that all children should be held back from advanced work, even if they're ready for it?

FP:  Well maybe not all children, but most of them.

Terman: Which children could be permitted to do advanced work?

FP:  Perhaps the children who have completed all their work and appear to be bored could be given some additional work.

Terman: Should they get more of the same work or can they proceed to the next lesson?

FP:  I suppose they already completed the work so they do not need more of the same. They could proceed to the next lesson.

Terman: Would you agree that any children who completed their work early could be allowed to proceed to the next lesson?

FP:  I suppose that would be okay. But what if they get too far ahead?

Terman: What does it mean to get too far ahead?

FP:  It means they are not learning the same material as their classmates.

Terman: If you let a student proceed to the next lesson they are already not learning the same material. Have you changed your mind?

FP:  No, I guess ,I mean that it would be difficult for a teacher to teach students who are at different places in the lessons.**

Terman: Okay, so your concern here is for the teacher, not that it would be bad for the student.

FP:  Yes, that is what I meant to say.

Terman: To return to your original question, I am studying these children so that we might learn more about how the most intelligent children develop and learn.

FP: Wouldn't they learn the same as all the other children?

Terman: Well, that is what I want to find out.

 

 

Fallacies in Dialogue

*1.`Everyone Knows’

**2.`Non Sequitur’

 

Include a statement with your names and the contribution of each person:

Dr Lunsford and Dr. Terman both contributed equally to creating this dialogue.

 

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Deanna Douglas, Bethany College

 

I do think your method of small groups first will help. I accidentally experienced this in two back-to-back stats classes last week. First day of class, I asked the first class some question and got dead silence. Tried to elicit comments through joking, dead space, no success. Dropped the discussion idea. Second class came in and I asked the same question, but had them discuss in groups of four, then I polled each group. Worked beautifully.

 

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Deborah Briihl, Valdosta State University

70 students? Wow. It's going to be difficult for the students because most likely they have spent a fair amount of time in larger sized classrooms that don't really encourage class participation, much less a class discussion. They don't really know how. I have smaller classes and they don't know how either. I have one class that requires class participation and one that requires class discussion and it requires work to get both going. For the small groups of class discussion, I would give some of the clicker questions first before the discussion begins. Otherwise, you will end up with a group of people who don't start looking at the material until they show up to class (I speak from experience on that one).  I would also recommend that the groups present to you some kind of finished product. It doesn't need to be long - just something that indicates that they were on task and not just discussing what they did last weekend or studying for an exam that is today (again, learned that one). Also, as a thought, why not have a group of students in charge of leading that day's discussion?


One final note - silence is not golden in situations like this. It is painful, long, and awful. But I have had to learn to shut my mouth and let the students talk (or sit there). I inform them that sitting in silence will not get them out of the room early, will not allow them to do something else, and they will then be required to learn the material on their own rather than during class time. There are days in which getting them to talk is like pulling teeth. Actually teeth pulling may better because you are on good drugs :). I either stand there or sit there and say nothing (which, as you may know, is a challenge for me). But some brave soul will talk. To ensure that it is not always the same brave soul, I require them to keep a record for me on when they talked and what they said and make sure they can see their grades as they relate to class participation.

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Jen Wright, College of Charleston

 

Sounds like a good approach for a class that size. The only thing I'd add is:

1. Make the groups responsible for summarizing their thoughts on paper as they talk (helps keep them focused and you can see the product of their group processing).
2. Maximize their contribution to the class discussion (and minimize their own). For example, let one group offer a response to one of the questions and then invite the other group to add to/alter that response. Really push them to respond to each other and not you. You can add observations that take the discussion in a new direction or to a new level, but otherwise fight the temptation to jump in.
3. Be prepared for awkwardness at first. Be positive and get comfortable with silence! But as you create the space for their participation, over time they will fill it.

 

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Karen Huffman, Palomar College

 

I agree with Deborah that creating good discussions with 70 students is a challenge, and with all of her other suggestions. I'd like to add that being a shy student in college and a lifelong shy instructor, I've been very interested in how to encourage full participation from all students. My experience is that if you start early in the semester and structure your small groups in a way that forces each student to contribute, you'll set the stage for more participation throughout the entire term.

