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    Designing focused discussions for relevance and transfer of knowledge

    “When am I ever going to use this?” is a question more commonly asked in grade school classrooms than in undergraduate and graduate school ones, but instructors in higher education often consider the relevance and transferability of their course material nonetheless. To ensure that her course content is relevant and useful to students’ lives, Jane Mansbridge centers class material around transferable, real-world takeaways. In this video, she describes how by doing so, she gives her students “tools” she hopes they will take with them forever.

    Framing discussion as a three-way conversation

    By framing class discussions as a three-way conversation between authors, students, and herself, Jane Mansbridge broadens and enlivens students’ interaction with course material. This clever framing encourages students to consider the author’s point of view, place his/her writing in historical context, and uncover assumptions that underpin the author’s argument. Framing discussions this way can be an especially powerful technique for instructors teaching historical texts. When done well, it is almost as if the authors are present in the classroom.

    Asking questions that probe for deeper understanding

    Questions have the power to ignite or short-circuit deeper understanding. While the thoughtfully constructed question might take a discussion to new heights, another can stop it in its tracks. What sorts of questions get students thinking more deeply? How can these questions be planned in advance or developed “on the go”? In this video, Todd Rakoff uses a questioning strategy inspired by Socratic dialogue to probe for deeper student thinking.

    Designing, scaffolding, and assessing student discussion leadership

    Inviting students to plan for and facilitate discussions can have the effect of, as Tim McCarthy puts it, “provoking robust debate.” Though Tim McCarthy plays an integral role in class discussions, students themselves are responsible for leading the majority of classes, all of which are discussion-based. McCarthy refers to this exercise as a “provocation.” Leading such “provocations” affords student facilitators powerful, pedagogical perspectives while challenging them to participate more broadly in classroom discourse. In this video, McCarthy walks viewers through the intentional...

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    Mixing students up in small discussion groups

    It is easy for students to get into a routine of where they sit and who they talk to. While this might build a sense of familiarity among some students, it naturally limits the sharing of perspectives and building of community among all. To ensure that all students have opportunities to hear and learn from each other, Gretchen Brion-Meisels intentionally mixes up students within classes, using a range of grouping prompts across the semester. In this video, Brion-Meisels and her students talk about the value and efficiency of using fun prompts to quickly create diverse groupings.

    Getting students thinking and engaging through small-group discussion

    In discussion-based classes, especially large ones, it is difficult to ensure that all students have a chance to verbalize their thinking and receive feedback on their ideas. Incorporating small-group discussion is a low-stakes way of ensuring that all students have the opportunity to actively engage with course material and their peers. In this video, Todd Rakoff breaks students up into small groups to apply abstract legal principles to a concrete problem. Students discuss in small groups before participating in a whole class discussion, where Rakoff solicits insights and synthesizes...

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    Using small groups to intensify focus and provide safer spaces

    To get students comfortable speaking in larger groups, discussion leaders might choose to start the conversation in smaller groups first to provide a safe environment for students to gain comfort and confidence while testing out ideas with their peers. In this video, Christina “V” Villarreal discusses how she breaks her class into smaller groups when she wants to draw attention to certain material, or when discussion topics require vulnerability from students.

    Calling on students in equitable ways

    Patterns of classroom participation can take shape very early in a semester and become further cemented with each class session. Students who do not perceive professors’ strategies of soliciting participation as fair or purposeful may be less apt to contribute. Establishing inclusive, equitable norms of participation the very first class sessions is essential. In this video, Tim McCarthy demonstrates that even in a seminar setting he calls on students to monitor equitable participation.

    Waiting for student responses

    Processing information requires time to think. Although several seconds of silent think-time can be uncomfortable for students and professors alike, extending the time between when you ask a question and receive an answer can increase the number of students who volunteer to participate and improve the quality of their responses. In this video, Christina “V” Villarreal describes her thought process behind strategically using wait-time at different points in a discussion.

    Expanding participation through cold-calling

    Though commonly associated with large enrollment law school courses, cold-calling need not be limited to such formats. Rather, it can be valuable across content areas as it infuses lessons with student-teacher dialogue and brings quieter students into the fold. In this video, Todd Rakoff strategically cold-calls to encourage participation from less vocal students.

