Facilitating Discussions That Work (MSU Workshop)

This workshop, hosted by Rique Campa III PhD, was mainly devoted to getting your students to contribute to the course.  Most professors blame the students for not participating while taking no responsibility.  Did you ask the right type of question? Did you convey to the students early in the semester that course discussions were an important component?  These are important things to consider before casting blame on your class.

One thing I’ve learned throughout all of these workshops:  if you want your students to be good at something at the end of the semester – start them on it early and teach them how to be successful with it.  You can’t expect your students to excel at group work or discussion-based work if you don’t teach them the basics and give them a framework for greatness.  Isn’t that what we’re doing, after all?

Besides that point…let’s get back on track!

The majority of the workshop was teaching us the difference between factual, evaluative, and interpretive questions.  They each have their place in teaching, but Dr. Campa stressed the importance of interpretive questions when putting things up for discussion.  For a brief explanation of these terms go to this fine presentation I found by the Upper Merion Area School District. Interpretive questions ask what the author/material means and avoid simple regurgitation of facts or feelings about the materials.  These interpretive questions work best when the professor is engaged and excited about the answers being provided by the students, and Dr. Campa stressed that students should walk away from the discussion having produced something (think-pair-share).  Also, students should be able to answer the question, but you shouldn’t be looking for one single answer.  If there’s only one acceptable answer, that means you asked a factual question…not an interpretive one.

Some students don’t think well on their feet, and thus this type of discussion may be threatening to them.  But, by having students think to themselves and write down their thoughts, they have something to fall back on when they are called on to talk in a group or to the class.  This would also result in them having an interior dialogue which they could reflect on later.  All-in-all I think it’s a solid way to do things.

So, what I learned from this workshop is that interpretive questions are hard.  Factual questions come out fast and on-point, but they don’t accomplish what we want them to.  If a student knows the answer, they’ll respond.  If they don’t know the answer, they remain quiet.  There is no discussion happening. Create an environment where students can get creative and be wrong, they’ll still learn something in the process.

Oh, and one more thing that I thought was gold…

Dr. Campa enjoys waiting for extended periods of time in class before picking a student or continuing the discussion.  It leads to the students being ‘forced’ to contribute.  One class he waited for over a minute in complete silence – no response from the class.  He then started packing up his materials and his laptop and walked towards the door and said “we can discuss it on the final.”  He said a number of hands went up immediately.  Solid way to do it.  If your students don’t want to have a discourse with you present, they can have one on the final.  I think I’ll use that.


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