Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pedagogical Difficulties

Discussion is an essential part of the learning experience. It permits a closer analysis of material, and it encourages the types of debates which can crystallize ideas. The value of discussion in the classroom, I believe, is without question, and yet, it is something that simply does not appeal to many of the students I teach. I cannot perceive if it is because of embarrassment, or if the students have not read the material (this has been a problem in a recent course of mine), or if there is some other underlying distaste of discussion as a tool for learning.

I do not want to believe in the Wikification of learning, where people only care about the acquisition of facts (such as they are), and not about the application of understanding or the deeper analysis of ideas. I recognize that many of my students are more comfortable in the simpler lecture-style portion of my courses than in the discussion element. I know from colleagues that have attempted discussion-based learning before that they have switched over to entirely lecture-based courses. They, too, have noticed my difficulty. If they hadn't, I would have assumed that the problem rested squarely in me, and then I would have tried various personal methods to correct it.

I am, however, convinced that this is a deeper problem, and it requires a new evaluation of how to use and introduce discussion-based elements into the classroom. At this stage of the game, I can only introduce that there is a problem-- Discussion is difficult in class, and students do not profit from it as they should. Thus, a solution must be found (and it will probably be an evolving one) that permits students a more fruitful engagement with discussion-based elements, and that returns the discussion portion of a class to better levels of activity.

As the summer semester winds down, I will begin to post some of the ideas that I have concerning various methods. When I get the opportunity to test these methods, I will post my results. If any of you, whoever you are, have any insights, I would be pleased to hear about them, and look forward to your comments.  


  1. My two cents:
    The risk/reward is low for speaking up in class - if a student asks or answers a good question, then the student get to feel good about him or her self. The risk is looking like an idiot in front of the whole class.
    To alter the students' perceptions you could try to increase the value they hold of discussion as part of learning. You could work at it from the other side too, trying to reduce the perceived cost of gaffes.

    From a very early age the American school systems trains kids that answering questions voluntarily can get you a pat on the head or a reprimand from the teacher by asking a lot of true/false yes/no questions. There's no significant penalty for keeping your head down and only answering when called upon, so anyone particularly averse to risk-taking will use that strategy.

    Also, students may be unfamiliar or inexperienced with the discussion format since so few classes use it.

  2. You are certainly right about the risk/reward for speaking up. It is something that we talk about a lot when preparing courses, and it is the reason that we tend to pump so much of the grade into the discussion component. I know that if the component is worth 20 percent of the final grade and less that I will have only minimum participation from the students. If, however, I up the total to 30 or even 40 percent, the amount of participation takes an impressive leap.

    I think you are also right that I'm battling against a deep-seated stigma. It isn't something people prefer to do, usually -- speak out in front of their peers. I try to create a casual and friendly environment in class, and I use every soft method I know of getting information and correcting erroneous facts. I try to keep my discussions away from facts, actually, so that error is not as great a feature. With history you can do this, since a great deal of what we can discuss is opinion and perception rather than hard fact.

    I have noted, too, that the readings I assigned just weren't reaching the students. I've switched gears, not something I prefer to do mid-semester, but something that I felt had to be done if the students were to really learn anything. The new method seems to be working better. I'll post about it in a final review of the course at the end of the term.