Can We Discuss This (II)

Sometimes, everything goes wrong in a class discussion. Rob Weir has strategies to turn things around.

September 18, 2009

Even if you’re really good, at some point your class is going to suck! You’ll walk into a class and something will go wrong. Maybe it will be you. (Don’t get me started on a personal it-seemed-like-a-great-idea-at-the-time list.) When you’re the problem there’s just one solution: scrap what you were doing and try something else.

Bad classes happen. Students can zone out during a bad lecture, but there are few things more awkward than having a discussion group that’s careening off course. Twenty (or more) sets of eyes glare from the circle, you’re the leader, and it’s your job to make something, anything happen. What? You might try:

  • Going on a cruise
  • Shifting the frame
  • Playing devil’s advocate
  • Assigning a two-minute essay
  • Leading a demonstration

Wired classrooms and the proliferation of iPhones, Blackberries, and other data phones can provide avenues for instant revision. If the topic at hand is DOA, surf the Web to see if there’s life elsewhere. I had a discussion group that presupposed more knowledge of early 20th century aviation than my students possessed. A closer reading of the assignment would have given it to them, but the moment called for action, not chastisement. I called up a site with pictures of early aircraft and asked those with software on their phones to search for sites on aviators, air disasters, flight timelines, etc. Lightweight? Yes, but it got us off the ground.

Some times it helps just to shift the frame. If a group discussion is going nowhere, split students into small groups, make up an impromptu assignment, and have the groups report their findings. If words aren’t working, show an image even if it’s on your laptop. The very act of gathering people around a screen can build solidarity. You can shift intellectually as well. When all else fails, I generally get responses when I ask for a pop culture analogy. A computer scientist friend asked students to explain the architecture of a simple computer game and skillfully asked complex questions that piggybacked on their answers.

Playing the devil’s advocate is such a time-honored tool that, if anything, you should use it sparingly so that students don’t identify it as your default position. Nonetheless, if things are dire, use it. Don’t be afraid to be outrageous. When students are bored you need to snap them back to attention not gently coax them.

At best, writing loosens embedded thoughts, but even at its worst it provides discussion fodder. Another time-tested way to break the stall is the two-minute essay. Rephrase the question at hand and give students two minutes to write about it. Ask a few students to paraphrase what they’ve written and reopen the discussion floor. As remarks come, ask follow-up questions and brainstorm examples.

Improvise a demonstration of some sort and put students in lead roles. Toss out a hypothetical situation — prosecutor-defender models of all sorts generally work. A clever physics grad student I know had a foundering discussion about Galileo. He shifted gears by asking students about mathematical proofs for planetary motion — child’s play for physics majors — and then scribbled on the board the earth’s familiar elliptical orbit around the sun. Then he told students that he wanted them to prove the truth of all of this without referencing math or astronomy. That, of course, was Galileo’s dilemma.

It’s one thing to take responsibility for your own ill-conceived discussion plans, but what do you do when students are the problem? There are (at least) seven flavors of problem students:

  • The brownnoser
  • The polymath
  • The pulseless
  • The diverter
  • The pariah
  • The defiant
  • The unprepared

Once you establish criteria for grading discussion you’ll probably encounter students who seek to ingratiate themselves by interjecting as often as they can, even if they’ve nothing substantive to say. It happens early in the semester and it’s a near axiom that the most-active students of the first few weeks will not be your academic stars. You need to defuse brownnosers without deflating them. During the class you can redirect comments by simply asking others what they think. You can also make remarks such as, “This is a complex issue so let’s get several other points of view on it.” After class, pull the student aside and thank him or her for their contributions but add, “I just want you to know that I won’t call on you every time you volunteer because I need to involve others as well. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate your contributions, it’s just that some people need more time to consider issues.” And make sure you don’t call on that person every time! (When discussion lags it’s very tempting.)

