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Thursday, September 28, 2006
Help Wanted
A few questions for you more experienced teachers, from one who has a ton of experience teaching short discussion sections but no experience teaching courses on her own:

1.) What do you do when you have a class that just doesn't seem to engage with the material you're teaching? My example: I have two sections of Intro to Subfield. My first section of 35 students meets at 9:00am for an hour, and I honestly dread facing them MWF mornings. They just sit there, unsmiling, some sleeping in the back, giving one-word answers to my questions, hardly laughing at my silly comments (hard to believe! I'm a stitch!). An hour after I leave them I teach the same class to 60 students, and the energy in the room is amazing. These students are so interested in what I'm presenting that I usually can't get through all the material. They are constantly asking really excellent questions, they do the reading and remember it, and they want to know more. I love that class -- I leave it energized. But what to do about the first class? Do I just accept that, since each class develops its own "personality," I got a dud?

2.) What innovative classroom activities do you use in your classes? My senior seminar (about 35 students) is going well, and I'm trying my best not to lecture at them every MWF afternoon. I don't want them to be passive learners, but I'm honestly not good at thinking of other activities they can do. I've introduced "PDD" to them -- "Primary Document Day!" -- where they look back in groups at actual historical documents that shaped what we're studying. They seem to like this, despite the fact that the documents can be tedious, and they do a great job reporting their findings/impressions back to the full class. Another thing I did this week is I had them read a very complicated article about Big Important Thing. They each had to turn in five discussion questions about the article yesterday, and so I'll compile those questions tonight and we'll use them in class tomorrow. What are some other activities I can do? I know it's difficult since I'm not revealing exactly what I'm teaching here, but I'd love some more general ideas.

Any advice is most appreciated!
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 9/28/2006 09:13:00 AM  
12 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 10:18 AM, Blogger skookumchick said…

    Have you tried breaking the quiet class into small discussion groups, just to get them accustomed to the idea of talking? You also might try getting them to participate in other ways, like 1-min papers about what they think your subject is about/important points, etc., or write on notecards what questions they have (and then you read out the anonymous questions and use them for discussion) . It's hard to suggest things when I don't know what kind of area you're in - being in engineering, we can take papers that are assigned (or readings or whatever) and do jigsaw groups, where students get into groups of 3-4 (depending on how many you have, but no bigger than 6) and each group discusses a specific section (or answers discussion questions or something) and then you split them up so one person from each group goes into a NEW group and reports to everyone else what they discussed in their FIRST group. And then you get people to report out. Even if they're not chatty in the big group, you know they've been talking in the small groups. I think this can work in other disciplines too...

    Or maybe they're just not chatty. ;-)

    Good luck!

  • At 10:45 AM, Blogger betty said…

    I'm in science, so my suggestions are very smilar to skookumchick's. In almost every class I teach I break the class into small sections. It's amazing how it brings out even quiet people. Usually I require them to prepere a response for the class and I turn their responses into the discussion. The one minute papers are supposed to be good too, though I've never tried them.

    Sometimes I've also done quizes or trivia, but that really requies a little work up front on your part. In the sciences now people use "clickers" a lot to take "polls" in class. Usually this uncovers common misconceptions or gaps in student knowledge because some part of the class always answers a question incorretly. THen the students have to discuss with their neighbors before revoting.

    Could you adapt that idea? What if you thought up a difficult/contentious issue and put a question about that on the board before class, then let students vote on that (or choose sides?) as they come in? It'd have to be something where they don't mind people seeing what they voted for, but something interesting and likely to get both view points. Then you could break up the class based on that and have them lead the discussion?

    I'm just thinking of random things here. Anything to make them more responsible for their learning. Good luck! I sure do with I was teaching again (*sigh*)

  • At 11:11 AM, Blogger ~profgrrrrl~ said…

    You might try thinking up a few options a class ahead of time and asking them what they want to do in the next class session. Sometimes giving them a bit of responsibility/ownership helps a lot.

    ALso, this book has lots of good ideas for getting students involved:

  • At 11:41 AM, Blogger Prof. Me said…

    Thanks for the great suggestions so far. For what it's worth, I'm in the social sciences. I really like the "jigsaw" group idea, but I'm not sure it would work with what we're reading. I did try dividing the "problem" class into small groups to get them to discuss a particularly complicated article, but they honestly did not say a WORD because no one had done the reading! Grr.

    I do use One Minute papers, usually asking them at the beginning of class to write down two things they remembered from the reading. That way I can assess who's actually doing the reading on a semi-regular basis.

    The "clickers" are mostly used in the natural sciences here. I do really like the idea of the question as they come into class and having them give their own answers.

    Profgrrrl, I will indeed check that book out. There was another book on your blog a few months ago (maybe still there?) called "Discussion as a Way of Teaching" that I checked out and found useful (although I haven't had time to read the entire book yet).

    Keep the suggestions coming! I appreciate the help!

  • At 12:39 PM, Blogger trillwing said…

    I vote for small discussion groups. They seem to work well for me.

