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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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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Continuing the teacher-student conversation through written feedback

Invariably, not all good ideas will be heard during the course of a discussion, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be heard at all. By requiring students to write responses to weekly readings before class, instructors can take a pulse on student thinking and use students’ written ideas to plan lectures and discussions. Through timely and detailed written feedback on such responses, Jane Mansbridge establishes an ongoing dialogue with students that extends far beyond the four walls of the classroom.

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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Asserting political opinions in discussion

An instructor’s personal or political opinions might be less relevant when it comes to some topics, but asserting your opinions on certain controversial issues may be crucial. In this video, Christina “V” Villarreal and Tim McCarthy reflect on when and why they choose to assert certain political positions or strongly held beliefs in a discussion, particularly when “a line is crossed” or when “stakes are high.”

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.

Intervening selectively in a student-led discussion

Once students are in the habit of discussing ideas among themselves, a key question for a professor is when to jump in. When should we provide helpful context? When should we inject a probing question to encourage students to dig deeper? Is it good practice to always correct misinformation? In this video, Timothy Patrick McCarthy shares how he generally strives to hold back in discussion but will intervene when he notices that something “really crucial” to student understanding has not yet surfaced.

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.

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.

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.

Interspersing pair-shares throughout lectures

To invite quieter students into the conversation and afford students a chance to process and articulate their thoughts before sharing them with the whole group, many instructors intersperse think-pair-shares into their lectures. Using routine, structured think-pair-share activities, Kegan gives every student an intellectual partner with which to react and respond to material in real-time. Such exercises also help to break up the potential monotony of the large-enrollment lecture course while ensuring that all students share in the thinking process instead of the outspoken few.