Having class discussion is hard. Some students talk a lot, some very little, some not at all. Teachers dream of, and work hard to achieve, a Goldilocks medium where all students’ participation is juuuust riiight.

My students and I are getting there. At the beginning of the term in January, about a third of my students spoke in class. Now, I regularly enjoy 100% or near-100% participation. How are we doing this? Allow me:

My students and I discuss discussion a lot. I’m lucky enough to have a 0/1/0 course load. The single class I teach all year only has 14 students in it. In addition, I meet with half of these students individually once a week in my capacity as their Guide (which is something like an academic coach – post on that coming soon). I may be the only professor on Earth to have this kind of regular contact with my students. Nevertheless, I highly suggest asking students, to the extent possible, what they like about discussion, what is challenging about it, and what things you and they can do to make class discussion more comfortable. These types of discussions have several benefits:

  1. They give students ownership over discussion, making them more invested in making it work. This alone increases participation.
  2. Discussions mitigate the need for guesswork on professors’ part. Students are pretty darn self-aware. It’s much more efficacious to ask them what they need rather than trying to figure it out on our own.
  3. We teachers can compare notes to arrive at best practices. Below are things I’ve learned from my students and the ways I’ve addressed their input in my classroom. I’d be glad to read in the comments below what things work for you!
Lessons from Discussing Discussion

One wonderful thing about discussing discussion is that students get to tell you and their classmates how they feel. Openly addressing feelings helps everyone hop on the same page and work together to make people more comfortable. When discussing discussion, my extroverts said that they got nervous when  no one was talking and felt compelled to step in to kill any awkward silences. These students’ impulse to speak up can be very, very useful for professors when we need someone to get the discussion ball rolling. But it can also result in extroverts’ ideas dominating and shaping conversation to their own interests and experiences at the (inadvertent) expense of others’. I’ve encouraged my extroverts to enjoy the silence. I ask them to share the responsibility and the opportunity of breaking silences with their classmates. Asking them to strike a balance between their desire and right to speak and the need for others to be heard has been very productive. In my experience, students are generally conscientious and generous. To wit, this term the extroverts are stepping back and and allowing/expecting others to step up. For any of my extroverts who are reading this – thanks for doing that. <3

Getting the extroverts on board with making space for others to speak up is only, like, 10% of the battle. Talking with my students I learned that I — and many of my students — believed that, if our extroverts spoke less, others would speak more. This is only a little bit true. Most of what keeps people from contributing to discussion is that they seriously don’t know what to say. So we came up with ways to help them formulate thoughts to share in class discussion.

Students need time to think before they speak, so I employ a technique I call Meditative Analysis. When we are having a large group discussion, I give students a prompt (or three) to think about it. I ask that nobody speak for 2-10 minutes (depending on how I want the flow of class to go). During this time, students think about the question in whatever way works best for them: quiet meditation; freewriting; or poking around for relevant articles online. This gives students time to fully process what I asked and to think about how they want to express their thoughts before we’re swept away by discussion. After meditative analysis, students can come to the discussion more confident about what they want to say and how they want to say it, making it easier for them to speak up. After speaking with my students, I almost never ask the class a question without following it up with quiet reflection time.

Even with prepared comments, engaging in the ensuing discussion can be tricky. Many students told me that they often have something they want to say but, by the time they get a chance to say it, the topic of conversation has shifted and their comment no longer seems relevant. So, we’ve adopted the motto “be okay with non sequiturs”. If a student wants to say something that seems off topic, they tell that to the class. We give the rest of the class a chance to either wrap up the current discussion or to jump right into the non sequitur. Usually students are eager to jump right in. If not, we get around to the non sequitur as soon as it feels right. This way, no idea is left behind even if discussion zigs and zags a little bit.

Speaking of non sequiturs: let’s say you’re at a loft party, right, and everyone is being hilarious but for whatever reason you’re not on your A-game and  the only reaction you can muster is this. But later, after you’re heading downstairs to catch a cab, you think of THE PERFECT witty remark. Been there? Of course you have. The French have a name for this phenomenon: esprit d’escalier, or, the wit of the staircase (where all the greatest barbs are conceived). This phenomenon happens in class, too. Sometimes students think of the perfect thing to say about the assigned material long after it’s been discussed. So, I provide a moment at the beginning of class for students to revive discussion on past material. This allows all of us to benefit from well-considered ideas that have matured over time. It also has the added bonus of giving me the opportunity to highlight how material covered in the past relates to that day’s material. Most importantly, it helps those who enjoy a long processing time to show up in class as the brilliant folks they are.

These few techniques resulted in a dramatic increase in participation in just a couple of class sessions. The most important takeaway for me has been that using class time for this type of metadiscussion is totally super duper worth it; you get a huge return on your investment. Students know what they need and when they’re offered ownership, they take it. I’m so pleased with what we’re building together.

Thanks for reading. Comment with your techniques below!

January 29, 2018


Excellent introduction to some great teaching techniques. These will work in the arena I frequent (organized religion) for meetings as well as classes. I’m going to share it around. Thanks!

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