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answerjill's avatar

How do you get students more engaged in discussion?

Asked by answerjill (5693 points ) February 24th, 2009

I am a teaching assistant for an intro sociology course. Once a week, I lead a discussion section with 28 students for about an hour. Only about a third of the students regularly participate in the discussions. Any ideas for how to reach the other 2/3? Thanks!

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15 Answers

A_Beaverhausen's avatar

test them on it.

KrystaElyse's avatar

I had a TA for a western civ. class and we had the same problem, only a select few would participate. So what he would do is split us up into groups and each group would be responsible for a few questions and we’d have to discuss as a group first then as a class after. We really enjoyed it and more people participated.

Jayne's avatar

I second Krystelyse’s advice. As a relatively shy student, I almost never participate in class discussions, but when the group is brought down to around ten students, I am perfectly comfortable with being an active member, even a leader of the discussion. I’ll go back to my normal laconic self when the class reconvenes, of course, but I will at least have contributed to the general pool of discourse.

steelmarket's avatar

Groups work. Also, try to start out each lesson with an icebreaker, something fun that has a low threshold for participation. In a sociology class, almost any demographic question could be tied into a lesson. Ask, “where were you born”, or “what is the longest period that you have lived in one place”, etc. This will also help the class members to get to know each other, which will make all more comfortable.

TheFonz_is's avatar

ask them what you can do to make them more involved, ask the ones who arent involved directly.. question there opinions.

fuzzyjay's avatar

You have to remember that some students will be extroverts and some will be introverts. As long as the students feel that they won’t be ridiculed for their answers, then you should call on some of the quieter ones to see what their opinion is on the topic.

As long as the discussion is lively and fun, and the students feel safe to voice their opinion you’ll find more and more of the introverts will start participating.

wundayatta's avatar

The key, as @steelmarket hinted, is to get everyone to hear their voice. Once people do that, they are much more likely to speak up later. His idea of asking a question that everyone has to answer is a good one.

Here’s some other hints. If you ask questions that don’t have a right answer, it opens up the space for more people to talk. They don’t have to be afraid of getting it right or wrong. If you are asking about readings, and they haven’t read it, there is no chance they will talk, unless they are really confident about faking it. You can get around this by asking more general questions, or theoretical questions where it doesn’t take knowledge of the readings to answer.

Another thing that would help, but could be hard to implement, is to arrange the seats in a circle. Everyone can see everyone else, which, on it’s own, allows more people to talk. Also, you are just one member of the group, instead of the “expert” and this helps folks to open up. Finally, you can also just go around the circle, and get everyone’s response to something. Everyone knows when it’s their turn, and can prepare for it. You must also allow them to say only a little bit, or even to pass, but if too many people pass, you might have to stop that practice, at least, occasionally.

If you can’t make a circle, so as much as you can. Make yourself look like you are on their level. Sit down! Let them argue it out amongst themselves. You sit out. These techniques are to empower them. It mean you lose your power, but that is a good thing, managed correctly. There are ways to subtly manage the conversation, nudging it in other directions, defusing conflict by asking them to identify underlying principles for their points of view, etc.

onesecondregrets's avatar

Find a way to make the discussion relate to them. Conversation is always easier when one can relate to what is being discussed.

Jayne's avatar

Also…don’t call on people. If they have nothing to say, you will only embarrass and annoy them, and nothing will be added to the discussion. Just make it known, some time into the discussion, that you would appreciate it if the people who have been talking would hold back a little bit, and if the quite ones would contribute.

Jack79's avatar

some people just talk more than others. Not much you can do about that, except perhaps take turns in talking and simply asking the particular people to say something (maybe give them 2mins to make an opening statement). I usually have notes already prepared for discussions, and would hand out photocopies in that case.

erniefernandez's avatar

I do not believe that small groups work. Usually, the small group “questions” or “thoughts” are actually the questions or thoughts of one or two students in that group that get drafted into being their voice.

I suggest that you simply call on the students, being sure to eventually get to everyone, and be merciless about it. Students are more likely to speak up if they feel like other people know it’s inevitable.

The attitude becomes “Oh, I don’t want to share, I have to share.” and then they’re more willing to do so because, you know, it’s not like they WANT to do this…

Also, grade them on participation. It encourages everyone to get a word or two in and leaves their participation up to their conscience.

PS: You’re only doing a disservice to the high-anxiety introverts by enabling their fearful reclusiveness. Sooner or later, they’ve got to get used to speaking in front of people, and school’s a harmless environment to learn that skill.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Some people like to talk, some don’t. Doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged, especially if it’s a lively spirited discussion. However, imagine yourself in a room of 28 people and trying to hold any kind of coherent “discussion” in just half an hour…..is there any way to break it into two groups of 14 instead?

mmoore2012's avatar

My sociology professor is having this problem. I’m one of the active students but she has MANY students that don’t participate in discussion. Today in class she pointed out that the silence and dead stares makes it hard for her to want to come to class and teach us. She has done all the tricks since day one. She has a list of pet peeves in the syllabus (the biggest one is people not participating in discussion) She has told people every day to pick a new seat every day, she has called on particular students who don’t talk and asked students who speak up a lot to refrain and let the ones who don’t speak to answer. Her other classes seem to be very vocal and this class is driving her crazy!! I really want to help her with good suggestions because she is my favorite teacher!!!

GabrielsLamb's avatar

Threatening them with no snacks and blow torches?

*KIDDING… Relax!

By introducing up to date issues that specifically concern them. What can I say, Kids are somewhat shallow and it’s difficult because it isn’t even percieved as being shallow anymore, now days it is called “Particular” . It’s symptomatic of the times in many more cases than not.

bookish1's avatar

RAPPORT is my suggestion. I just finished my best semester of teaching so far, and I really think alot of it was because I nailed down a good rapport with all my classes from the first day onward. Tell a joke at the beginning of class (my boss does this before his lectures, and the students love it, even when they are corny as hell). Joke about yourself, how sleep-deprived you are, how every few weekends you have a social life. Begin with a soft-ball question, so that the students don’t feel like they have to be instantly brilliant when they come into class (for example, “What surprised you the most about the reading?”)

I ask my students for evaluations of my teaching methods every semester, and they end up pretty evenly divided on the question of group work. I still hate any sort of group work as a student myself; the quick-witted/most engaged students/or, ya know, the ones who actually did the reading, definitely end up as the designated “voice” of each group. But this doesn’t mean that the shy students can’t have good conversations in small groups—just that the more vocal students will be the ones who want to report back their findings to the class. I do assign group work for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, while circulating the room to keep students honest and make sure they’re not talking about basketball, because I really think that it allows them to have better conversations and get at some insights that might not occur in the full class discussion. But students will really appreciate it if you switch things up, so don’t do group work OR lecture every single class. Keep things unpredictable. Also, when it is applicable and feasible, see if you can come up with fun stuff. Role playing characters or scenarios, even drawing on the board. They love that stuff.

I definitely agree with comments above that you should not enable students’ reclusiveness. IMHO, no one should graduate with a college degree without having learned how to speak in front of their peers. But if you cultivate an attitude of shared inquiry, easy-going fun, while staying serious in your control of the classroom, you might have better results.

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