Classroom Discussions: From “Civil Attention” to Real Participation

Steve Volk, October 9, 2017

Why Discussions?

From a series of futuristic pictures by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists issued in France in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910. Public domain.

Because research over the past 30 years has demonstrated that student learning (from retention to student confidence to higher order thinking) is facilitated by active learning and student engagement. [Chickering and Gamson 1987; Pascarella and Terenzini 1991, 2005; Kuh et al, 2005]

Because the person who is doing the work is the person who is learning.

Because the participating classroom is a place where students learn citizenship skills, including how to articulate their positions, how to discuss with those with whom they disagree, how to take responsibility for their actions.

Because even in the best lectures, delivered by the most entertaining faculty at the very top of their game, student attention will flag at a certain point and students will mentally check out.

Because we’re doing more than preparing students to be good at going to school. Learning is more than “making deposits” in our students’ brains [Freire]; learning involves helping students become aware of their learning (metacognition) so as to be able to transfer knowledge and skills to other domains.

Because all students, even the most shy, will have to find their voice when they graduate: they will have to learn to advocate for themselves, to speak up and, often, to speak out.

Need More Why’s? 

If you’re still looking for reasons why discussions are a valuable classroom practice, here are fifteen further benefits of discussions as gathered from S. D. Brookfield and S. Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2005), pp. 21-22.

Discussion, they argue:

  1. Helps students explore a diversity of perspectives.
  2. Increases students’ awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity or complexity.
  3. Helps students recognize and investigate their assumptions.
  4. Encourages attentive, respectful listening.
  5. Develops new appreciation for continuing differences.
  6. Increases intellectual agility.
  7. Helps students become connected to a topic.
  8. Shows respect for students’ voices and experiences.
  9. Helps students learn the processes and habits of democratic discourse.
  10. Affirms students as co-creators of knowledge.
  11. Develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.
  12. Develops habits of collaborative learning.
  13. Increases breadth and makes students more empathetic.
  14. Helps students develop skills of synthesis and integration.
  15. Leads to transformation.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, The Wise Boys: or, The Entertaining Histories of Fred Forethought, Matt Merrythought, Luke Lovebook and Ben Bee (New York, Edwd. Dunigan), 1842.

Some Cautions and Challenges 

  • Talking/discussion does not automatically lead to or result in learning, as we well know. If we allow it, discussions can lead nowhere and serve no learning purpose. A recent article by Amber Finn and Paul Schrodt (2016) identifies five factors that characterize effective discussion facilitation on the part of faculty. Good facilitation provokes discussion, organizes discussion, questions students, affirms students, and corrects students. (You can download their “Teacher Discussion Facilitation Instrument” here.
  • Facilitating good discussions isn’t easy, but neither is it impossibly difficult.
  • Accept that promoting effective discussions requires working through contradictions: think of them dialectically:

Students don’t much like it when a few students absorb all the class’s air time by constantly           talking; on the other hand (see below), they are often willing and even happy to let others talk,           and even talk constantly.

Discussions require a classroom environment where students feel – dare I say it without           provoking a “precious snowflake” attack – safe, yet learning demands that we challenge           assumptions and preconceptions, which can make students uncomfortable.

Consolidation of Responsibility

In Discussion in the College Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015), from which much of this article is fondly and gratefully lifted, Jay Howard writes about the difference between students “actually paying attention” in class versus those who pay only “civil attention.” Just as we know the normative rules of behavior in specific spaces (don’t touch the paintings in a museum, move to the back and face forward in an elevator, etc.), so our students know how to create the appearance of paying attention in class: they look at (or toward) us, take notes (or at least pretend to), and try not to make it totally obvious when they check their phones. Such behavior, identified by Karp and Yoels [1976], is called “paying civil attention.” (I once had a student with a head of long and curly hair. Occasionally, as I droned on, he would attach his pen to the locks of hair falling over his face and “take notes” by moving his head around, letting the pen make marks on the paper below. Now that was really pushing the boundaries of “civil” attention!)

