Encouraging Participation During Discussions

It was important to trust that students were going to prepare well for discussions.

—Arthur Bahr

In this section, Dr. Bahr describes how he led productive discussions in 21L.460 Medieval Literature: Legends of Arthur Fall 2013 by encouraging all students to participate.

It was important to trust that students were going to prepare well for discussions. This was not a lecture course in which I fed them information, so if they were not prepared, it was not going to be a good class. I told students they were responsible for making good discussions possible, and they needed to take ownership of their learning.

For every class, students were responsible for preparing an element of the discussion. For example, at the beginning of one class, each student shared a significant passage or question based on the text with a group of 4-5 students. One student from each group was responsible for summarizing the topics and identified one element worthy of further discussion by the whole class. I wrote these questions or passages up on the board and spent a few minutes talking about the connections between them. As the discussion progressed, I introduced my own questions and returned to the student-generated questions. The discussion varied a lot from class to class and from moment to moment—I had to improvise, which was exciting. I liked the adrenaline rush that came with not knowing exactly what was going to happen when I walked into the class—when the best preparation for discussion was knowing the text really well.

For another course, I required students to email me a question about the text prior to our class meeting, which became part of their participation grade. Although I had already organized my thoughts and materials for the class, I was able to tweak or alter my plans entirely based on what students found interesting. This strategy also helped me engage more reticent students in the discussion. It gave me an opportunity to say to the class, “student X asked a really interesting question in his/her email to me. (S)he asked…”. Having their questions prior to the start of class helped me prepare for the discussion and allowed shy students to know in advance that their questions were going to be the subject of conversation. After the class has discussed their questions, I asked the student if we had answered their questions to his/her satisfaction and to articulate any follow up questions. In any class, as in life, you have some extroverted students and some introverted students—and no teacher is going to change that—but certain strategies one can promote more equitable and engaging discussions.