The Elusive College Classroom Discussion

Through my discussions with college instructors, as well as my own experience as a teacher, I have realized that the college classroom discussion with undergraduates can be a somewhat elusive phenomenon.  Many aspiring instructors envision going into their first college classroom and engaging in a compelling discourse with students about crucial primary sources in American History, American Government, and World History.  The reality soon falls short of the expectation when they have their first disappointing discussion, in which only one or two students participate, and the conversation lasts all of ten minutes. After experiencing this, many instructors soon revert back to the 75-minute lecture.  

How do we make the elusive classroom discussion into a reality?  After much trial and error, I have found some sure-fire ways to prepare and engage my students in the discussion format.

Concise, Targeted Readings for Backgrounding
Students cannot discuss a topic without having the right information. Too much information, however, can simply overwhelm them. Because of this, I have learned to give no more than 15 pages out of the text or a separate paper to provide background material for the discussion topic. I set up an online quiz that closes a day or two before the discussion so that I can be sure they have read it.  

Focus with a Primary Source
Background information is not sufficient preparation material on its own, so I always assign a primary source that does a good job of illuminating the topic of the reading.  Since the primary source I choose plays a critical role in the success of the discussion, I have to be clear with myself what intellectual moves I want the students to make. Do I want the source to make a given concept, process, or phenomena discussed in the reading (or perhaps my lecture) more concrete and clear?  Do I want to highlight a part of the reading that discussed a particular group’s experience of events or phenomena?  

Another aspect of choosing the primary source is either to excerpt it or to divide a longer documentary source into chunks.  I will give the chunks subtitles to remind myself of the concepts that I want students to understand clearly.  Over the course of the term, I like to select a variety of sources — images, videos or films, music, art, letters, timelines, data, and so on.  Once I have a clear idea as to what specific connections between the reading and the source that I want to highlight, the planning becomes much easier. 

Bring In Another Medium to Pique Interest
I will often begin the day of discussion with something that piques the students’ interest enough to spark a discussion. This can be anything from a very brief video, an image, or a quick poll. It might simply involve me telling a story or giving a few more facts about the author of the primary source.  If I have a fairly tech-savvy class (and if I am comfortable with my students using their mobile devices in class), I might conduct a quick five-minute source search in which I ask students to look up the author of the source and to call out the information to me so that I can write it on the board.

The Inquiry and the Graphic Organizer
Usually, after I have done this planning, it is pretty simple to come up with a good question that will drive the discussion. One of things I do not like about some source readers is that they lack an inquiry.  I assume that the person making the source selection had something in mind, but it is not always evident.

I also assign as homework a graphic organizer or close reading questions about the primary source.  The students need an incentive to come to class prepared for the discussion.  They also need to have it broken down for them into manageable parts so that they can begin to understand what they are analyzing in a field of study that they are not familiar with. 

Debriefing Techniques in the Classroom
In class, I have the students share their answers with the person next to them.  Next, I divide them into groups of four or five and I ask the small groups to come to a consensus on their answers.  I drift around to the groups (or in the aisles, if we are in a larger classroom), checking in and making comments to facilitate their discussion. 

Then, using classroom polling technology, I direct each group to share a concise answer to the historical question at hand. The discussion naturally takes off, because we can compare and contrast what the groups have come up with.  It is also helpful to designate a speaker from each group to summarize their group’s discussion.

This activity can be done quickly in 15-30 minutes. I have received some of my best student evaluations using this discussion format because my students are able to truly engage with the course materials.  These simple tweaks to my classroom discussion strategy have taken on the elusive classroom discussion and have made it a successful reality.

For my primary source reader, I use digital essays from Globalyeum.  Globalyceum has offered one of their primary source lessons for you to demo in your classroom.  Contact [email protected] to gain access to a set of primary source materials. 

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Laura Guardino

Author: Laura Guardino

Laura Guardino has more than 15 years of teaching experience. She teaches American History and writing courses at San José State University, where she is at forefront of implementing of new technologies and pedagogies in face-to-face and online classes.

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