It's in the Cards
Annual Atlantic Universities' Teaching Showcase
Mount Saint Vincent University, 29 October 2011
There is no question that oral discussions are a valuable learning tool, even though they have problems -- e.g., they tend to be dominated by some students to the exclusion of others; many students speak only to the instructor; a first response to a question or proposition intended to stimulate thought and discourse tends to constrain or shape the entire discussion, etc. In this session, I will demonstrate one strategy I've found useful in engaging a wider proportion of the class more actively in a discussion. To structure a discussion, or to get it started, I use a deck of 3X5 cards, each with a class member's name on it. I shuffle the cards, and deal them out one at a time. Students whose name comes up have the floor -- just as in a usual "round," they can pass if they like with no opprobrium, or they can say what they think relevant. As in a round, the speaker has the floor, and then we pass on to the next one. When the round is done, the floor is open for discussion.
There are a number of familiar, and continuing, challenges faced by instructors who want to use oral discussion as a strategy to help students learn. Some of these most of us never think much about because they seem to be simply intrinsic components of the situation; others are familiar to all of us.
The familiar ones are, among others: the fact that oral discussions tend to be dominated by some students to the exclusion of others; that many or even most students speak only to the instructor and have little regard for the fact that what's going on is supposed to be a multilateral discussion rather than a question-answering session; that many students are reluctant to disagree with or even qualify what others say; that feelings are hurt when they do; that discussions tend inexorably to center around the instructor's interventions; that when they don't they tend to wander into the personal, the superficial, and the trivial.
We all know this, and most of us have developed more or less successful strategies for dealing with them. All have problems: calling on students directly to shift the dominance tends to intimidate the silent; interventions tend to be understood as evaluations. So, "yes, good, any other thoughts?" tends to shut discussion down because the "authority" has approved, whereas the noncommittal silence followed by "anyone else?" tends to shut discussion down because it's understood as "Wrong."
And so forth. Some the problems we don't often recognize tend to be structural: the first response to a question or proposition intended to stimulate thought and discourse tends to shape the entire discussion; those who might have thought of a different approach entirely are sucked into the wake of the discussion and often forget what their original response was; those who tend to be less aggressive in participation end up discussing someone else's idea rather than their own; if the discussion is unilaterally wrenched in another direction by the teacher's intervention it becomes her interrupted lecture rather than a true dialogue.
Even though such problems are part of the territory, I, like most of my colleagues, believe there's something irreplaceably valuable about helping students formulate and take responsibility for their ideas, place them into a polite but uncompromising academic environment, and learn from being wrong, or partial, or even from coming up with ideas that impress and engage others. My career choice, in fact, was governed -- over a half century ago -- by the conviction that academia was the only place (the only place I knew of, anyway) where such discussions regularly took place.
One idea I've been working with for some years seems to me helpful in creating such discussions; among other things, it seems to help me to engage a wider proportion of the class in the conversation. To structure that discussion, or to get it started, I use a deck of 3X5 cards, each with a class member's name on it. I usually have them fill out the cards at the beginning of the course, and use them regularly. To start, I say that we're going to do a round (if there are more students in the class than I'm likely to have time for in a session, I say we're going to do a round until we run out of time).
I shuffle the cards, and deal them out one at a time. Students whose name comes up have the floor -- just as in a usual "round," they can pass if they like with no opprobrium, or they can say what they think relevant. As in a round, the speaker has the floor, and then we pass on to the next one (I often remind students that if someone says something they want to respond to, they should make a note). When the round is done, the floor is open for discussion.
There are, of course, variations; sometimes one can allow or encourage in-process responses; sometimes a student can, rather than simply passing, ask to have her card put back in the deck. I often hand the deck to a student in the class to call the names, as a way of making me less the focus of discussion.