Classroom Discussion: Professors Share Favorite Strategies for Engaging Students

In the typical college classroom a small handful of students make the vast majority of comments. As a teacher you want to create a classroom environment that helps students of various learning styles and personalities to feel comfortable enough to contribute as well as understand the importance of class preparation and active participation. To reach this goal requires a constant balancing act of encouraging quiet, reflective students to speak up and, occasionally, asking the most active contributors to hold back from commenting in order to give others a chance.

On The Teaching Professor’s LinkedIn Group we asked members to share some of the strategies they use to engage students in discussion, manage the dominant talkers and the nontalkers, and steer a discussion that’s gone off track. Nearly three dozen faculty members shared their techniques for prompting discussion. Below are excerpts of just a few of the strategies shared.

Bob Burdette, Assistant Professor of Accounting, Salt Lake Community College: No one method works for me to get my non-talking students to speak and the talkers to be quiet and listen. So, I try to change up the tool I use to get the desired results. On one day I will start working a problem on the whiteboard. I’ll then give the marking pen to a student and thank them for volunteering. They get to come to the board to work the next part of the problem. After they are finished they pass the pen to another student to continue work on the problem. We continue this process giving as many students the opportunity to come to the board and teach small parts of the problem to the rest of the class. To remove the anxiety of coming to the board we give the student at the board the authority to ask for help from all the students still seated.

Another day I’ll pass out two or three poker chips to every student. As we begin the discussion I ask each student to give me back a chip each time they answer a question. Rapidly the talking students use up their chips. Since they can no longer speak in the class it leaves the non-talking students to answer the remaining questions.

Another day I’ll bring a deck of cards to class and allow every student to select one from the deck. Once I begin working a problem I’ll stop and draw a card from the deck. Any student with a card higher than mine has to come to the board and continue working on the problem. If I have the higher card then I have to continue working the problem.

Warren Dittmar, Professor of English, Miami Dade College: A good foundation for interactive conversation is a relaxed atmosphere and an understanding by students that their ideas and opinions are important and will be accepted and entertained. Students must feel that their comments are going to be listened to and sincerely responded to. Establishing student trust and acceptance is an important aspect of their participation.

Erica Kleinknecht, Associate Professor of Psychology, Pacific University: I find that in lecture classes, most students don’t read before-hand, they do so after class. When I want discussion, I create a series of writing assignments due at the start of select class periods. This gets them to collect their thoughts before class so they don’t feel pressured to come up with something on the spot. Many students are afraid of being wrong.

by Mary Bart.

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