What To Do When Discussion Dies

As the Spring semester is drawing to a close, and me and my students are staggering moving closer to the finish line, I’ve witnessed some serious cases of the fuck-its break out, and spread like wildfire until it’s a virtual pandemic. From one or two students who bailed on the reading to half the class skipping out on a Friday to OMFG WHERE IS EVERYONE, this dread malady can have tragic consequences for once-promising academic trajectories. And it can be deadly for even the most nobly-intended class plans as well:

There’s nothing worse than planning a class discussion around a set of readings only to have a handful of students who’ve even acquired a passing familiarity with the material.

Except when said readings are an article that you’ve written. And then given all of the students pdf copies of it. That’s worse.

Even if I wasn’t so personally invested in the readings (I WROTE THESE WORDS MYSELF! THEY’RE MY BEAUTIFUL BABIES! WHY DON’T YOU LOVE THEM YOU PHILISTINES), the abject failure to launch would still have been demoralizing. We’re almost at the end of the course in Colonial and Revolutionary America. We’re looking at the factors that produced the constitutional convention. We were “debating” Shays’s Rebellion–what better way to dive into the complexities and ambiguities surrounding “liberty” and “order” that were the hallmark of the early republic?

Of course, my students didn’t see it that way, apparently. And there are a number of reasons why that’s the case, probably. We’ve just finished a big week on my campus, with our undergraduate research symposium, honors convocation, and several other big evening events all competing for time and attention. It’s the last full week of classes before exams, which means that papers, projects, and presentations are due in many classes–and then finals loom next week. In the scheme of things, maybe a PDF on Shays’s Rebellion is the thing that gets cut due to constraints on time or mental capacity. I get it. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, though. The reading’s been on the syllabus all semester, and part of being a college student is keeping track of your stuff, and learning how to manage competing demands on your time–especially when it comes to the important stuff at the end of the semester. I should know, because I spent years not doing that, and paid the price, dammit.

And therein lies the rub: I’m irked, but I also understand. I know what my students should do (as do they), but I also know what I would have done in their place (the same as they did, most likely). I’m disappointed, sure, but I also could have planned things a bit better myself. A fifty-page article with primary source extracts to kick off the last week of class is not, it turns out, the optimal course design strategy. Failure to launch, indeed.

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At this juncture, many academics would turn to their blogs, or the pages of the New York Times or Chronicle of Higher Education, and bemoan the fact that Students Today™ don’t read, or listen, or care, or deserve to exist, or whatever. But blaming students is the easy way out, and does nothing to improve teaching and learning. It’s like when your aunt, upon finding out that the exchange student doesn’t speak English, starts talking MUCH MORE LOUDLY, as if volume alone was sufficient for understanding. Even when it’s the students’ fault (and, yes, it happens a fair amount), this strategy avails us nothing. IF YOU WON’T LISTEN TO ME THEN I WILL SAY THE SAME THING LOUDER UNTIL YOU DO. This isn’t pedagogy, it’s what a three-year-old does in the toy aisle.

So what do we do when discussion lies helplessly on the floor, expiring before our very eyes? How do we, if not completely prevent, at least reduce our classes’ susceptibility to an outbreak of the fuck-its?  I’d argue that there are two ways to approach the issue: long-term design or immediate intervention.

More mindful attention to course design and implementation, as I alluded to above, can solve a lot of discussion problems before they occur. It’s important to ask ourselves whether our words and actions are in alignment. We say discussion is an important part of the course, and that students should be prepared to discuss the material and engage with one another in class, but how do we know that our students understand what we mean by discussion? Do we model the behaviors we expect? For example, telling students that engagement and participation is important, but never responding to their emails or not being available at office hours means you’re actually saying something quite different. Saying in one breath I want you to be active on the discussion boards for this class and then in the next oh, I don’t really do email is, to put it bluntly, idiotic. At best, it creates cognitive dissonance for your students; at worst, it’s poorly-veiled contempt.

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Our assessments and our intentions must align with one another. To put it bluntly, how important does your syllabus say discussion is? Are there points attached to engagement and participation? Are you assessing your students on the things you’re telling them are important? It’s not enough to just tell students discussion is a vital part of the course. If that’s the case, it needs to show up in your assessment of their work. It has to “count.” And if it “counts,” the criteria need to be clear. I’ve found that it’s really valuable to have this conversation with students at the beginning of a course. Seeing what their expectations are, as I share mine, can lead to a great teaching conversation on the purpose of discussion and its value as part of an active learning pedagogy. Active learning is better learning. We know this. Sharing it with our students, and using that research-based claim to explain your emphasis on discussion, gets them invested in successful discussion, too. I’ve also found that discussion rubrics are useful (they are widely used in online teaching and learning, and great examples can be found in that milieu); in some smaller seminars, I’ve had students collaborate with me on creating one for the course.

Finally, looking at the ebb and flow of assignments and planned discussions is a must. Semesters have a rhythm; it’s worth thinking about how our expectations for students fit within it. For example, the next iteration of my Colonial/Revolutionary course isn’t going to drop a fifty-page article on the Monday after our campus’s Honors and Vocation Week. MoreoverFoucault, I’ve learned that scaffolding is essential for more than things like complex research projects; it’s important for pretty much any type of assignment I’m planning. If I want my students to engage with a complex theoretical work, and be able to carry on an informed discussion of it, I need to lay the proper groundwork. This is where course design needs to go beyond the chronological order of the material, or the way that textbook and monograph chapters break down. Begin with the end in mind, as the backwards design paradigm (for my money, the best approach to course design there is) suggests. This works on the course, unit, and individual lesson level. If grappling with Foucault is the objective for a particular week, then the prior material needs to aim students that direction and prepare them for what they’ll encounter. I can’t just throw the first chapter of The Order of Things at them on a Friday and expect Monday’s discussion to be scintillating (and get pissy if it isn’t). That’s unrealistic and unfair.

Course design matters, and how we create the structures in which we expect our students to engage in discussion is an essential part of that design. But sometimes, all the design in the world doesn’t prevent a particular discussion from going straight into the tank. How do we intervene to rescue a well-conceived and artfully-planned discussion that’s nevertheless in danger of flatlining?

First, and most importantly, sometimes–to use a technical pedagogical term–shit happens. There are days where, for whatever reason, students did not our could not adequately prepare for discussion. There are a couple of options here–but belittling them or throwing a tantrum shouldn’t be one of them. However, there are times where, perhaps, it’s appropriate to dismiss the class and tell them they haven’t fulfilled their part of the bargain for that day. I struggle with this. I’ve done it before, but I’ve also wondered if that’s not implicitly rewarding the lack of preparation. For an upper-level, or graduate, seminar, I can see this tactic underscoring the importance of collective effort in the scholarly enterprise, but for a survey course I’m not so sure that it’s the most effective way to convey the point. If a discussion has totally crapped out, and I suspect that it’s because of a lack of reading from most of the students, I have them fire up the laptops or tablets, get out their books, and throw a research question at them. OK, you didn’t read the piece on Shays’s Rebellion. But we’re still going to delve into this event, because it’s important for what we’re doing. So let’s find out what its causes were and then we’ll go from there. We may not get to where I originally envisioned us being, but we’ll get somewhere. And some is better than none. Plus, I’ve shown that I’m not going to drop my expectations for them and their learning, even if that’s what they’ve done for that day.

On many occasions, though, it’s not so much a lack of preparation that leads to anemic discussions, but a welter of other factors. One of the most common is our own propensity to not leave enough room for discussion to start; research suggests that some faculty wait less than a second between asking a question then answering it themselves. Our “wait time,” as well as the ways in which we respond to student contributions, can fatally undermine a discussion without us even realizing it. Early in my career, I struggled with keeping discussions going in my classes; finally, a group of students told me after class one day that I sat there with my arms folded and glared at them, and they felt like I disapproved of everything they said. I had no idea my body language was conveying that impression! I thought I was being thoughtful and pensive, giving their words the space they deserved. Oops. The next class meeting, we cleared everything up, and things went swimmingly from there.

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On other occasions, students may be well-prepared, but one or two voices (frustratingly, they’re often less-prepared ones) dominate the discussion and other students slowly give up. While we don’t want to discourage participation, or derail one student’s enthusiasm, a simple redirect–what do some of the rest of you think?–can help bring others back in. Another tactic, one that can also help shy students, is to have the class free-write for one or two minutes before beginning the discussion (or, if necessary, halt the discussion for a free-write, then resume). Having students write on a specific prompt before collectively discussing it can help them better articulate their responses, and provides a way for more students to feel confident in their ability to contribute to the dialogue. Then discussion better reflects students’ actual engagement with the material, not just which of them is able to respond the quickest.

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There are a wealth of other techniques that bring writing to bear in order to foster better discussion. One of my favorites is “inkshedding,” where groups of students work on various questions through both discussion and writing; it can be a lovely, collaborative activity, and it also produces a written record that can be scanned, PDF’d, and put online to serve as a great resource. I’ve seen several varieties of the activity: it can function as a form of peer instruction and review or become a collaborative crowdsourcing of material. I’ve done a variation where each small group gets a sheet with a specific question or prompt at the top, and has to collectively formulate a response in a good paragraph or so. Then, on my signal, the groups pass their sheets over, and receive a new one in turn. They then respond to both the new prompt, as well as what the previous group has written about it. Then we pass again, repeating until the response sheets have made a complete circuit. I scan them and post them on our LMS, and they have class notes and a study guide on the particular topic and material we discussed in this manner. The activity gets harder with time, as it’s more complex of a task to respond to both a prompt and to what three or four groups have already said about it. The key here is to design questions that are specific enough to be rooted in the material, yet broad enough to allow for several strands of conversation.

A similar activity is the “gallery walk,” where I tape up larger sheets of easel paper around the room with several topics or questions on them, and students walk around with markers and respond to them. Then, we use post-it notes for students to “vote” on what they see as the most in-depth and engaging points for each question. One other variation is the “Where I stand” activity, where students respond to an open-ended question by arranging themselves along one of the classroom walls. On a scale of 1 to 10, how justified were the American colonists who declared independence from Britain? Ones to the left, tens all the way to the right. Go! Then, as students arrange themselves, I can call on them randomly to explain why they stood where they did. After a number of them from across the spectrum have responded, I ask if anyone wants to move; if some do, I ask them to explain why. This is often the most interesting part, as students get to see how arguments and perspectives change in response to new or underappreciated evidence. Worth noting: these activities involve motion, which is often a good thing, but if you have any students who have difficulties with mobility, you’ll need to adjust the activity accordingly.

These are a few of my go-to moves to keep discussions moving (literally, in some cases). Some of them I’ve picked up from colleagues, some I’ve modified from already-existing activities. Other moves spring more from thinking about course design and activity implementation. All are borne out of experience.

There are some days in which it seems as if the very fates are conspiring against effective discussion; those days are frustrating, and they suck. But I’ve found that the more I’ve paid attention to prevention, the less I’ve had to worry about those days happening. It never hurts, though, to have some fallback options ready to deploy. A little freewriting, perhaps some movement, and maybe the discussion muse will stage a rally. But no matter how frustrating it can get when a discussion fizzles, it’s never worth abandoning the cause. Good learning takes effort, and not just from our students.

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5 thoughts on “What To Do When Discussion Dies”

  1. Great great post. I will, near the end of the semester, bring with me in my notes some really choice paragraphs from the reading. If the discussion lags, we all will read together these choice paragraphs (I do this thing where everybody reads a sentence. If they sound like a zombie reading it, I sometimes ask them to read it again, with feeling!) and then we discuss them. That way some of the main points of the reading will be covered in class, even if too many students haven’t done the reading. I reward the students who obviously have, too. I sometimes even will say where the class can hear “Great job with the reading today, Frieda,” so it is clear that I DO pay attention and notice who has demonstrated they did the work. With students who dominate and who HAVE done the reading….I often will say, early on, “Gaston, it is clear you really mastered today’s reading. I gotta make sure the others did,” (said to explain why I am not calling on him) and then I make sure to email Gaston or arrange for him to come to office hours to discuss the reading one-on-one, so he doesn’t feel silenced.

  2. I’m so happy to see a professor addressing this problem (although not happy that it exists, obviously). I dropped out of university for precisely this problem: I’d gone along actually wanting to learn and to further the field, and I got so disheartened by other students not doing any of the required reading – and the professors just going along with it as if it were normal, and therefore us spending each class going over all the things I’d already read – that it didn’t seem like there was any point in carrying on.

    Luckily I managed to get onto a research team in the end anyway, and circumvented the whole thing, but other students may not be so fortunate!

  3. Great post. I’m sitting here now rethinking my entire syllabus, trying to figure out where I went wrong (and knowing exactly where, but still wanting to deny that I have any culpability)… Anyway, I like your ideas for near-end-of-semester discussions and will be adding/modifying them as needed.

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