Discussion in the College Classroom – Jay Howard

A couple weeks ago I crowd-sourced a reading list on teaching with the aim of getting better at my job. As much as I trust the people who contributed to the list, it wouldn’t be worth much if I didn’t then start reading; I have decided to write up some of my notes and observations, posting them here and on Twitter.

First up is Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom.

The short recap is that I found this book useful:

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Howard starts by making the case for the value of discussion in the classroom, with the caveat that not all conversation is created equally and that the job of the instructor is to lead students past superficial observation toward deeper meaning. His advice is divided between two interconnected categories: best practices for communication in the classroom and structuring courses to encourage and reward active participation.

Both categories are designed to overcome the prevailing social norm in the college classroom, “Civil Attention”—defined as the appearance of attention regardless of how tuned in the student actually is—a norm that is reinforced by over-reliance on lecture and a reluctance to ask direct questions (which Howard notes may be mistaken for hostility by the professor).

In order to change these norms, Howard calls for instructors to start on the first day of class by communicating and expectation of communication and what participation entails. The latter part will vary based on class, but it is important to convey what counts and how to avoid misunderstanding between a professor who wants students to talk all the time and students who believe they “participated” by doing the reading and showing up.

Howard addresses a number of issues, from how to avoid the trap where one or two students take on the responsibility for participation, grading discussion, and how to run an online discussion board, but some general principles stand out:

  • Large class size inhibits conversation, and it is often useful to subdivide a class down to groups of six or eight, even in large lectures, and encouraging students to exchange information and ideas.
  • It is easy to forget that students are not subject matter experts who have been thinking about issues for year. Give students time to formulate answers to difficult questions.
  • Ask good questions. Avoid factual questions or questions with yes or no answers, but ask opinion questions that can be supported through the text
  • Positively reinforce behavior your want to see by acknowledging student contributions, questions, and risks.
  • Give students peer to peer obligations that prepare them to engage in discussion.
  • Engage with students before and/or beyond the classroom, such as requiring a two minute visit to office hours to say hi. This gets the students comfortable with engaging with the instructor.
  • Above all: be aware of what is going on with the class. This includes body language and what the syllabus says, the physical distance between instructor and student, and whether the course structure is facilitating or erecting barriers to student participation.

Howard’s advice is based on a combination of extensive personal experience and research studies on student participation, but he is careful to note that not only will these suggestions not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but also that what works with one set of students won’t necessarily work with a different set of students the next time the same course is offered, let alone with a different instructor. Nor does he dismiss the utility of a content-based lecture format, all the while offering ways to blend the two formats to maximize student engagement.

There are too many specific suggestions even to begin listing them, but they make this book worth reading. There may be a point of diminishing returns in reading books on pedagogy (unless that is your field of study specifically), but Discussion in the College Classroom is a useful place to start.

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