I do this "forcing" by assigning points, as you've already done, and I generally ask each group to choose two people from their group to be either a presenter or a "scribe." (I avoid the word secretary to offset the stereotype of only female secretaries). The presenter's job is to summarize and present the group's general consensus/answer, whereas the scribe's job is to keep notes and divide the time evenly between each group member. After the group discussion, I ask the entire group to come to the front of the room to present and discuss  their results either verbally or in writing on the board. The more outgoing. extroverted students love being the presenters and they often do a great job of leading the discussion, while the shyer students will often volunteer to be the scribe. Student also are secretly interested in "getting acquainted" with their classmates and this is a good way to let them visually meet one another.

When I do this early in the semester, it helps set the stage and climate for more generalized discussion throughout the semester because students learn early on that this will be a standard part of the class structure. They also learn that their classmates and I are supportive and relaxed.
At the start of the term, I also go over the rules for "civil discourse," which simply means no verbal or nonverbal put downs at any time and "what goes on in Psych 100 stays in Psych 100." Finally, I reassure students that I'm not looking for a perfect answer--only a good faith effort. Hope this helps.

 

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Jeanie Allen, Drury University

 

I agree... Wow... 70 students.  I might start with asking why you want discussion and what you hope is accomplished through that format?  There may be a better approach to get that same result.  In my humble experience, I have found that I have to have a rather concrete task for students to achieve a useful discussion.  In fact, I feel like it has to be more and more concrete the more years I teach.

Some professors have had luck with debates that students watch and judge, or case studies that are presented and covered on a quiz of some type.

I have found that even in classes of 25, I have trouble with a full group discussion and have resorted to small groups of 3 to 5 with a formal presentation of their discussion.  Even that doesn't always go as planned.

I look forward to hearing some other responses.

 

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Eric Amsel, Weber State University

 

I love the discussions coming from Stanovich.  The book provides a rich set of issues to challenge students' understanding of science and of psychology. I have outside readings I bring in where I can for discussions that bear on the topics.  Those readings are on my web site (which I have copied, pasted, and annotated it for you).  Some background:  Student break up in groups and prepare one chapter in which they have to explain the take home message and initiate some discussion.

For presentations and lecture outlines the entire course is at: 
http://faculty.weber.edu/eamsel/Classes/Methods%20(3610)/Research%20Methods%20lectures.htm

Introduction:  What do psychologists have in common?
         Chap. 1 - Psychology is Alive and Well (and Doing Fine Among the Sciences) 

 

I ACTUALLY DO THIS LECTURE ON THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS.  WE SPEND SOME TIME ON THE DIVERSITY QUESTION!

 

Falsification & Operationalization (Stanovich Chaps. 2 & 3) 
         Chap. 2: Falsifiability
         Chap. 3: Operationism and Essentialism 

 

THESE CHAPTERS ARE PARTICULARLY IMPORTANT AS THEY CHALLENGE STUDENTS' POPULAR VIEW OF PSYCHOLOGY AS LOOKING FOR CONFIRMATION OF ESSENTIALIST PROPOSITIONS.  SO I HARP ABOUT HOW ALL THEY KNOW ABOUT SCIENCE FROM ELEMENTARY AND HIGH SCHOOL WAS WRONG IN SOME IMPORTANT WAYS IN PART BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT TAUGHT BY SCIENTISTS.  SCIENTISTS DO NOT FOLLOW "STEPS" IN THE SCIENTIFIC PROCEDURE WHICH STARTS WITH AN IDEA AND ANALYSIS IS SOME STEPS LATER. YOUR IDEA HAS TO BE UNDERSTOOD STATISTICALLY IF YOU ARE GOING TO CORRECTLY DESIGN A STUDY.  THE AMSEL MODEL IS A VERY HELPFUL FOR STUDENTS TO DISTINGUISH EXPLANATION (THEORY) FROM CONFIRMATION  (EVIDENCE), A DISTINCTION WHICH IS FUZZY FOR THEM

Systematic empiricism (Stanovich Chaps. 4, 5, 6)
        Chap. 4: Testimonials and Case Study Evidence
        Chap. 5: Correlation and Causation
        Chap. 6: Getting Things Under Control (

THESE THREE CHAPTERS ALLOW FOR A DISCUSSION OF LIMITS OF RESEARCH AND WHETHER EXPERIMENTAL DESIGNS ARE THE GOLD STANDARD. 

