In this blog post, I would like to offer some strategies for using low-stakes writing to foster productive and engaging in-class discussions. The list below draws from chapter eleven of John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas.
- Begin by holding a “discussion about discussions” (Bean 208). Early in your course, ask your students to share their ideas about what makes a class discussion memorable and informative. Better yet, ask them to respond to this prompt in writing! Use your students’ experiences to develop a set of criteria for productive class discussion, or a “charter for discussion” (209). Devoting fifteen or twenty minutes to the principles of a good discussion (especially at the course’s outset) will set a standard for your classroom and may save you time later in the semester, when students tend to grow weary and silent.
- Assign a “minute paper” as a transition between lecture and class discussion (Bean 204). Some pedagogues deride lecturing as a form of passive learning, but this doesn’t need to be true for your class. Instead of concluding your lecture with “Any questions?” — a stultifying, anemic anti-question — ask your students to free-write in response to a specific question of your own. Your students’ responses will serve as a jumping-off point for in-class discussions and will encourage them to engage with the content of your lectures while it is new to them. In addition, you may consider collecting your students’ free-writes and reviewing them after class as a way of assessing the quality and effectiveness of your lecture.
- Engage your silent students with a free-write (Bean 206). Don’t know what to do when the room falls silent? Despair no longer! Embrace the silence and ask your students to free-write about what they are thinking or what is confusing them. After letting your students write for a couple minutes, ask a few of them to share what they have written. You may find that discussion improves when your students have time to process their ideas and that shy, tentative students participate more freely when they can share something that they have written.
- Use free-writes as a time-out during heated discussions (Bean 207). And what should you do in those rare, electric moments when every hand is raised and students begin talking over each other? If you find that your class is approaching the cacophony of a town hall meeting, ask your students to take a few minutes to write out their contributions to the discussion. Writing provides a productive outlet for the class’s energy, and your students may be surprised to see how fluidly they write when they are engaged in their subject. Again, consider collecting these free-writes; you can use your students’ responses to revisit a rich topic at a later date.
- Assign discussion questions as homework (Bean 206-7). By assigning a few questions along with the reading, you are preparing your students for in-class discussions. I ask my students to respond informally to two or three questions and to choose a passage that confused, interested, or stood out to them. In this way, every student comes to class with some talking points. Additionally, each student’s accumulated responses can serve as a resource for future papers or exams.
- Break your students into groups and ask them to write their own questions in response to a lecture, a reading, or an assignment (Bean 207). Generating questions in groups allows your students to engage actively with their peers. You may then use each group’s questions as a starting point for a class-wide discussion.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd Ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011.