Ideas for graduate student discussion sessions
September 5, 2013 1:22 PM   Subscribe

I have recently entered into a master's program at a top school in my field. Student-led discussions are a popular classroom tool here as a way of making the discussion less "top-down" and integrating students' professional experience into the conversation. However, these student-led discussions have also been known to "fall flat", and unproductive discussions are the most common complaint in class evaluations.

I will be part of a 4-person team leading an 80 minute discussion session in a class of around 50 graduate students in two-weeks' time. I have never before led a discussion in a classroom setting, and am worried about it "falling flat", especially given the 80 minute time period. There will be no need for review of the material beforehand, as the discussion will follow an 80 minute lecture on the same topic.

My initial thought is to encourage more discussion by breaking the class into small groups to complete some yet-unspecified task, followed by a classroom wide review. However, I am interested in hearing thoughts from those who have had this sort of experience, creating and leading productive classroom discussions, especially when dealing with larger groups in higher education.
posted by cobro to Education (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Have topics of discussion prepared, and guide the conversation. If it's falling flat, move on to another topic.

My initial thought is to encourage more discussion by breaking the class into small groups to complete some yet-unspecified task, followed by a classroom wide review.

Ugh, I always hated this. You either finish before every other group and then just sit there for 15 minutes, or you spend all you time trying to catch the least savvy group member up and get nothing accomplished. And you never produce anything worthwhile, really.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:01 PM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

50 people is way too many for a useful discussion session. At best you can convince a handful of people to speak up while everyone else sits there bored, and at worst everyone sits there afraid to talk in front of so many people. I think your idea to break up the class is the right one even if it has some drawbacks. If there are four of you, could you divide the class into ~12 person teams, each of you leading a small, separate discussion for an hour using questions/case studies/whatever that the four of you have prepared ahead of time, and then have each group present highlights from their discussion at the end?

It's hard to give more specific advice without knowing the subject (if you're learning a technical skill you'll need to plan something different than if there's theory involved, etc), but generally when you have to lead a class, you should plan more questions or activities than you think you'll need, so that if one doesn't work as hoped you can go on to the next. And don't be afraid of a little silence after you ask a question.
posted by oinopaponton at 2:21 PM on September 5, 2013

I have found that if you structure these small groups as "sides" of a debate there is often a more vocal response. Perhaps take an issue, lead an informational seminar on it, divide the class into "sides" to discuss amongst themselves for a while (give them questions to answer to prepare to debate) and after a pre-announced time come together and allow them to debate the topic. This allows for both learning and more spontaneity on the part of the participants.
posted by hepta at 2:50 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you share what the topic of the discussion will be, even if just in general terms? This would probably influence what makes a good answer to your question.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:13 PM on September 5, 2013

Best answer: I love the book Collaborative Learning Techniques for ideas on how to break up the class and give them effective, concrete tasks to accomplish in the group. I teach master's students (75 minute sessions twice a week for an entire semester) and what I typically do is:

15 minutes of lecture
45 minutes of activity
15 more minutes of lecture

And I find that the class goes by very quickly and everyone seems super-engaged in the actual tasks at hand. Lots of times I really wish we had more time for the activities. My students really do seem to enjoy and appreciate the way I break up the class; it's more engaging than a 75 minute lecture and really engages the students with the materials in a critical, thorough way - something I find is a lot more difficult to do during a lecture or even a big class discussion.

I've had a lot of luck with the following activities explained in the book: Think-Pair-Share, Buzz Groups, Critical Debates, Learning Cells, Analytic Teams, Team Matrix, Affinity Groupings, and Dialogue Journals. I'm looking forward to doing some of the other techniques throughout the rest of this semester.

I can't recommend this book enough. It really is quite good, and it's definitely worth the price (about $20).

The activities typically take a fair amount of thinking and prep beforehand. If you do the legwork before the class meets, the activities really don't fall flat. Choosing the appropriate activity (there are 30 in the book) for the learning objectives for that particular session is the most difficult part.
posted by k8lin at 3:17 PM on September 5, 2013 [8 favorites]

Is the room equipped with an audience response system? Can you accept questions via some email address throughout the class session? Does your campus have a chat server you can project during class? I think you need a reason and goals for introducing classroom technology, but without more info, those are just some things that come to mind for managing a large class.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:19 PM on September 5, 2013

My grad students seem to enjoy small-group discussions. At least it gets them talking. Some students, of course, use the group dynamic to hide. Like showbiz_liz, I never cared much for these activities as a student though. But I was kind of a loner.

As far as managing the discussion activity - Groups with more than four students each are less effective, in my experience. With fifty students, you could do ~ twelve groups of four students. Since there will be four leaders, each leader could be responsible for three groups. Whatever activity you decide to give, each leader can work among her/his three groups to guide them, ask/answer questions, push them on their thinking, etc. These leaders can circulate the room and keep the energy level up and keep the discussions on topic. Or, you could simply have the students engage in a discussion with whomever is sitting next to them, and keep these discussions brief. Otherwise, the conversations start to get off-topic. Also, you might want to have the groups in some way engage with one another and not just with you and the other leaders. My students have mentioned that they like to hear what other students have to say.

For the activity itself - I would need a bit more info. You mentioned that this discussion follows a lecture. Can you use your session to have students apply what was taught in the lecture? For example, if a certain theory is the topic of the lecture, can you give each group a scenario or news article (or whatever would apply to your field) so that they can use what they just learned to analyze a new situation or context? Without knowing what type of class this is, specifics are difficult to suggest. I am assuming here that your goal is to reinforce information provided in the lecture.

In the past, I have given each small group a different quote from the text to discuss, different question, issue to debate, scenario, etc. so that when we come back together for a large discussion, it isn't just a matter of rehashing the same "answer" over and over: "Yeah, we basically talked about the same thing they did." Then they teach each other about what their group discussed.
posted by quixotictic at 4:42 PM on September 5, 2013

Based on my experience in such a setting, be ready to politely curtail individual students who hold the floor to make the same point over and over again. "Great. Thanks. Next!"

Your group will thank you, if silently.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:19 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Peter Frederick's classic "The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start" is full of useful advice and pedagogical good sense.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:53 PM on September 5, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the great advice. I realize there are upsides and downsides to breakout groups, but feel as though 50 is pushing it! It looks like the library has a copy of Collaborative Learning Techniques, so I'll give that a look.

Monsieur Caution, no audience response system to my knowledge.

SpacemanStix, the class focuses on policy-side climate change adaptation and mitigation, and this particular lecture and discussion will revolve around the expected issues arising over the next century.
posted by cobro at 4:04 PM on September 7, 2013

« Older When Do You See the Car Dealer   |   How to find old court cases, IRS rulings, and tax... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.