Welcome to October! The temperature is dropping, the leaves are changing, and our students have entirely forgotten how to use their voices—or at least, that’s what it can feel like. Read on for a few proven ways to encourage discussion in your courses.
If students are silent when you ask questions they might have, consider a Question Brainstorm to model productive inquiry. Inspired by the question formulation technique (Rothstein and Santana, 2011), this activity comes from Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking (2016)—a great tool for both classrooms and department meetings. In a Question Brainstorm, participants are presented with a focus statement, such as “Scientific knowledge always benefits from cooperative collaboration.” In groups, participants generate as many questions as possible about the focus statement. After groups have thorough lists of questions, they begin narrowing their list, focusing on which questions are most important or most interesting. When each group has finalized their top questions, the group discusses the steps to take to answer the questions and reflects on the process.
Believing and doubting
If students don’t believe they have anything to contribute to discussion, providing them with specific instructions or tasks can help alleviate their anxiety. This exercise, from Elizabeth Barkley and Claire Howell Major’s Student Engagement Techniques (2020), is intended to help students develop skills of analysis through dialogue. Instructors locate an article that persuasively argues for one side of a controversy within the field. Students read the article from an empathetic viewpoint, making a conscious decision to find places to identify with and understand the author. In small groups, students create a comprehensive list of all the points where they believed the author. Once students fully grasp the author’s argument, they read the article again, this time from a “doubtful perspective” aimed at finding faults or inconsistencies. This activity helps students become critical readers and thinkers, and if I’ve learned anything from teaching in Higher Ed, it is that students love the chance to argue against experts.
If some students speak up far more than others and create an unbalanced discussion, you could create contexts that allow them to see the discussion disparity. As explained in Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis’ The New College Classroom (2022), the popsicle stick activity is a tried-and-true method for promoting equity in the classroom. Each student receives two popsicle sticks (or coupons, or tally marks, or tiny tokens shaped like dinosaurs) at the beginning of class. When they contribute to discussion, they hand in a popsicle stick, thereby granting students two comments per class. An important caveat to the popsicle method is sharing that its purpose is to promote space for all to share ideas, not silence student voices. To demonstrate this intent, you might ask all students to use at least one popsicle stick per class or provide them with a higher number of sticks at the start of class. By recognizing when they are speaking and when they are listening, students can better understand their role in class discussion.
Finally, if you have exhausted all your popsicle sticks, controversies, and questions, but are still met with that dreaded October silence, I’d encourage you to ask your students about their discussion reluctance. Explain why discussions are important to you and your course and investigate the reasons behind the silence. Students may be struggling with the readings or anxious about the upcoming midterm, or they might just not be getting enough sleep. Regardless of the answer, clarity can help you ease your frustration and adjust your discussion tactics.
For a wealth of information about collecting useful feedback from students, check out my colleague Madeleine’s recent blog post on mid-semester feedback, and for personal feedback about your classroom discussions, consider scheduling a consultation.
Barkley, E. F, & Major, C. Howell. (2020). Student engagement techniques: a handbook for college faculty. Second edition. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2016). The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking. [Place of publication not identified]: John Wiley & Sons (US).
Davidson, C. N., & Katopodis, C. (2022). The new college classroom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Make just one change : teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.