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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Crickets, Crickets

Posted by on Friday, December 14, 2012 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Do you hear that Professor Pedagogy?

It’s the crickets chirping in the silence that follows when I ask a question in my discussion section. How do I get my students to speak up? I think I am preparing well enough: I read and re-read the discussion materials and so I know the material really, really well. And a lot of the material is interesting but when I ask them to share their thoughts, no one raises a hand. So then I start talking and the class turns into a mini-lecture with me just talking. In all honesty, the class looks relieved when I start these mini-lectures instead of enduring the painful silence that follows my opening question. What can I do?

TA in History


Dear Not Discussing Discussion Leader,

It sounds as if your class has turned into a session of the poliltburo instead of a discussion section. It is a common enough problem and there is hope for reform of your regime. Let’s start with your preparation and then move into class discussion techniques that may help spark some engagement before proceeding into some common tips for dealing with the class itself.

My first suggestion is to put yourself in your students’ seats for a while. You say you know the material well and of that I have little doubt and I am sure your students recognize it as well. In fact, it may be that the some of the students are intimidated by your deep knowledge and may feel their comments have little value compared to your erudition.

Instead of concentrating on a deep understanding of the material for yourself, try to structure the class based on some simple objectives that are focused on student learning. Prepare questions ahead of time that lead students toward some goals for that session.  In other words, work backwards from what you want the students to know. In my experience, I have asked myself what are the three things the students must absolutely remember from the session and why? Answer those questions and design discussions to achieve that goal.

My next suggestion is to get your students warmed up! Instead of diving into material, get them talking about movies, sports, TV shows, etc. After about five minutes, you could segue into the material. Begin by asking about the material as it appears. What is it? What is the argument? What is the author trying to show or prove? Then move into questions that evaluate the material as it is. Does the argument work? Is it inconsistent with its own premises? These sorts of questions help students establish a shared point of understanding that ground discussions of more abstract concepts and personal perspectives.

After having the class explore the internal characteristics of the material, you can then get them to think about the external characteristics. Ask for examples of how this point of discussion connects to the larger themes of the class. Does it connect with other materials from the unit? If so, how do they connect? Finally, the class may discuss the materials from a more critical perspective. What do you think about this material personally? How does it relate to your understanding of some of the larger issues addressed in class.

Professor P also suggests:

  • Make use of the space. People don’t talk to each other from across the room facing away from each other. If you can move chairs to form a circle, do so.  If people are spread out from each other, ask them to sit closer.
  • De-center yourself. If you assume the position of lecturer, standing in front of the class, they will most likely perceive you as a lecturer.
  • Consider using break out groups. Form the class into small groups and have them work through together some of the questions, then bring the group back together to a larger discussion.
  • Get to know your students’ names and call on them by name.
  • WAIT! Give students time to think when you ask a question. Count slowly to ten in your head before re-framing the question.
  • Ask follow up questions that get the students to expand on their initial answers.
  • Make eye contact and show that you are listening. Your behavior as a discussion leader establishes a role model for students to follow. If you look bored, disengaged, or impatient, your students will think that sort of behavior is okay.

Good Luck with the reforms, Dear Leader!


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