Discussion is a regular part of undergraduate and graduate education. There's a simple recipe:
Step 1: everyone reads a text.
Step 2: everyone gets together to talk about that text.
In my experiences as a student and an instructor, that simply recipe can yield varying and often mediocre results. As a student, I remember anxiously waiting for instructors to cut off talkative bloviators and trying to guess what the heck was in my instructor's head. As an instructor, I have anxiously poured over papers to try to figure out which questions will elicit responses from my quieter students and how to get everyone interested in old, poorly written academic articles. In both roles, I have been spent lifetimes waiting for someone, anyone to respond to questions.
Partly because I complained about poor discussions as a student, I have faced this format with reluctance as an instructor. I have tried lots of different ways to shake things up. This semester, I finally felt like I got the conversation going.
1. Allow time to reflect
Why don't my students have anything to say? Are my prompts bad? They all seemed so engaged at the end of class last week!
Giving students the time to formulate their opinions about the paper, your prompt, or a peer's comment also instills the confidence to ask it. I am one of those obnoxious extroverts who can always think of something to say and formulate an opinion on just about anything. Most students are not like me, but many academics are.
Before launching immediately from prompt to the classroom, give students two or a few minutes to write down their thoughts. Then you can open the floor, knowing everyone has something to say. One of my favorite activities along this line are anonymous note card comments. Particularly with provocative readings, it can be difficult for students to gather the courage to share their reaction.
Ask students to write their reaction anonymously on a note card, shuffle them up, and have each student read a peer's comment out loud. Hearing their thoughts in someone else's voice may lend quieter students the courage to speak up as the discussion continues, and it allows all students listen without worrying about what they'll say, because it's already written down.
2. Change it up
My students look like they're falling asleep mid-sentence. These readings are great! Why won't they engage?
I learned and dwelt in the moderator vs. class format of discussions for most of my student career. Through the years, I have added a number of different discussion tactics to my moderation menu. I love picking among these approaches each class to keep students on their toes rather than depending on a full-class moderator vs. students approach.
A simple classic? Think-Pair-Share. Many are familiar with this strategy by the time they hit the teaching circuit but it is so incredibly helpful in almost any teaching setting. Big lecture? Use a relevant prompt to get students talking to their neighbors. Difficult assigned reading in a seminar? Get students to put their heads together and realize "Oh, this wasn't just hard for me to read." I also love to introduce small group discussions with random group members to create a sense of community among my students. Break out rooms, anyone?
3. We will ask the questions
My students look scared. I've tried everything but they still won't contribute.
Among my greatest teaching revelations this year was asking my students to tell me what they wanted to know about the assigned reading. I began doing this after we had a particularly gnarly and detailed piece with lots of complex synthesis. I realized I had some questions about how the author's came to their conclusions and on basic terminology ("What is bone juice?").
I asked students to look at the assigned reading for a minute or two and come up with one burning question. Our conversation flowed from these questions, as students realized many of their peers had similar observations or struggles with the assigned text. Because I opened the conversation with my question, students could see my vulnerabilities: I don't know everything either. In a class with undergrads and grad students, this helped to shift the power structures and assumed experience of everyone in the room.
Bree is an Alaskan Archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming.