Classroom Communication

This teaching tip deals with classroom communication.  In Part 1, we look at suggestions for classroom discussion.  In Part 2, we look at suggestions for dealing with an individual student who tries to dominate the discussion.

Part 1: Stimulating class discussion.

Many of us have attempted to engage our students with course material through discussion, but sometimes we are met with silence, bowed heads, and darting eyes. The problem might be that students are often not prepared to discuss the material, don’t know how to go about doing so, or are not accustomed to it because of classroom norms. Another problem could be that we as teachers are not facilitating class discussions effectively.

Effectively facilitated class discussions help to motivate student interest; promote deeper learning and higher retention of material; develop and practice critical thinking skills; help change attitudes, values, and behaviors; help develop communication skills; and can assist students with general personal development. Group discussion can involve collaborative hypothesis testing, problem solving, exchanging opinions, defending a position or hypothesis, application of knowledge, etc. 

Here are a few suggestions that can work to stimulate discussion in any discipline.

In preparation for discussion:

1. Establish ground rules for discussion (conduct, quality of input etc.). Students might not know what is expected of them during class discussions.

Establishing ground rules (with student input) ensures that all participants know what is expected. For example:

- groups consist of  3 – 5 members & everybody is expected to contribute

- students should state opinions, hypotheses, etc. even if they do not actually believe it is correct. This can help the group address various sides of an issue and consider different issues and perspectives.

- when groups report to the professor and/or class, no individual will be named; rather the spokesperson will say “Our group discussed… or Our group feels…”

2.   Model by starting the lecture with one or two questions you are trying to answer, and closing with questions the lecture raised or left unanswered.

Modeling in this way indicates to students that the lecture is not a statement of indisputable truth and that intellectual inquiry is encouraged and expected. To build on this climate and use it to foster class discussion…

-take a few minutes at the end of class and ask students to write down questions the lecture has raised for them.

-as an exercise at the beginning of the next class, put students into groups and have them exchange questions (assign 2 or 3 questions per group if necessary). Have the groups come up with answers to the questions and then present those answers to the class. This will provide an opportunity for you to facilitate discussion about the answers and provide information to answer questions that are not fully addressed.

 

3.   Introduce alternative perspectives in your lecture.

Introducing alternative perspectives in your lecture and having students examine their assumptions prior to discussing a particular concept or topic will provide opportunities for students to debate the merits and weaknesses of different perspectives. Staging a class debate is one way to stimulate discussion:

Ask for volunteers from the class & assign half to one perspective/side of an issue, or set of assumptions and assign the rest to the alternative. Give each group ten  minutes to come up with an arguments to back up their position & then ask each group to appoint a speaker who will outline their argument to the class. Ask the class to evaluate the arguments and take the side of the group they feel has presented the most convincing argument. The instructor’s role is to unpack the information presented by the groups and to enlist help from the remainder of the class in pointing out why some arguments are more credible than others (remember to stress that students are debating the credibility of arguments and that personalities should not enter the discussion). This gives the instructor an opportunity to provide additional information and correct misinformation. Discussion is stimulated, students are actively engaged, and the instructor still gets to cover content.

 

4.   Have students use the material they are learning to propose solutions to a problem.  Some examples of ways you might do this as an individual and as a group activity:

A chemistry professor is having difficulty with [the issue of the day]… discuss the steps you would follow and the questions you would ask to help him/her figure out the problem.

A volunteer group is having difficulty with the tax implications of …, using the  accounting principles learned in class, discuss the advice your group would give the volunteer group to help rectify the situation.

A reporter for the Cape Breton Post has asked to interview your group about…..  What are the three things most important things you would tell the reporter and why?

 

5.   Introduce periods where students are asked to reflect on their own assumptions and report what they learned from the discussion.

At the beginning of a class poll students to determine their assumptions on a given topic & make note of these assumptions on the board.

- as information emerges throughout the class, ask students to explain how the new information supports or challenges each assumption.

At the end of the class, ask students to submit a brief reaction to what they learned from the discussion.  This might be done in class (e.g., the one minute reaction essay on an index card) or if a longer response is wanted, in an online forum.

 

References:

Brookfield, S. D. & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kustra, E. D. H. & Potter, M. K. (2008). Green Guide # 9:Leading effective discussions. Society for Teaching and Learning Higher Education. London, Ontario.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco: Jossey-bass.

 

Part 2: Talkative students

As instructors, we’ve all had times when specific students dominate class discussions. What can we do in these situations? The following suggestions may help you to maintain control of your class while ensuring that students have opportunities to speak and are considerate of others.

Preparing students

Provide direction about how students should participate in class and stress the importance of:

  • Listening and suspending judgment until all sides have spoken
  • Tolerating and encouraging opposing viewpoints
  • Note that it is the quality of discussion not the quantity that counts (be sure; however to indicate that everyone’s opinion has value so that students who lack confidence will be encouraged to speak).

Strategies for ensuring democratic classroom discussion:

Even though you may have taken measures to prepare students for class discussion, some students still seem to dominate the conversation. Here are some suggestions that may help:

  • When soliciting responses from students ask students to wait until everyone has completed their thoughts before speaking (provide a length of time before students can speak once the question is asked… up to 30 seconds).
  • Take a minute or two and ask students to write their thoughts first and then solicit responses, so that everyone has something to say if asked.
  • Suggest students try to build on the comments of the previous speaker.
  • Be tactful and elicit responses or comments from other students even when the talkative student volunteers.
  • Some students wait to be invited into a conversation.  If you make eye contact with a student who looks like she or he might have something to say, ask them to contribute “Mary, what do you think about that?” 
  • Redirect the conversation by first affirming what the talkative student has to say and then indicating that you would like to hear what others have to add to what he/she has said. If nobody volunteers you may have to callon specific students by name… “John, your point is well taken.  Now, Jenny, do you have anything to add to what John said?”
  • Look away from the talkative student, inviting participation from another quadrant of the classroom (e.g., “I am looking for a reply from somebody over here.” Gesture with your hand).
  • If the talkative student persists or interrupts other speakers, interject with a question requiring a yes or no answer, then quickly ask another student the same question.
  • In situations where students are working in groups, assign group roles or involve talkative students in other activities such as taking minutes, observing etc.
  • The talkative student might think that she or he is doing you a favour because he or she believes that nobody else wants to participate. Ask the talkative student to find ways of involving his or her classmates in the discussion.
  • If the other strategies don’t work, you may have to speak to the talkative student in private. As students who want to dominate the conversation are often insecure, avoid personally attacking them; tactfully point out the situation and how it affects others in the class. Explain that the student's comments in class are welcome.  However, point out that others must also be given the opportunity to participate. Reinforce the importance of listening to what others have to say. 

Rationale:

It is important for students to know that their opinions and ideas are valued; however, it is also important for all students to have an opportunity to speak. As instructors, we are responsible to provide opportunities in class for students to share ideas and form opinions. Ensuring that class discussion is not dominated by one particular person helps to create a classroom climate that enables this to happen.

References:

Boyle, E. & Rothstein, H. (2003). Essentials of college and university teaching: A practical guide. Stillwater, Okla., USA: New Forums Press Inc.

Gross Davis, B. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.