    Although I dislike big tests, I'm a firm believer in the Very Easy Reading Quiz. For some reason, these scare the bejeebus out of students at my university. I tell them that if they don't do well on the occasional pop quizzes, it will affect their participation grade, but they react as if they're taking the GREs. I also have given advance notice of a reading quiz, with the announcement that anyone who doesn't correctly answer at least four or the five very obvious questions will have to leave class before discussion because I don't want them leeching off their classmates. On such days, almost all students do the reading, and discussion is much better as a result.

    I also like to mix it up. Two of the best days I've ever had in class were:

    1.) The day we wrote a short essay together in 50 minutes on the chalkboard. Students were really into this activity, and they all said it was very useful.

    2.) Game show day. This takes a bit more prep, but it gets students competitive, and that's a good thing. For example, once I wanted to conduct a review for an American Studies course on Religion in American Life. I asked the students to name traits they felt were "American" or that they knew Americans liked to claim as their own. They named such traits as individualism, environmentalism, valuing "authenticity" (whatever that means), entrepreneurialism, materialism, etc. I wrote these on the board. I then broke students up into groups and assigned them to each represent one religion. Then, drawing on information presented in the course, students reviewed the cultures of their assigned religions. Finally, I had each group try to prove that its religion was the "most American" by trying to find anecdotes from lectures and course texts that proved "their" religion exhibited these traits to some extent. In the end we tallied up the points and one group won candy.

    After this exercise we discussed why, if American Muslims (or Jews or Buddhists or Hindus) exhibit so many American cultural traits, are they so distrusted or misunderstood by many who consider themselves to be in the mainstream of American cultural and religious life.

    It's a bit of an artificial exercise, I know, but the students liked it a lot, and I think they learned quite a bit, too.

    Oh--one more thing: Candy is a great motivator, even in the morning. Toss out "fun size" candy bars or packets of M&Ms to students who answer difficult questions.

  • At 3:26 PM, Blogger grumpyABDadjunct said…

    All great suggestions! I think I may try game show day soon.

    Small groups are great, I use them too. I usually try and use a goofy way to get them to divide into groups, just to loosen them up a bit first. My favourite is to have them line up tallest to shortest and then fold the line in half, this mixes up the genders, gets them up and moving and interacting. They think I'm a weird geek for doing this but I don't really care.

    I also use freewriting, and I've found this very useful. I give them a 'focal sentence' to start with and then they handwrite for 5 minutes, keeping their hands moving and their inner editors turned off. It usually works well, occasionally it bombs but then you've only wasted 5 minutes!

  • At 4:19 PM, Blogger phd me said…

    Everyone's already suggested some good stuff. I really like the idea of asking students to leave when they haven't prepared for class!

    I think group work definitely helps with engagement; students who won't speak whole class sometimes open up in small groups. One version of jigsaw I use: divide students into groups of 4-5; give each group a different question related to the day's topic; as students work, move between the groups to ask questions and probe for understanding; rather than mix the groups up, have each group teach their question to the class. Provide colored chalk or overheads so they have to create a visual to assist with the discussion.

    Good luck!

  • At 8:02 PM, Blogger apparently said…

    Yesterday I asked everyone to write down the muddiest point of the topic we've been covering and then today broke them up into groups to explain (or un-mudify) the points.

    The key was that I didn't explain everything myself afterward (so they couldn't pretend to discuss).

    It seemed to work well.

  • At 8:50 AM, Blogger Seeking Solace said…

    I think it's just the luck of the draw when it comes to students. That being said, I try to incorporate things that will get them going. In my Critical Thinking class, I have them act as a jury on a murder case involving someone who is just like them. They go crazy talking and giving their imput.

  • At 11:25 AM, Blogger Marcelle Proust said…

    FWIW: one semester I had a completely dead class. I tried everything, always thinking, "How can they not respond to this great assignment?" But nothing got them going. I thought they hated me. Dreaded looking at evals. But the evals were really good. They liked the class and said they learned. They were just a very, very quiet group.

  • At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    While I agree that some classes are just dead, I've found that assigning reading questions per week, due in class on the day of discussion, helps a lot! I have started putting the questions right on the syllabus, and they post their answers to the course WebCT page. They are also required to respond to each other's answers on the webpage. This makes sure that they not only do the reading, but actually *think* about it! I do it for all undergrad courses, regardless of level. Of course, it's too late to put in on your syllabus, but you could assign a question in class, and then put them in small groups to read and comment on each other's responses, and then have each group report to the class. I've also used the game show idea, calling it "Who wants to be an Historian," which worked great for getting them to learn the terms that would be on the midterm. Good luck!

  • At 6:23 AM, Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said…

    I've had the lively class and the dead class back-to-back... it sucks. Funny thing was that the quiet class gave me better evals than the rowdy one.. and they perked up for my dean when they knew that I was being evaluated.

    I've started to do a 5-10 minute discussion period at the beginning of each new section. I ask them 4 questions and tell them to figure out the answers among themselves... this seems to open them up a little and gets them to open the book if they haven't done the reading (which they often haven't).

    I think you should plan some time to ask them why they are so quiet -- ask them what they were doing just before your class or if there is some reason they don't participate. Tell them that you like a class that is more discussion oriented and that they'd be surprised at how engaged your other class is. Maybe they just need a kick in the pants, or you are the last class in a string of classes for them and they are tired.

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