L. A. Vaught, Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, 1902.

Anyway, the problem, as Howard points out, is that as long as students adhere to these norms, our assumption (except for hirsute note-taking) is that they are actually paying attention. They’re not, or at least, many aren’t, and the challenge becomes how to move students from “civil” to “actual” attention. We all know that discussions are an excellent way to do this. So, what are the best ways to do engage all our students in productive discussions?

Who speaks up in class? Well, actually, very few students, if the research is any indication. Karp and Yoels [1976] found that, in a “typical college or university classroom,” a small number of students accounted for 75-95% of all interactions. Perhaps things have changed for the better lately since their research is a bit musty? We should be so lucky. Howard, Zoeller, and Pratt [2006] reported similar findings more recently. They studied 15 sections of an introductory sociology course taught by 9 different instructors at “a large Midwestern university.” In a “typical” 75-minute class, they found 49 instances of student verbal participation. Fantastic, no? Not really. In an average class, 70% of the students didn’t intervene at all. Of those who spoke, 6 of the 39 students in class accounted for 92% of all student interactions.

Many colleges and universities created First Year Seminars to give entering students a small-class setting in which the skills of discussion could be encouraged. When Sheryl Baratz Goodman, Krista Bailey Murphy, and Mia Lindquist D’Andrea of Ursinus College (2012) studied a First Year Seminar course with only 15 students enrolled, they found that a majority of students adhered to “a norm of silence.” In other words, they didn’t see themselves as obligated to participate in the conversation. In the literature, this is called “consolidation of responsibility,” meaning that the majority of participants turn over the responsibility for engaging in discussion to a few of their peers. (This can produce the contradiction I flagged at the start: students are both annoyed with their peers who talk all the time and are grateful that they are there.)

Why does this happen? There are probably a lot of reasons why this happens from the perspective of the student, including the possibility that they aren’t prepared for class. Factors of gender and race clearly enter in, although not always in the ways that one might imagine. I’m more interested in locating what we are doing as instructors to actually make it easier for students to bow out of a discussion and turn over the responsibility of talking to others. And, of course, I’m interested in what we can do to make the classroom a more participatory environment that encourages actual attention through discussion. First, what we might be doing wrong.

What We Do That Makes It Easier for Students to Sit on the Sidelines

There are a number of things we do, consciously or inadvertently, which signal to students that we’re not actually interested in what they have to say. For example, we:

  • Don’t leave much time for discussion during class;
  • Shoehorn discussion into the last few minutes of class when everyone’s attention has moved on;
  • Don’t prepare students for discussion or hold them responsible for what is discussed;
  • Keep calling on the same 3-4 students, the ones who are quick to raise their hands, or turn to those same students when no one else responds (“Josh, you should know the answer to this!”);
  • Do nothing to rein in the dominant talkers;
  • Respond sarcastically or curtly to students whose answers are incorrect or not the best;
  • Ignore certain students because, consciously or unconsciously, we don’t expect much of them.

Illustration from The Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus (1847)

Making Student Participation Both Valued and Welcome:

More positively, we can encourage a broad base of student participation in discussions by:

  • Stressing the importance of student discussion to student learning. As we begin to align our syllabi to class, departmental, and college learning goals, it is important to be able to articulate why we do what we do, i.e. why we structure classes as we do; why we assign the readings we do; why we have specific assignments, and why we encourage discussions in class. Bringing students early in the semester into a “discussion on discussions” can help them understanding the impact on learning that (well-prepared) discussions can have.
  • Emphasizing the social nature of learning and stressing the evidence that the fact that they have a lot to learn from each other; indeed, that’s why they are in our liberal arts colleges and not just reading a textbook at home.
  • Helping students become aware of the ways they learn, and how discussions are one aspect of that.
  • Having standards for discussion and, if you choose, well defined rubrics by which you grade classroom participation. Some discussions can be loose and unstructured, a kind of “throat clearing” form of engagement before getting down to the business at hand. But for important discussions, students need to know that they are taken seriously, and that they need to pay attention to their peers. (You can do this by having students take notes of their discussions and report back to the class.) In Q&A type discussions, ask students for evidence to back up their arguments or to highlight the experiences that have generated their comments. The best way to have productive discussions is to establish a model of good discussions and to keep students to it.
  • Making discussion a part of our classes, not an afterthought intended only as a break from the lecture.
  • Demonstrating from the beginning class that we won’t allow a “consolidation of responsibility” to happen, that we won’t let a few students carry the conversational burden – even if those few are happy to speak up and the others are happy to let them do so.