Your very brightest students can harm the group dynamic, usually without meaning to do so. Some kids just “get it” miles in advance of their peers. They make connections that are so astonishing in their depth and complexity that their classmates flinch from admiration and intimidation. Try calling on these students selectively and seek to recruit them as discussion aides. I generally take such students aside and ask them to play a particular role in discussion. (It’s amazing how many don’t realize how bright they are!) I generally solicit their input after discussion has unfurled a bit so it appears more as a collective thought than an individual one. In some cases I’ll even ask them if they will ask redirect questions of a peer response such as “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” I’ve had some success stories from this, including students who decided they wanted to become teachers. Caution: Students have the right to decline the aide role. If they do, you will simply need to limit how often you call on them.

Some students exude how little they wish to participate. I generally deliver gentle-but-firm out-of-class warnings to these students. I periodically remind everyone of the percentage of their grade that rides on discussion and that I apply those standards to everyone. I encourage each to contribute and I take shy students aside and brainstorm ways they can experiment with being more vocal. (Some of you will disagree, but I think we do students a disservice if we allow them to plead shyness. Moreover, unless a “shy” student has a documented psychological malady we’re not allowed to grant special dispensation!) Tell the lazy and clueless to step up their efforts and don’t waste your breath with the attitude-laden unless they become defiant. But if you best efforts fail, dispense an F for class participation and let grades suffer accordingly. (Because my criteria are written down I’ve never had a discussion grade successfully challenged.)

You’re likely to encounter a student or two who knows that it’s not that hard to get professors to digress. Sometimes it’s good to take detours. If there are sound intellectual and pedagogical reasons for going off topic, you can let a discussion flow organically. What you can’t do is allow clever manipulators to divert the flow of discussion onto the "we’re just babbling" level. It’s surprisingly easy to reset a digressive discussion. Simply interject and ask an on-topic question. An affirmative-yet-firm comment such as, “This is a fascinating topic for later, but we need to get back on task” is so effective that one generally only needs to utter it a few times per semester to send the message that you’re hip to what’s going on.

Discussion should flow freely, but there are times in which you must assert authority. It’s a good idea to lay out a civility code for discussion, but heated moments can occur in which you must be the voice of civility. Each student must feel safe in the group, and that includes those who hold unpopular views. Do not tolerate personal attacks of any sort. If a student is interrupted by another I immediately jump in and remark, “John has the floor; you may address the issue when he’s done.” I instantly cut off any you-directed comments.

Defiant students can make your life miserable if you let them, but you shouldn’t. I like being challenged — in fact, I often invite it — but open disrespect is another matter. When it happens the first time I give a student the benefit of doubt and simply change the topic. If it happens again — and if the student is clearly trying to make a fool out of me — he’s intellectual free game insofar as I’m concerned. I won’t yell or show my annoyance, but I will give better than was given. (“Hmmm. I presume your disagreement with me is based on a particular reading of Rerum Novarum. Could you elaborate? Oh, you’ve not read it? Ah.”) And we will have a discussion after class in which I will calmly but emphatically state that disrespect is unacceptable. Given the times we live in, document any nasty confrontations and inform your department chair and the appropriate academic dean. (Having scared you, note that I’ve only ever had one defiant student who I thought was unstable; some of my very best students have been those whose bluff I called. It just cut through the BS and fostered rapport.)

Finally, here’s one you can use once in a blue moon. Sometimes an entire class is utterly and grossly unprepared. They’d not done the necessary work, the reading, or any thinking. To keep them for an hour would be torture for everyone involved, most of all you. In such a moment — about three times in 25 years of teaching — I’ve looked at the group and said, “OK, let’s face facts. You folks simply haven’t done the work and it’s not my job to do it for you. Class is dismissed. You are, however, responsible for this material and can rest assured you will be called upon to prove your mastery of it.” Oddly enough these classes were super prepared for the subsequent discussion group.

Still have questions? Send them on — along with things that have happened in your discussion groups — and I’ll comment on them in a future column.


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