Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Comfort zones

In my field, classes that follow the "lecture" format are the norm. But this time around, I am teaching a more seminar-like class, a smaller class on a special topic. While lecture is appropriate in some cases in this class, the class lends itself much better to the discussion format.

The discussion format is not a format that I have ever used before. Nor, apparently, is it something that my students are used to seeing in this field. I knew going into this class that the "discussion" part might be difficult for me to get used to. But I did not anticipate just how hard it would be for the students as well.

Here's the thing: I thought the students would have an easier time adjusting to discussion than I would. After all, the other classes on their schedules tend to be the ones where discussion is natural: English, literature, the social sciences, etc. So I thought that the students would be able to "guide" me here, since they have more experience participating in discussions (probably) than I do. But, it has been somewhat of a struggle to get them to carry on fruitful discussions in this course.

Up until now, I've dealt with this in a couple of different ways. Sometimes I let the discussion morph into a lecture. The students like this much more than I do---they all said that they really like the lectures in this course. Sometimes I just sit there and let them squirm in silence until someone says something....and then I try to lead the discussion from there. You know what? It's hard. It's much harder than I ever would have anticipated.

Today, I even gave them a list of the discussion questions beforehand, thinking that it would help get the discussion going....and it was still like pulling teeth at some points to get them to commit to saying anything. Is it the fear of being "wrong"? Is it laziness? Is it really that they are just not comfortable with the idea of integrating discussion into a technical course? Hard to say.

I wish I knew how to get them to open up more. But maybe it all starts with how comfortable I am with the format, and how willing I am to push them to be comfortable with it too.

Anyone have any words of wisdom? Especially those of you who lead discussions regularly in your courses?


jo(e) said...

If you give them topics and questions ahead of time, have them write a one-page response. Students who write about a topic are WAY more likely to speak up in a discussion.

How many are in the group? Having them break into groups of three and disccussing things in smaller groups before then recoming back to the whole class will often get them talking.

Do these studnts know each other? Are they comfortable with each other? In any class with discussion, I do some ice breakers at the beginning of the semester.

Another thing I do is get to class ten minutes early and start talking to the students as they drift in -- about their weekends, their other courses, the weather, whatever. It helps create a more chatty atmosphere.

You can always ask for their feedback and ideas .... you might be surprised at the insights they have.

Ianqui said...

On one hand, I think that in general students do prefer being passive in a course. It's not surprising that they tell you they'd rather have a lecture.

On the other hand, usually students realize that they get more out of a discussion. But this is going to be pitted against not wanting to think too hard ahead of time, so you need to coax something out of them. Jo(e)'s suggestion is very good--if they write a 1-page thought paper, then you can call on them and they have to say what they wrote. Alternatively, if you don't want to go that far, you can have them write down a question/thought/issue, and then they can tell you about that if you call on them. It's important for them to write it down, though, otherwise they won't think about it thoroughly enough.

And yes, I'm sure there's some amount of shyness/afraid of being wrong involved. But if you make them write the little paper and then call on them, when you give them feedback, make sure it's very positive. Then they'll be less self-conscious.

Andy said...

I agree with the above have them write a little something, for example: I had a proff for one of my very beggining CS classes that had a group discussion style class. He handed us all a piece of paper and had us write down the steps to pour a glass of water from a water pitcher. Then he was the computer and would try and execute your instructions. Water got everywhere and it was a blast. Then we had to discuss what went wrong and come up with better suggestions until as a class we could get the water into the glass. It was very interactive and about the second time the proff dumped a pitcher of water all over his desk people were all loosened up and laughing and getting into it. I had him for several more classes and hands down he was the best CS proff I ever had. He is unfortunately retired now but everyone who took his classes agrees he was the best proff they ever had.

Jane said...

Thanks for the ideas, everyone! jo(e), this is a *really* small class and the students do know each other well, so it's not an issue about them being uncomfortable with each other. I like the idea of the 1-page paper and/or writing down questions or issues, so I will try that in the future. Andy, I loved your story....I may try that the next time I teach an intro course!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I agree with everyone's comments about having them write something before coming to class. I was going to say, ask them to take the first 5 minutes to pull out a passage from the reading that they thought was especially important for understanding the reading for that day, but then realized that might not translate so well to CS...but asking them to each identify something out of the reading/assignment relevant to your subject, and report back, is a way to get them comfortable, too (they got to look in the book and find something!). If it's not too small, asking them to pair up (or be in small groups) to examine a few questions and then report back is a useful way to break the ice. Oops, jo(e) already said that...And you know, although students are more comfortable with discussion b/c they get used to it in their other classes, they still find it hard, and don't realize how much skill/prep goes into a good discussion. I regularly have students take turns leading discussion in class, and they find it REALLY HARD (because it is). So even though they do it a lot in other classes, they never really think about how it works or why it works.

Of course, if it continues to be a problem and you're comfortable with this, there's always the option of taking a class to start by saying, How do you think discussion is going so far this semester? What do you like about it and what would you like to see changed? Any suggestions? (You could do this as anon. evals rather than face-to-face if they'd squirm and not answer - depends on class dynamic.) Sometimes (not always! but sometimes) they come up with really helpful explanations for why things are going the way they are. Oops, jo(e) said this already too!For what it's worth, I actually find really small groups HARDER for discussion than something with a little critical mass - 6 or less is REALLY hard for me compared to, say, 12-15. Mostly because in a really small group it's harder to split up into groups (why bother? it's a small group to begin with!) as a way to vary the course structure, and you just end up with fewer perspectives out there for people to respond to. (I am very grateful that in my current group of 7, we appear to have come to an equilibrium in which 6 out of the 7 talk really regularly, so we are having more of a general conversation. But it's still really hard.)