Supporting Productive Discussions

There are lots of things to be done. Here are a few, many of which you probably know already – but it never hurts to review!

  1. Modify any classroom geography that discourages discussion: No matter how “bolted down” the classroom setting (e.g. theater seating, chairs nailed to the floor, etc.) you can improve discussions by hacking the room to encourage communication.
  • Pull the chairs into a circle or horseshoe, where possible;
  • If you can’t move all the chairs, have students cluster in groups of 3-5 students;
  • If you can’t move ANY of the chairs, have students sit on their desks to face and talk to those sitting around them. When students can look at other students, we increase the chances that more will talk.
  1. Take your time: Students, particularly those who aren’t quick to raise their hands, need time to think about answering, particularly if the questions are complex.
  • Pause for 30 seconds (it will seem like an eternity) before calling on anyone;
  • Give students a minute to write their comments before calling on them;
  • “Think-pair-share” – the “go-to” method here: a minute to write; 1-2 minutes to share with the person sitting next to you; 1-2 minutes to report back. (More on this here.) These methods also allow you to call on the quieter students rather than only calling on the ones who raise their hands: “I saw your writing away, Yolanda. Can you share it with us?”
  1. Provide feedback that can build and expand student confidence. Research [Fassinger 1997] has suggested that the variable that best explained student participation was student confidence: not an overvalued sense of their own worth, but the confidence that their input is valuable, will be taken seriously, and won’t provoke peer disapproval. (This last point is critically important but deserves a separate article!)
  • Supportive feedback is not just the “great job, Sonia,” type of comment. If other students don’t know why Sonia’s comment was awesome, they won’t learn from it, nor learn from the discussion. Reveal why you thought it was a good answer: “Great job, Sonia. You connected Weber’s notion about the state and the legitimate use of violence with the conversation we’ve been having about the Kurds.” [For more, see here.]

    Andrew Comstock, A System of Elocution, with Special Reference to Gesture, to the Treatment of Stammering, and Defective Articulation (1846).

  1. Help the class learn from mistakes.
  • If a student serves up an incorrect answer, you can either correct the information (“No, it was actually in 1917”), or ask someone else (“Nice try, Ellen. Anyone else?”).
  • When dealing with more complicated concepts, not just facts, it can help everyone, including the student who answered, to probe a bit further to see where their answer came from, since many could harbor the same (incorrect) idea: “Hmm, not sure I get that, could you add more?” “What makes you say that?” “Can you point to some evidence to back up your argument?”
  • When the answer has little to do with what you’re discussing and you want to keep the student, and the class, on track, you can ask the student to describe how it connects to what you’re discussing. (This approach can at times produce startlingly interesting insights, as students, not experts in our fields, may make different connections than we do. And sometimes, of course, it’s just off base.)
  1. Control the “compulsive communicators” and increase the confidence of quieter students to support their entry into the discussion. As argued above, most instructors and students have come to expect and even accept that a small number of students will dominate discussions. Sometimes these are students who have taken the responsibility to prepare for the discussion; sometimes they are students who dominate discussions by either preventing others from entering in or by driving others out. In both all cases, you want make sure early in the semester that it’s not OK for a few students to be doing all the talking.
  • Help all students prepare for discussions and hold them responsible.
  • Encourage other students to speak up and don’t let compulsive communicators dominate discussions: “Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t yet spoken;” “I’m waiting for someone in the back row to speak up;” “John’s already answered twice: I need someone else.”
  • Walk over to different parts of the class and pose questions from there.
  • Encourage quieter students by giving them time to think (one-minute papers, etc.).
  • Avoid getting into a back-and-forth with a compulsive communicator: “Who wants to respond to John’s argument?”
  • Talk to compulsive communicators after class (in your office) and explain why you appreciate their comments (if you do), but you’d now appreciate it if they could to sit on their hands for a bit to let others talk. If you think there are different issue involved (e.g., a white student who continues to dominate the conversation and is oblivious to the indications that students of color aren’t talking and are becoming frustrated, etc.) explain what you think is happening and why it’s important for them to be aware of how their domination of the conversation impacts the class.

