Class discussions

Recently, I participated in a discussion group of faculty on the topic of discussion groups with students.  We talked about how often class discussion languishes until the last few minutes of the class, leaving us with one eye on the clock (so that we don’t go over the allotted time), one ear tuned to the class discussion (so that we support the discussion and bring it to some thoughtful conclusion), and one more minute  to wrap up the discussion before the class ends.  And I watched, fascinated, as my faculty peer discussion leader apologized for needing two more minutes to make his final point because, once our discussion really started, we had run out of time.

When our faculty discussion did get started, we talked about how to encourage students to participate (calling on students by name?  awarding or subtracting points for participation? expecting every student to talk in class?), how to keep track of student participation (seating charts seemed a popular suggestion), and how to grade participation (rubrics? tallies?).  What we didn’t explore is why the conversation had to end … or how to keep it going outside the designated class time…or how to offer multiple ways to participate.  (For more on the topic of student-centered learning, I like this website.)

What if the discussion could last all semester?  What if students could offer verbal insights, written comments, and links to related topics, during class, at 2 a.m., or on the weekend?  It seems to me that online education offers us the opportunity for longer, richer, more multi-faceted discussions, if we are willing to think a bit differently about what it means to have a class discussion.

If students can Tweet comments during class (comments which can be visible to all, through the wonders of technology) as well as offer verbal comments, does that allow more students to participate?  If students can think about a comment and respond later, does that allow for deeper analysis?  And if faculty can have discussions that are not limited to the class period, what other opportunities are created for learning (both for us and for our students) and for knowing our students better?

What do you think?

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