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    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.

    Encouraging students to respond to each other

    Exchanges that proceed from student to student without professor serving as mediator can be extremely valuable. As students hash out points of disagreement, the class hears multiple perspectives more constructively than they would during the traditional, professor-driven lecture. In this video, Todd Rakoff pivots between two student comments to encourage students to more actively respond to each other.

    Inviting students to take a stand and disagree

    Well-crafted discussion questions can carve out spaces for disagreement. They can even encourage it. But cultivating the type of respectful disagreement that helps students grow academically and personally is tricky, especially when students feel strongly about particular issues. In this video, Tim McCarthy models the verbal and nonverbal behaviors that help his students learn how to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

    Making adjustments on the fly to keep lectures “organic”

    A classic challenge for the lecturers is how to fit all relevant material into the timeframe of a short class period, not to mention a short semester. When a student makes an insightful point that would take the class in a new direction, instructors must decide: Do I go on a worthwhile tangent to address the student’s point, or do I proceed as I had planned? In this video, Brett Flehinger shares why he allows student contributions to shape the path a class takes and how he makes strategic adjustments on the fly.

    Conducting in-class polling and peer discussion

    In a lecture-style course, it can be challenging to assess student understanding in real-time, and the voices of frequent participants are not always representative of the class as a whole. Just because no one asks a question, it does not mean the whole group is on the same page. To get a quick snapshot students’ understand of new material, in-class polling can be useful. In this video, Dan Levy demonstrates how he uses interactive polls to check for understanding and peer discussion to clarify misunderstandings.

    Requiring evidence-based comments in class

    Just like assertions made in essays, comments made during class should be rooted in evidence, not instinct. To support the development of this critical skill, Brett Flehinger requires students to “secure with evidence” any statements they make. By explicitly setting and enforcing the expectation that in-class comments must be grounded in course readings, Flehinger ensures that all students practice evidence-based reasoning.

    Getting to know your students

    In a large enrollment lecture course, it may seem like there are few opportunities to get to know your students more personally. In this video, Dan Levy demonstrates how, despite a class’s large size, instructors can still take concerted steps to better know their students. Levy pushes himself to learn more about his students’ interests and backgrounds, resulting in a friendly, welcoming space where students feel comfortable participating and taking risks.

    Balancing and Pacing

    A truly balanced discussion promotes equity by amplifying the voices of all students rather than just the outspoken few. This seldom occurs by chance. Rather, it is the result of careful planning and intentional strategies. We would additionally be hard-pressed to find an instructor who has not struggled with pacing class discussions. In addition to keeping an eye on the clock, this demands quick thinking and real-time adjustments, nimble reframing of questions and nonstop judgment calls. Without attention to pacing, lesson objectives might not be met. Meanwhile, without some healthy...

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    Encouraging a willingness to get it wrong

    Students often pay close attention to how instructors receive wrong answers. Students who feel shut down by a professor after taking an intellectual risk may think twice before they raise their hands next time. Instructors sensitive to this possibility nurture curiosity by acknowledging the difficulty of a text, inviting students to share initial understandings, providing clear feedback, and normalizing the process of being incorrect as a crucial step on the journey toward understanding.  In this video, Jane Mansbridge describes how she channels candor and curiosity to create a...

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    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.  

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