Class Discussion

Donald J. Greiner, Department of English

Class discussion is the center of good teaching. The confident professor wants students to question material presented in the lectures. The question is simple: how do we encourage students to respond in class? The answer is complex.

Class periods that divide into lecture time and discussion time all but codify many students' perception, misguided or not, that discussion is secondary to lecture. I have found that discussion is most exciting and rewarding when it merges naturally with various parts of the lecture. That is, I interrupt my own lectures to ask questions that solicit not information but opinions. Creating an air of naturalness is not easy.

Many of us agree that good teaching requires preparation and enthusiasm. By preparation I mean not just doing one's homework by reading the material each time one teaches it but also knowing the material so well that one can handle comments and questions that do not follow the lecturer's predetermined plan. By enthusiasm I mean the professor's skill at communicating both love of the material and commitment to it. Yet, while preparation and enthusiasm are crucial for the successful lecture, a third quality is necessary for meaningful class discussion: respect.

Students are not dumb. They know when a professor is impatient with their contributions to the discussion, and they can smell condescension as if they were smelling a rat. A simple gesture like eye contact can be decisive in persuading students that their commentary is received with patience and respect, and a professors willingness to engage the student in a short debate--that is, to respond respectfully to the students comment--will encourage the student to volunteer opinions later in the semester.

When teaching at any level I show students that they themselves should contribute to the atmosphere of learning in the classroom, that learning is not simply a passive transfer of knowledge from professor to pupil. The problem that challenges me each time I meet my classes is how to engage my students, how to convince them that they will grow intellectually when they express an idea, defend an opinion, and think creatively in front of an audience. Learning becomes active when this kind of discussion occurs.

How do I facilitate discussion?

  • I call on every student every time the class meets.

  • I avoid artificial stimulants such as asking students who are studying John Updike to imagine what they would say to Mr. Updike if he were to visit the class.

  • I don't underestimate the students. I ask provoking questions based on the lecture material and then respond to their comments with serious observations of my own.

  • I avoid the extremes of following too many tangents or insisting on too much structure.

  • I play the devil's advocate but not to the point of sarcasm or clownishness.

  • I ask students to respond to another student's opinion, but never ask them to choose between two points made by two different students. Rather, I summarize the good points made by each student.

  • I give the student time to answer my questions.

  • Finally, I look out for the siren song of the bull session. Class discussion is invigorating, but the good professor makes sure that the commentary pertains to the material in the lecture. Discussion that leaves the student with only student opinion cheats the students.

In short, enthusiasm in the professor breeds enthusiasm in the student. More important, respect breeds respect.

"Students are not dumb. They know when a professor is impatient with their contributions to the discussion, and they can smell condescension as if they were smelling a rat."