Classroom discussion MY way

After years of advocating that professors teach their own way, in a manner that suits they own pedagogy and talents, I still find myself avoiding the big one…discussion.

And yet, this term I’m teaching an early American history class, one I have not taught for many years, in which I have perversely planned a discussion every week.

So now, I’d better figure out how to do it. Yes, I have read many books, articles, and blog posts on creating good discussions. I’ve even done it with one of my classes online, after years of having discussion boards feature anything but discussion. And I’ve seen many wonderful instructors do a great job in the classroom. But in many ways, it isn’t ME.

It’s not only that I’m a classic lecturer. It’s that I tend to interrupt people (a major failing), and nod when a student says something cool in such a way that they tend to stop talking. I talk about openness and academic freedom and freedom of speech, and how I want them to talk openly. Then I keep talking.

So the question is how to change the format without changing my personality. Recently, planning the first big class discussion, I may have stumbled on to something. A step-by-step format that brings in ideas without it being me bringing them in. A process that keeps things focused enough that I can step back.

I have assigned an article for students to read for tomorrow: Why Study History? by Peter Stearns. It’s fairly straightforward, but I want to get at the deeper aspects. I’ve prepared one page to put on the screen and guide me through:


Stearns outlines several justifications for studying  history.

What does he mean by:

  • Understanding peoples and societies?

  • Understanding change?

  • Moral understanding?

  • Identity?

  • Citizenship?

  • The ability to assess?

Application: which elements are a factor in this case?

Confederate monuments (5:53)

This case:

AP history class protests of 2014 (3:24)

and this case?

Howard Zinn (3:06)

Weekly Write:

What’s the main reason you think we should study history? Use one point from each of the three cases to support your main point.

I’m hoping this heavily guided path will help keep me on track and allow for responses, by providing particular things to respond to as applications of a larger set of ideas they’ve discussed. We’ll see what happens…

4 thoughts on “Classroom discussion MY way

  1. Hi Lisa – I’ve been finding your posts about your approach to teaching your class very interesting.

    You haven’t said whether this is face-to-face class discussion or online class discussion. To begin with I thought you were talking about online discussion, but perhaps you mean face-to-face.

    For me discussion works best when there’s no right answer, i.e. a response is required to open questions as opposed to closed questions. It can also work well when the topic is controversial, so that participants feel strongly about it.

    Why study history seems like a great question to me. Looking forward to hearing how it goes.


    1. Ah, yes – this is in the classroom. (They say “on ground” but I much prefer “on-site” to avoid images of me prone on the carpet at the front of the room.) I’m gonna change the title to “Classroom”.

      I’m hoping that the “application” angle will lead to multiple perspectives – there are no correct answers here. Applying values to specifics can have many different interpretations.


  2. I also wanted to comment on your post ‘How do I get students to …?’ but there is no comment box so I’ll comment here.

    I think quizzes are extremely difficult to create so that they are effective. They often seem to be used in xMOOCs. I have a terrible memory, but I also can’t see a lot of point in trying to simply remember facts. What I usually do is have the quiz open in one monitor, and the course content in another monitor, and simply look up the answer! Yes – a waste of time – except that it allows me to get the tick that I have completed the unit.

    The quizzes that I think are most effective are those that give you a number of possible plausible answers to a question, where the answer is not within the text provided by the course, i.e. a question that is based on the course content but makes you think and apply what you have learned.

    I also noted that you summarise discussions. Gilly Salmon highlights this as being a very important aspect to moderating online discussion. She also highlights weaving which I have found to be a very useful technique, i.e. your response as the tutor to the discussion pulls in a number of participants comments, naming and quoting them and synthesising them.

    There’s lots to think about in your posts.


  3. Thank you! I’m sorry there wasn’t a box for that post – I think it’s closing comments quickly to avoid spam. I confess to finding difficult because there are so many limitations compared to running my own installation.

    I wonder about the “look it up” aspect to quizzes. I assume that everyone would do that with online quizzes, which is why I never time them. I don’t want anyone to memorize. Rather I want the quiz to remind them of a factual connection I’d like them to know. I hope, in this sense, it isn’t a waste of time for them to look something up, just reinforcement.


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