As we approach the fall semester, one thing everyone who is returning to in-person teaching should be thinking about is how they will run discussions. Class discussions have always been complicated, and they will be even more so this fall. We all — students and instructors alike — will be grappling with the challenges of once again being in a room with dozens of other individuals and trying to communicate. Things will be even more complicated with our current political climate, the likelihood of shifting mask mandates and the need for teachers to create classrooms that are more just.
Thus, we as instructors need to be even more deliberate in how we approach class discussions — not just in terms of subject matter content but also in how we organize them.
Too often teachers lurch into discussions. We assume that students understand the reasons behind and need for those discussions. But if students are not provided a clear setup, they will either invent their own reasons for it or disengage. Such issues will only be exacerbated in the fall due to the increased anxiety over COVID and the evolving cultural climate in our classrooms. We need strategies that structure, situate and guide discussions.
To better set up my discussions, I developed two specific strategies. I have found that, when used together, they have increased engagement, reduced confusion and generally enhanced the quality of classroom conversations. I have also found that by enacting these two strategies, my students have produced stronger coursework following a discussion. I have titled the strategies Situating and Valuing and will describe each of them in hopes of helping other instructors address the challenges of teaching in person this fall.
This involves introducing a discussion to students and then pausing to explain to them how the topics, ideas and concerns will build upon, challenge or shift the current coursework and/or content. Situating a discussion can be as simple as noting how a discussion of a new reading will help students connect that reading to recent lectures. It can also be more complex — for example, detailing how the discussion of several readings can provide new perspectives on the larger course themes.
To offer an example, in my first-year composition course, I have my students write a personal narrative of a moment when their writing failed. At the beginning of the work on the narrative, I ask students to discuss texts that they recently read that they think failed. Then, for the narrative, students can write about anything from a misunderstood text message to a paper they failed to a cover letter for a job they didn’t get.
For the discussion about examples of failed writing, students share their texts as well as their ideas about why the texts failed. Before we begin, however, I situate the discussion by explaining to the students that it will help them continue thinking about how and why writing fails, as well as how the reader plays a role in determining the failure of a piece of writing. I also explain that the discussion should help them grow their skills at making connections between texts they have read and their own writing and writing abilities, which are course learning outcomes.
Situating a discussion enables students to connect what they and others say to their current coursework, but it does little to make the discussion more engaging, respectful and/or generative. To increase the engagement and impact of a discussion, teachers also must find a way for the discussion to generate an outcome of some sort. It must produce something of clear value for students and their work and/or development in the course.
Valuing a discussion requires creating a result that students will use as part of their coursework — in doing their homework, writing a paper or preparing for a test. A result can be as simple as developing a list of key terms with definitions that might be on an upcoming exam. Or it might be as complex as requiring students to respond to one of the ideas from the discussion in an upcoming paper. Valuing discussions does entail turning over some of the knowledge production for the course to students themselves and offering them a bit of agency over what they respond to and/or learn. Doing so makes the discussion more significant to students, both in terms of the actual act of having it and in terms of the impact it will have on the course.
Returning to my previous example of my freshman composition course, I have students generate as part of the discussion about failed writings a list of reasons why writing can fail. As students share their ideas, I engage with them, teasing out individual aspects of the text that failed and that could apply to other failed texts — such as a text not engaging its audience or being structured in a way that confused the writer’s arguments. I list all of these on the board. Then, once the discussion is over, I have students select from the brainstormed list two ways that they feel they have failed as writers. They then use those two things to start to brainstorm potential moments to write about in their failed personal writing narrative.
In generating the list and then brainstorming their papers based on the list, students experience a tangible value for the discussion. The discussion becomes a form of invention for their papers. It generates something that they use as part of the continuing coursework for the personal narrative.
I preface the discussion explaining this. I note that the discussion will conclude with a brainstorm list of ideas that they will use to help them develop their narrative. Valuing a discussion increases student engagement and focus: they are, as part of the discussion, generating something they and their classmates will clearly apply to their work.
In sum, instructors need to be explicit with students about how and why they are holding class discussions. When teachers lurch into a discussion without generating a situation or value for it, they force students to develop their own situation and value — often those that are different than what the teacher intended.
So we need to both develop a situation and value for each discussion we hold and clearly explain both to students before each discussion. That will enable students to better participate in and learn from a conversation. It can also help us as instructors better manage the challenges of teaching this coming fall.