In a 2010 survey IUB new faculty reported that gaining student attention and engagement during class was very challenging. The primary method to bring about active learning is discussion according to Svinicki and McKeachie (2011). But the purpose of discussion is not just to have students discuss; the purpose of discussion is to provide practice and feedback for the kinds of thinking that are the goal of the course.
Just as no one would expect to be able to watch someone perform a complicated dance and then be able to stand up and emulate it themselves, learning to think and work within the parameters of a discipline is more complicated than generally recognized. Students can hone their disciplinary skills by actively participating in structured activities where they can practice aspects of critical thinking with their peers, and gauge their own proficiency (Shopkow, Diaz, Middendorf, & Pace, 2012).
Discussion can motivate students, especially when the activity involves authentic learning--that is, real world and messy--allowing students to collaborate, reflect on, and synthesize their learning. When planning the structure for a discussion look for one that will hold students accountable to their peers, not just the instructor, in a public way (Bass & Elmendorf, 2011).
Discussion in Large Classes. Eric Mazur (Physics/Harvard) explains in this video how he converted from lecturing to using his class for peer instruction. Students get their first exposure to the content outside of class, answering homework questions. The questions they ask about the homework become the basis for his just-in-time lectures, which are interspersed with group discussion. Mazur rigorously tests his teaching techniques. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwslBPj8GgI
Team-Based Learning is an advanced form of group work in which content coverage is pushed outside of the class, with students using precious in-class time to take quizzes to show they have mastered the content and then practice the application of critical disciplinary skills such as problem-solving and argumentation. For more information, go the TBL website, which has many videos, including ones on forming groups, the difference between groups and teams, and peer evaluation of team members. http://www.teambasedlearning.org/
On-line Discussion. For more information about on-line discussion see Svinicki & McKeachie (2011), chap. 17 and Brookfield and Preskill (2005), chaps. 11 & 12.
The forms discussions can take are practically limitless, but a good instructor has a half dozen at his or her command. The Dictionary of Discussion Techniques briefly describes 10 techniques for structuring discussion to promote engaged, equitable participation in classrooms.
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K., & Major, C. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques : a handbook for college faculty. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.
Synthesizing the relevant research and good practice literature, the authors present detailed procedures for thirty collaborative learning techniques (CoLTs) and offer practical suggestions on a wide range of topics, including how to form groups, assign roles, build team spirit, solve problems, and evaluate and grade student participation.
Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies To Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Specific, practical strategies include ways to get students active from the start through activities that build teamwork and immediately get them thinking about the subject matter. 101 activities include ice-breakers for the beginning of class, strategies for the middle of a lesson, and concluding exercises to foster student reflection and future application.
This FAQ covers planning for discussion, what questions make good prompts, getting discussion started, handling problems in discussions, wrapping up, and grading discussions.
This paper sets out basic principles to create the expectation for student discussion, as well as the role of the instructor in fostering discussion in class.
This resource provides more detail about preparing for discussions, dealing with problems that arise during discussions, and strategies for building discussion throughout a class period.
Who is doing this at IUB?
The National Study of Student Engagement data show that 68% of IUB seniors engage in class discussion. Many IUB professors commonly use various discussion techniques with some specific examples listed below.
Prof. Jill Robinson (Chemistry) uses small groups for problem solving and “clickers” to collect student responses to get students to think deeply about fundamental chemical principles which can influence our climate. She does so even though she is teaching a large class (140-student C118: Principles of Chemistry and Biochemistry) and often teaching in a challenging classroom space.
Biology Professor and Carnegie Scholar Whitney Schlegel leads students to learn with their peers by engaging in discussion, problem-solving, and inquiry using team members as a resource in classes of over 100. She utilizes a high tech classroom so that students can show the products of their group work during class.
Informatics Professor Melanie Wu uses group work to move students beyond rote memorization of mathematical concepts. Having students work on team projects encourages them to help each other master the material and demonstrate the material’s relevance outside the course. [link to T & L spotlight on Melanie]
For more help or information
You can meet with a CITL consultant by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching : tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass
Shopkow, L., Diaz, A., Middendorf, J., & Pace, D. (2012). The History Learning Project “Decodes” a Discipline: The Union of Teaching and Epistemology. In Kathleen McKinney (ed.) Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and Across the Disciplines. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Svinicki, M. D., & McKeachie, W. (2011). McKeachie's teaching tips : strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers(13th edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.