    Tiago Ribeiro (Braga, Portugal), 2009. Public domain.

  1. Experiment with well-established approaches.
  • “Muddy Point papers”: Reserve the last 2-3 minutes of class for students to write on a slip of paper what they found most confusing about that day’s class. Collect them, and begin the next class with some of the questions raised, particularly if a lot of students wrote the same thing. “A number of you found my explanation of recombinant DNA less than enlightening. Can someone try their hand at explaining it?”
  • “Most Important Point papers”: As with the muddy points, ask students to write what they thought the most important point covered in the class was. While these are usually anonymous, you can ask that they sign the slips they handed in and, in that case, begin class by asking a student to explain why she thought the specific point she raised was important; it’s a good opening to call on the less talkative students. The added value of this approach is that students can always duck the “muddy point paper” by saying that everything was crystal clear, no problems at all.
  • Online discussion boards: Similarly, have students answer questions online, collect them before class, and ask some students – again, the least talkative – to go over the points they raised in the homework. (More on this here.)
  1. Attend to the needs of students for whom English is not their home language. Fast-paced discussions, cold-calling, and a culture that favors hand-raising can silence or confuse multilingual students.
  • It is particularly important to understand that students for whom English is not their home language can benefit from all the approaches outlined above, particularly giving students time to think before they answer, putting them in small groups to discuss specific questions before the group reports back to the class, and using on-line forums outside of class and short writing opportunities in class. This is yet another indication of the value of universal design principles: when we think about how to make our classroom environment fully inclusive, we benefit all the students.

By Way of Conclusion: Forms of Silence

Paul Goodman

I just came upon Paul Goodman’s discussion of speaking and silence in Maria Popova’s most wonderful “Brain Pickings” blog. In Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry (1973), Goodman  enumerated nine kinds of silence, reminding us that silence itself can be productive, and that the goal here, as always, is student learning, not student talking. There are forms of silence, just as there are ways of talking, that we want to encourage.

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

—–

References

Brookfield, S.D. and Preskill, S. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” AAHE Bulletin, 1987, 7 (39), 3-7.

Fassinger, P.A. “Understanding Classroom Interaction: Students’ and Professors’ Contributions to Students’ Silence.” Journal of Higher Education, 1995, 66(1), 82-96.

Finn, A. N. and Schrodt, P. “Teacher discussion facilitation: A new measure and its associations with students’ perceived understanding, interest and engagement.” Communication Education, 2016, 65 (4), 445-462.

Freire, Paolo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.

Goodman, S.B., Murphy, K.B., and D’Andrea, M.L. “Discussion Dilemmas: An Analysis of Beliefs and Ideas in the Undergraduate Seminar.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2012, 27(1), 1-21.

Howard, J. Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015.

Karp, D.A. and Yoels, W.C. “The College Classroom: Some Observations on the Meaning of Student Participation,” Sociology and Social Research, 1976, 60(4), 421-439.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H. , Whitt, E.J., and Associates. Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Pascarella, E.T., and Terenzini, P.T. How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

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