Scientific progress (Stanovich Chaps. 7, 8, 9)
        Chap. 7:  "But It's Not Real Life!"
        Chap. 8:  Avoiding the Einstein Syndrome
        Chap. 9:  The Misguided Search for the "Magic Bullet"

THIS DEFENSE OF EXPERIMENTAL METHODS IS SUPPORTED BY READINGS WHICH HIGHLIGHT THE IMPORTANCE ON INTERNAL OVER EXTERNAL VALIDITY, THE SCIENTIFIC VIEW OF CONCEPTUAL CHANGE, AND THE COMPLEXITY OF THE DISCIPLINE.

Probability and Statistics In Psychology (Stanovich Chaps. 10, 11)
        Chap. 10: The Achilles' Heel of Human Cognition (presentation)
        Chap. 11: The Role of Chance in Psychology (presentation)

READINGS UNDERSCORE THE IMPORTANCE OF UNDERSTANDING THE STATISTICAL BASIS OF THE DISCIPLINE.

Conclusion (Stanovich Chap 12)
       Chap. 12: The Rodney Dangerfield of the Sciences 

THE CHAPTER IS OFFERS THE BEST ARGUMENT FOR PSYCHOLOGY AS A SCIENCE.  BUT WHY IS IT SUCH CHALLENGE TO GET STUDENTS TO LEARN THAT

The entire course is at: 
http://faculty.weber.edu/eamsel/Classes/Methods%20(3610)/Research%20Methods%20lectures.htm

 

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Annette Taylor, University of San Diego

 

One thing I've tried, because I always "feed" students (donut holes, they're cheap, I get them for $1 for a baker's dozen at the local donut shop, and most students don't really want a whole donut, Hershey's kisses, Dum-dum pops versus Smarties for exams which I let students pick if they're feeling like a Dum-dum or a Smartie that day) I've brought in various small wrapped chocolates (great around holiday themes) and students each get two and no student can talk again until all the chocolates are gone. That way 2-3 students don't dominate conversations and those who want to talk more prod the quiet ones to hurry up and talk so they can talk again. Also, I instruct those more talkative students to just keep notes on everything they want to address from past comments rather than doing a running commentary and dominating.

 

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Eric Landrum’s original post

(Return to top.)

 

I'm just going to admit this from the start -- with 22 years of teaching experience, I don't think I've ever successfully lead a class discussion.  I've tried it on a number of occasions, and it always feels contrived and painful.  I've tried with smaller classes of 30 students sitting in a circle, but to no avail.

This semester I am teaching our Capstone: History and Systems course for the second time, and I have planned for weekly discussions centered around the chapters in Stanovich's (2010) 'How to think straight about psychology' -- which is a wonderful book BTW.  I am seeking any and all advice about how I can successfully lead a meaningful class discussion.  Here are the details of my situation and my plans for now:

1. This course meets for 75 minutes in a fixed seating classroom.
2. There are 70 students enrolled in my Capstone course (but the room holds 191, so plenty of space to spread out).
3. I plan to ask 5 clicker questions over the chapter to-be-read prior to the discussion (students know this)--intended to encourage reading the chapter before arriving to class.  The questions "count" for points and do have correct answers.
4. I have four discussion questions specifically addressing items mentioned in the chapter--we can take as much class time as needed.
5. My thought was that with 70 students, I would start them in smaller groups and discuss, then have them report out to the entire class for more discussion.

Please help -- what pitfalls do you see in my approach?  What might you do differently?  I teach tomorrow (Tuesday) at 1:40pm MDT, so any quick advice you can offer today I'll probably try
tomorrow...just-in-time teaching....

You can reply to the list or backchannel to me -- I can collect and share advice tips if there is sufficient interest.

Take care,

Eric

 

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