– Melissa K. Downes
Melissa Downes reading poetry to an audience of children and adults.
When I was being interviewed for my job here at Clarion, one of my soon-to-be colleagues asked me what I would do if no one talked in my classes. I told him I found it difficult to answer such a question since it had never happened to me in my then-seven years of teaching. After fifteen years of teaching at Clarion, I have a better sense of what he was asking and why. I have had days when getting a conversation going with my students was more than difficult. However, such days are few and far between. Why?
Let me let you in on a secret: my students make my classes. Discussion and what I call lecture/discussion are at the heart of many class sessions for almost every course I teach. I try to ask good, open-ended questions. I tend to have back-up questions that approach the issues I want to address in case students have not done or have had difficulty with the reading. I listen to my students, and I use what they say to build what happens next or to create my next question. I also make connections or show important contrasts between the different points my students raise. I facilitate my students as they make meaning. Is it any wonder I love my job?
I think active discussion is an important part of learning, and I think there are ways to make discussion effective across disciplines, though the smaller class size of many English classes certainly facilitates this approach. In all of my classes, in order to reach my goals and outcomes, I use lots of directed in-class discussions in various formats. I often use short in-class writings tied to a question prompt to give students more time to reflect and develop their answers and to allow my shyer students a script to aid them in adding their voices. I find these practices open up the conversation. Some part of creating effective discussions is enthusiasm (on the part of teacher and students), but such discussions are also tied to asking good questions from a range of approaches.
So what is a good question? As one might expect, open-ended questions (why, how, etc.) usually build discussion more effectively than closed questions. When I use closed questions, they are more often used to poll responses or as a springboard into an open-ended question: if yes, why? if no, why not? I try to avoid loaded or judgmental language in my questions (or I make fun of myself and highlight the bias as I ask). I also find it useful to reiterate some key point I want them to remember as part of the set-up for the question. This reinforces that key point, but also frames the question, putting it in the context of larger course issues. I also like questions that make connections across texts:
How would you compare the fictional Wife of Bath to the real Margery Kempe or to the Margery of Kempe’s work? How might you compare the Wife of Bath to the other Alison in “The Miller’s Tale”?
While the content of the questions we ask will vary across disciplines, these basic heuristics will apply often in most fields.
In a recent College Writing class session, after we had read Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid” and watched Sherry Turkle’s TedTalk, “Connected, but Alone?”, I only had to ask two prepared questions to get quite a rich discussion going:
- What are all the positive things you can tell me about your smartphone and your use of it?
- What are the negative aspects of smartphone use?
By the way, I think that asking these questions in that order strengthened the discussion; many of my students are deeply attached to their phones and resent the implication that their phone use could be detrimental. They were much more willing to discuss their own concerns or respond to the concerns of others after their values had been heard.
In my field, part of asking good questions is to avoid building questions that assume only one right answer. (I know this approach might not work as well in all aspects of all disciplines.) There are multiple valid ways to interpret texts or to approach writing. I also try to undercut assumptions (in myself and in my students) that the answer to a question is the only point: part of the point is the process by which we get to an answer and the importance of hearing both different, reasonable answers and different processes for getting there. Such issues seem fundamental to inquiry and critical thinking.
An important part of good discussions is listening, on everyone’s part, but especially on the part of the professor. Many of the discussions in my classroom are generated spontaneously, from the needs or ideas of my students (what I call planned-for spontaneity). To make such spontaneous discussions effective one must listen well, use what students have to say, and purposefully build a web from their interconnected ideas.
It is not that I don’t prepare: I know my material well. I always reflect on where I want my students to arrive and plan the arc for how I think we might get there. However, my written lesson plans are more often lists of things I want to make sure not to forget – terms, concepts, dates, and points of emphasis that might get lost in the excitement of a classroom discussion if I don’t have them noted down.
Many of my courses are labor-intensive for both students and teacher. I purposely infuse the course with humor, visuals, and lots of large group and small group discussion in order to make the labor more enjoyable, if not lighter. However, for a while after I created pretty PowerPoints and Prezis to model some of my department’s new outcomes associated with multimodal argument, I found my students being more passive and myself doing more lecturing than lecture/discussion. I have moved some of those multimodal lessons to outside-class reading/viewing and am much more conscious now when I use them in the classroom not to let them lull us into teacher-centered practices: I have flipped my classes back to what they need to be. Still, I sometimes struggle to find the balance my students need (even more so in a content-heavy class like the early British literature survey), and I wonder how others find a balance between content and discussion.
Jeanne Slattery observed me some years ago: when she noted that I “generally operated by raising questions that [I] expected [my] students to think about and respond to, although these questions were not raised in a rigid order, but appeared often to be in response to the students’ own thoughts about the text,” she identified the center of my teaching practice: my students and what they say are the material around which I build the class. Because of this, even on my most performative or “sage-like” day, my classrooms are student-centered.
There are many rewards to a student-focused, discussion-based classroom. One of my favorite moments from this year (so far) was when one of my students stayed after our smartphone discussion to ask, “Are we going to have more of these discussions? This was fun!”
For further reading:
Getty, A. (2014). Letting the students lead class discussions. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/letting-students-lead-class-discussions/
Gonzalez, G. (2015). The big list of class discussion strategies. Cult of Pedagogy. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/speaking-listening-techniques/
Lang, J. M. (2015). Building a better discussion. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Building-a-Better-Discussion/231685
Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org