Use quotations to prompt discussion and/or writing

Here’s a class activity that’s easily adaptable to a variety of classrooms and disciplines. It’s a good way to spur discussion and encourage evidence-supported argument. The activity, which comes from Constance Staley’s Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern, begins with the teacher distributing a number of quotations, each typed onto a strip of paper, to the students.

Staley gives a number of possible quotations to use, on such topics as education, self-understanding, and the definition of success:

  • “Education worthy of the name is essentially the education of character.” Martin Buber
  • “Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century.” Perelman
  • “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Derek Bok, president Harvard University

…and so on. I can see the exercise working just as well, if not better, with quotations that directly apply to the course’s subject.

In Staley’s version, after handing out the quotations, the teacher goes around the room, calling on students one by one. Each student, when called on, must read her quotation aloud, say whether she agrees or disagrees with the statement, and then “identify two pieces of support from personal experience, course material, or other relevant information sources.” This can easily be modified for larger classes, either by breaking the students up and having the discussion take place among groups, or by turning the exercise into a writing prompt—each student must write a paragraph or two explaining why she agrees or disagrees with the quotation, and must support her position with evidence. In all versions, particularly if the teacher uses quotations tailored to course content, the exercise offers a straightforward way to allow students to take an active role in the learning process, and encourage them to construct arguments with proper support.  -DG

Source: Constance Staley, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. 120-24.

Student answers for student questions

Mel Silberman suggests distributing index cards to your students after a lecture or a class discussion. Have each student write down a question about the material on his or her index card. Collect the cards, shuffle them, and redistribute them to the students. Now ask the students to read their cards and think of answers to their questions. If you have enough time, you can go around the room and have every student give an answer. Otherwise, ask for volunteers or call on students to read their questions aloud and give answers.  -DG

Source: Mel Silberman. "Everyone is a Teacher Here." 101 Ways to Make Training Active. Johannesburg: Pfeiffer & Company, 1995. 174-75  

Encourage attention and discussion with "listening teams"

Here is an easy strategy to encourage students to listen critically to your lectures and to encourage discussion afterward. In both variations, you begin by dividing up students at the beginning of class.

Variation 1: divide students into four teams, each of which has a specific assignment for that day's lecture and discussion. 

  1. Questioners - After the lecture is finished, this team has to ask two questions about the material.
  2. Nay-Sayers - After the lecture is finished, this team comments on two points with which the team disagrees. 
  3. Yea-Sayers - After the lecture is finished, this team comments on two points with which the team agrees. 
  4. Explainers - After the lecture is finished, this team has to give two specific examples that explain the lecture. 

After the lecture, allow the teams to confer. Let each team then report to the class the results of their discussions.

Variation 2: divide students into groups of four students each. Each student will play a specific role within his or her group. 

  1. Example-Giver - This student listens for examples or applications of key concepts.
  2. Questioner - This student asks two clarifying questions about the material presented in the lecture. 
  3. Devil's Advocate - This student comments on two points with which he or she disagrees.
  4. Team Player - This student points out two areas of agreement with the lecture material.  

The groups confer after the lecture, with each student presenting his or her contributions according to his or her role.  

In both variations, the exercise serves to encourage students to follow the lecture more closely, as well as structure the discussion so as to reinforce the material presented in the lecture.  -DG

Source: Variation 1 from Mel Silberman. 101 Ways to Make Training Active. Johannesburg: Pfeiffer, 1995. 101-103. Variation 2 from Mel Silberman. Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1996.

Encourage all students to talk, with poker chips

 In many discussion-heavy classes, only a handful of students dominate the conversation. Here’s a technique, from Bob Burdette, Assistant Professor of Accounting at Salt Lake Community College, to encourage everyone to participate. At the beginning of class, pass out two or three poker chips to each student. Whenever a student answers a question or makes a comment, she turns in one of her chips. When a student is out of chips, she can no longer speak, leaving those students with chips left to answer the remaining questions.  -DG

Source: Bart, Mary. “Classroom Discussion: Professors Share Favorite Strategies for Engaging Students.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 9 July 2012. Web. 24 July 2013.

Advance reading handout

With each reading assignment, hand out a sheet to each of your students that includes an Invitation, a set of Reading Questions, and a set of Discussion Questions. The Invitation sets out why you care about the reading and why you believe your students should care. This can be three or four sentences that orient your students ahead of their reading. The two or three Reading Questions should guide your students as they read, help them identify what’s important, and underline what they should understand by the end. The Discussion Questions prompt students to think about the main issues and implications in the reading, and prepare students to come to class ready to talk about them. You can choose to collect these sheets and/or grade them if you wish.  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 65-70.

Low-stakes pre-writing

At the beginning of class, give students a question about their reading, the material covered in the last class, or a topic that will be relevant to that day’s class, and give them ten minutes to write an answer. This writing can go ungraded, or it can be turned in and count for a tiny percentage of the final grade. The writing gives students time to think, reflect on the material, and get into the right mindset for a discussion in class. It can also give shy students the confidence to speak up in class, because they only have to look down and read from their paper to make a contribution.  -DG

Source: Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 90-92.

McEvoy Minute Around

 Begin class by handing your watch to a student in the front row. Explain that each student will talk for a minute—an initial contribution to the day’s discussion, a response to the reading, a question to explore—before handing the watch to the next person. This is only practical, of course in smaller classes. “‘The longer my students sit without saying anything,’ one professor told [Ken Bain], ‘the harder it is to bring them into the discussion.’” The activity’s title comes from its progenitor, University of Wisconsin professor Arthur McEvoy.

James Lang adds that you don’t need to use the watch-gimmick. “Simply establish that at the beginning of the class, each student has a brief time period either to respond to a question that you pose, or to explain what she thought was relevant, or interesting about the reading or material for that day’s class. As the students offer their statements, you take notes, and use their comments and ideas to fill out or alter whatever discussion questions you have planned.”  -DG

Source: Bain, Ken, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004, 130-31. Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 92.

End of class conclusions/questions exercise

 Leave 5-10 minutes at the end of each class. Ask students, “What major conclusions have you drawn from today’s class/reading/discussion?” and “What questions remain in your mind?” Have students write down the answers to these questions, then go around the room, asking for some of their answers. Let those answers drive a discussion that helps cement the content of that day’s class, and/or contribute to what you teach in the next class.  -DG

Source: Bain, Ken, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004, 103.

A strategy to improve a challenging class

Peter Filene has a suggestion for dealing with a course that does not seem to be going well. If discussions falter, responses to the readings are cursory at best, and you do not seem to be getting through to students, Filene suggests involving the students in diagnosing the problems. Distribute index cards to the students and ask them to evaluate the course by responding to questions. These can be very general, as in “What is going well?” and “What do you think could be improved or changed?”. The questions, alternatively, could be more focused on specific issues: “How does the difficulty of the readings compare to your other courses?”, “What holds you back from participating in discussions,” etc.

At the end of the exercise, you can collect the index cards, take them home and think about your students’ answers. Or you can shuffle the cards, return them to the students, and have each student read a card aloud, beginning a class-wide discussion of what’s wrong with the class and how the problems can be fixed.  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 71-73.