Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The article below describes an ingenious and quite simple approach to
increasing student participation in class discussions. It is the eighth
posting in a series of selected articles from the National Teaching and
Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission
Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching
and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out
at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the
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share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of
learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Oct. 2000 Vol.
9 No. 6 ? Copyright 1996-2000. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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SILENCE AND STRUCTURE IN THE CLASSROOM
From Seminar to Town Meeting via 'Post-it's
Chad M. Hanson, Ph.D.
Like most, I started out teaching the way I was taught. My first inclination
as a faculty member was to reproduce the format of the graduate course. I
wanted my students to share the same feeling of excitement I had known as a
student. I wanted their minds to sharpen and their pulses to quicken just as
mine had in those vital forums.
Sociology is my subject so it's probably no surprise that I started teaching
by selecting a textbook and several readings from within the field. Mindful
of my students' level of preparation, I chose well-respected articles
written for a general audience, and I assigned only four of them in my
Introduction to Sociology classes. I explained to students early on in the
semester that the articles would serve as a basis for in-class discussions.
When the first discussion date rolled around I walked into class with
genuine enthusiasm. I welcomed the students, reminded them about the
discussion, then I followed in the footsteps of one of my fondest mentors by
issuing a familiar challenge. "OK," I said, "who would like to begin?" No
one began. There were no hands in the air. I did not hear the cacophony of
voices I had come to know so well in graduate school--everyone anxious to
support or refute the claims of the author now up for discussion. Instead
there was silence. This wasn't graduate school. Twenty-nine pairs of eyes
pointed in my direction. So I began.
I continued, and eventually I finished the discussion myself. Meanwhile,
students wrote in their tablets. They took what looked like detailed notes
while I talked, and that was gratifying, but not part of my plan.
Unfortunately, I repeated roughly the same series of events four more times
the same week. By Friday afternoon, I had decided the approach that worked
so well for my professors was not going to work for me.
The Pendulum Swings: Structured Cooperative Learning Activities
The first step in any process of redemption involves admitting you have a
problem, which, obviously, I did. I needed help and I sought it out. The
first place I found guidance was the literature on cooperative learning.
Years before, I ran across a copy of Ken Bruffee's Collaborative Learning
(1993). I revisited Bruffee first, because I remembered that he outlines a
theoretical foundation for collaboration in the college classroom. For
anyone experimenting with discussion leading or the grouping of students for
educational purposes, I recommend Bruffee's work.
For the nuts and bolts of getting students involved in conversation, I
relied on the work of David and Roger Johnson, namely Active Learning
(Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991). Over the last several years I have had
a great deal of success using the procedures described by these authors.
Success with the cooperative learning approach described by Johnson and
Johnson hinges on having a clear set of guidelines for students. In the
Johnsons' model, each student must have a clearly defined role in the class.
The instructor's job is to ensure that the students' roles and the
objectives of the class are both well defined. I have found that when I take
that initiative, the procedures outlined in Active Learning provide a formal
structure for ensuring that students stay engaged with course material, and
with one another, during the class periods I set aside for cooperative work.
Although I quickly became comfortable with the Active Learning techniques, I
found that I still had a longing to create the excitement and spontaneity of
the unstructured and free-ranging discussions that took place in my graduate
courses. At the same time, I also began to feel a responsibility to create
an environment where students could interact with one another in an exchange
that would mirror that of a discussion held outside of the classroom in
places where our democratic traditions are strongest (Beckman, 1990). I had
in mind the New England town meeting as an ideal (Bellah, et al., 1985).
Consequently, I set out to create a forum where I did not personally
determine the nature of each student's contribution to in-class discussions.
I did not want to prohibit the discussions from unfolding on their own, as
they would in a town meeting or similarly democratic forum.
As I began to conceive the new format for my in-class discussions, I
realized that citizens who attend town meetings are a self-selected group.
The attendees are there because they have something to say. My students are
also a self-selected group, but the primary reason for selecting one of my
courses is that it fulfills a requirement for the degrees that they seek.
Given the lack of inherent motivation, I needed a strategy that would ensure
everyone's participation. The solution to my problem was as near as the pad
of Post-it notes lying next to my office telephone.
Finding the Middle Ground: Required Participation
Today, I use a particular format to create an environment in the classroom
that approximates a town hall meeting. The first step I take is to allow the
students to decide the topics to be discussed. I begin by having students
brainstorm a list of potential topics in small groups. After each group
generates its own list, we compile all the topics on a chalkboard and hold a
vote to determine the top ten to be discussed.
Once the topics are determined I select groups of two to four students, at
random, to lead the discussions. I require discussion leaders to find at
least two articles on their topic and I give them a list of things to
consider when they analyze the articles, including a set of guidelines on
how to prepare a set of talking points to use during the town hall meetings.
However, in the town hall format, the most important step is to ensure that
all of the students have both the opportunity and the incentive to
participate. In order to create that incentive I make each discussion worth
two points. To earn the points, people have to take part.
I begin town hall meetings by giving two Post-it notes to every student in
class. The Post-its are worth a point each, so I have them write their name
on each note. After the discussion leaders are given the floor, all of the
students are free to raise questions or to comment. Each time they add to
the discussion, students stick one of their Post-it notes on the front of
their desk for everyone to see. Once a person has participated twice and
placed both Post-its on the front of their desk, they can no longer earn
points but they may still contribute to the discussion.
I have found that Post-it notes, visible to all, serve two important roles
in class. First, for students who might otherwise dominate discussions, the
notes are visual reminders that they have already said their piece. I have
found this to be a subtle, but important reminder in those cases. Second,
the notes are a less than subtle reminder to those less likely to
participate. In this case the notes serve as a reminder that you do not earn
points if you do not contribute to the discussion. I realize that may seem
like undue pressure to place on students who may not wish to participate.
However, during the last three semesters I have found that students who
participate quickly and place their notes out in front right away often go
on to create opportunities for other students to answer questions or to
comment. One of the most rewarding observations I have made during town hall
meetings has been the tendency of outspoken members of class to encourage
others to add their voices to the conversations. Each semester I watch
students take steps to ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute.
During the time I've spent using Post-it notes and town hall meetings, I
have felt very close to the format of the graduate seminar I enjoyed so much
as a student. The discussions flow freely, they are full of excitement and
they serve as a model for democratic participation. As an unintended
consequence, I have also been pleased to find that Post-its have had the
effect of producing an environment where students consistently demonstrate
that they value each other's thoughts. When I use the notes in class I am
guaranteed not to face the silence that vexed me as a beginning teacher. At
the same time, they provide a structure that is subtle enough to allow the
freedom necessary for students to determine the nature of their own
contribution to class. Today I can say that the unassuming stack of Post-its
that sits next to my phone provides the means to create balance, equity and
a model for democracy in the classroom.
* Beckman, M. 1990. "Collaborative Learning: Preparation for the Workplace
and Democracy?" College Teaching 38/4: 128-133.
* Bellah, R., et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment
in American Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
* Bruffee, K. 1993. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education,
Interdependence and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
* Johnson, D., Johnson, R., and Smith, K. 1991. Active Learning: Cooperation
in the College Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
Chad M. Hanson, Ph.D.
Faculty, Social Science Department
1000 W. Campus Drive
Wausau, WI 54401
Telephone: (715) 675-3331 #4802