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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Creating the Space for Engaged Discussions | Faculty Focus - Effective Teaching Strategies

Photo: Kevin Gannon
"It’s a new academic year, and optimism and energy are in abundant supply. There are new ideas for class, new ways to engage students, and great questions to wrestle with as the intersections between past and present have rarely been so obvious." argues Kevin Gannon, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a professor of history at Grand View University.  He blogs at
Photo: Faculty Focus

And it all goes swimmingly, it seems, until the first time we actually launch a discussion. Then those faces that seemed to be so cheerful–nodding along as we talked about how our class could be challenging, provocative, even FUN–now stare back blankly. It was as if posing a question triggered an actual electric shock that stunned them into a catatonic state. No…wait! Someone looked up. Eye contact? We look at them hopefully, ready for someone to bravely interrupt the increasingly awkward silence. They meet our gaze for a split second, their eyes widen in panic, and all of a sudden there seems to be something much more compelling to look at on the floor next to their chair. It’s as if the air goes out of the room. Everyone seemed to be on board with a discussion-based class until we actually gave them the chance to embark. Then, abandon ship.

It’s hard to muster the enthusiasm (and increased effort) necessary for an active, collaborative class environment when none of our students seem to reciprocate. We know an active learning pedagogy is better for student learning, but we also face circumstances like this example, or of large classes, or of rooms with desks bolted to the floor in rows. Our discipline has so many avenues into a fruitful conversation with students: primary sources, images, “what-if” questions, debates, exploration of difficult, controversial, or morally and ethically complex issues. But those conversations can’t happen if only one party participates. The key question for so much of our teaching, then, is what do we do when discussion dies?...

These are just three basic techniques that require little to no investment of time that can produce the results we hope to achieve as we imagine our ideal class discussions. The common denominator for all of them is the creation of space for students to think, process, and then articulate ideas they’ve worked with in complex and higher-order ways. That space is essential for good discussions, and is also contingent upon classroom climate. Have we created an environment where all of our students feel comfortable sharing ideas and taking intellectual risks?...

Note: two invaluable resources on fostering effective class discussions are Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for College Classrooms, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005); and Jay R. Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online (San Francisco” Jossey-Bass, 2015).

Source: Faculty Focus