    Making thinking visible

    While we know that understanding is developed through deep and involved discussions of course content, many students benefit from additional written and visual scaffolding. In this video, Gretchen Brion-Meisels discusses how she uses graphic organizers, both for small-group discussions and in whole class share-outs. These organizers help students keep track of their learning and “hold onto” key ideas they generate in class. In small-groups, Brion-Meisels makes these graphic organizers optional, letting students decide how much they need to use them in order to have generative discussions...

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    Using discussion protocols

    Asking students to engage in small-group discussions can feel like a risky pedagogical choice. Are students talking about the content that is assigned? Are these student-led conversations helping students deepen their understanding of the course content? In this video, Gretchen Brion-Meisels explains a discussion protocol that she uses to ensure that students are having generative discussions aligned to the goals of the lesson. In this protocol, students are asked to provide initial reactions to course content before selecting a focal question. They then use a series of guided...

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    Nurturing voices that challenge the dominant narrative

    Students' racial and gender identities can influence the extent to which they participate in discussions. Having safe and open environments to wrestle aloud with difficult conversation topics can be both essential and empowering.  In this video, Christina “V” Villarreal and her students discuss the participation dynamics in a seminar which covers challenging conversation topics.  

    Considering other perspectives through role plays

    Todd Rakoff points out that having students take a position they don’t necessarily agree with can make discussions less personal and invite broader participation. Additionally, employing small group discussions can be a powerful tool for amplifying diverse viewpoints. In this video, when Rakoff sends students on their way to talk through court cases, the room transforms into a flurry of energy and lively deliberation. Rakoff uses informal and formal role plays, questioning strategies, and an even-handed tone to solicit and affirm alternative perspectives in discussion.

    Facilitating student-led discussions

    Switching up discussion leadership keeps students on their toes and protects class from growing predictable or stale. According to Tim McCarthy, “provoking” discussion gives students a powerful “opportunity to flourish.” However, just because students may have participated in discussions their entire academic lives, they may not have considered discussion facilitation pedagogically. In this video, McCarthy outlines his format for student “provocations” and the steps he takes to ensure thorough preparation and effective performance from his students.

    Using pre-work to honor diverse voices and structure the discussion

    It’s always powerful when students’ original thinking plays an integral role in the structure and design of lessons. Making this thinking known and/or visible can foster a sense of ownership among students. In this video, Jane Mansbridge uses student reading responses to structure a tightly structured discussion and ensure that diverse perspectives are heard.

    Enforcing expectations for sharp, concise comments

    If efficiency and accuracy are the goal, finding a way to keep students’ contributions short becomes imperative. Doing so can grow less uncomfortable, however, once expectations are made clear about airtime. Building strong relationships with students always helps, too. In this video, to facilitate an efficient discussion, Jane Mansbridge sets explicit expectations about student contributions. In doing so, Mansbridge demonstrates that discussion and efficiency need not be mutually exclusive.

    Knowing when to intervene in the student-centered discussion

    Timothy Patrick McCarthy admits that intervening and interjecting in discussions can be an “inelegant art.” If the goal is to have a student-led discussion, then the instructor should mostly let the conversation play out among students. But since the instructor has the end in mind, there are times when he/she should strategically interject to keep the discussion on track. In this video, McCarthy describes the typical pace of his student-led seminar and why he tends to interject more near the end of class.

    Adjusting lesson plans in real time

    Making quick mental calculations can at times be an awkward maneuver, but it’s far better to readjust in response to the natural pulse of a class than to forge ahead, blind to the individual needs in the room. Christina “V” Villarreal is carefully attuned to these immediate needs and exercises plasticity with her lesson plans to accommodate them. In this video, she uses the guiding questions outlined in her syllabus to prioritize class time and focus spontaneous discussion.

    Pressing students for accuracy and expanded reasoning

    When students share incorrect or unclear comments in discussion, instructors must tread carefully. Learning how to provide clear feedback without discouraging participants from contributing altogether can be something of a balancing act. In this video, Todd Rakoff employs a range of careful strategies like follow-up questioning, wait-time, and gentle clarifications when he gives students real-time feedback. Such responses aim to increase students’ learning and deepen their engagement.

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