Thursday, July 24, 2014

Discussing discussions

Over the last year, I noticed in several of my classes that students were more reluctant than usual to participate in discussions. Sure, there had always been students who were more willing to voice their thoughts than others, but this time the silences were more frequent, in small classes as well as in large ones. This may have been a fluke – and one class proved the exception to the rule – but close listening to how students responded to my prompts for more participation gave me the impression that something was actually going on: Students were more afraid than usual of exposing themselves intellectually to the scrutiny of others.

It makes sense that (not only) students have become more reluctant to speak up: Over the last years, the most visible forms of discussion have become cesspools of hostility and public shaming: The insults hurled at Reddit OPs have become proverbial; Twitter blowups are ugly and personal even among people who are nominally adults; and a thoughtless post on a semi-private forum like Facebook may end up making the rounds as a screenshot. As smartphones are only inches away from student hands, a comment in a 10-student class may very well go around the world.

I don't think we could ever expect class discussion to come easily. After all, Karp and Yoel's work, which found that the majority of students delegate participation to a small number of their more engaged fellows, is almost 40 years old! If most students refused to participate in the staid social environment of 40 years ago, how can we expect them to jump at the opportunity today? At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that effective learning requires active engagement with what we learn. How can we create a classroom climate that fosters student participation, that makes it more easy and desirable for students to interact? And how can we make sure students learn how to engage and interact productively?

I don't have it all figured out yet. Luckily there's a bit of literature out there; among freely available resources, I found Blunt and Napolitano's paper on "Leading Classroom Discussions" useful, as well as Todd Finley's piece for edutopia. The Faculty Focus resources on class discussion (which are mainly by Maryellen Weimer) are very useful as well. For those with access to JSTOR or other subscription services, there is Goodman's excellent 1995 College Teaching paper on "Difficult Dialogues".

What I have found important and useful is to start the semester with a class discussion on discussions. Luckily, since I am teaching political science, this discussion usually fits into the course topic, as deliberation is central to many political processes.

The central prompt for the discussion on discussions looks somewhat like this:
Many learning activities in this course involve critical discussions that ask you to exchange ideas with your fellow students. This being a political science course, many of these ideas can be controversial and may lead to disagreement. Disagreement is a good thing, because it helps us learn. However, if disagreement is expressed in ways that upset us and that just leads to fights, we are likely to learn very little. Therefore, we need ground rules that make sure our discussions remain civil and focused on the things we want to learn.
To create discussion ground rules for this course, list three rules that you find important to create civil discussions.
In a small class, I let students write their proposed rules, then collect them on the board and have students discuss the rationale for the rules, which rules are most or least likely to be effective, and why they might work or not. At the end, I'll propose additional rules that I find important and that are missing from the list (here are some possible ground rules, proposed by the good people at Carleton College). I type up the list and circulate it among the students. In a large class, I first break up the discussion into small groups, then have the groups report to the whole class on giant post-its, whiteboards, or the like. Online, I require students to post their lists and respond to at least one other student's list by highlighting what they think are the most and least effective rules.

While this type of discussion on discussions is only a fairly small step, I find it useful, as it usually goes beyond how-to rules on discussion. A recent instance was a discussion in which students quickly agreed that class discussion should be purely rational and arguments should only be based on facts and data. This, in turn, led to a discussion on the role of affective elements in human interactions as well as the question whether the class objectives (or any important objectives, for that matter) could be addressed on a purely factual basis.

But there are more things that need to be done to foster widespread and productive class discussion. The actual substantive discussions later on have to be on important and engaging questions that help students learn; students need activities to reflect on the discussion, to debrief themselves, and to draw conclusions about what they've learned, and they need instructor feedback on whether they are on the right track. They also should have opportunities to break the discussion rules and be called out for it, since otherwise the rules are quickly forgotten. I'm not sure how to get all of this to work, but I think I'm partly on the way. The resources linked to above provide some useful starting points.