Explore potential strategies.
Students may not have experience participating in discussions.
Discussions call for a set of skills that are uniquely applied in this context. These skills include things like identifying the speaker’s main point, building on or expanding an already articulated idea, making connections among ideas, respectfully disagreeing with an idea or claim, providing an alternative perspective, asking follow-up questions to flesh out a speaker’s idea, connecting ideas to course concepts or theories, using evidence to support one’s position, idea, or claim. While students may have developed or honed some of these individual skills in other contexts (e.g., identifying an author’s main point in a reading), discussions happen quickly and require that students draw on these skills simultaneously.
Clearly articulate the goals for the discussion so that students understand what the desired outcome is, and use these goals as mileposts to help them recognize and monitor the development of their own understanding and the progress of the discussion.
Clearly specify your expectations regarding what constitutes meaningful participation. For example, tell students that asking thoughtful questions, making connections to theory, building on previous comments, and identifying real world examples or applications make valuable contributions toward collective learning. The reason this is beneficial is because it allows student to engage in learning behaviors that align with the goals of the course and to monitor their progress toward those goals.
Lay ground rules for participation (pdf) that clearly defines acceptable and unacceptable behavior (e.g., turn-taking, language). For example, it is not acceptable to use pejoratives, labels, or sarcasm; it is inappropriate to verbally attack a person rather than their idea; it is important to allow others to speak rather than interrupt or usurp the floor. The need for ground rules is even more important if you are dealing with a controversial issue where students in the minority perspective could potentially feel inhibited to participate. You may even involve students in this process to insure greater student buy-in.
As you participate and lead the discussion, demonstrate for students meaningful interaction. For example, show students how to respectfully disagree with an idea or perspective rather than attack a peer.
To reduce self-consciousness or anxiety associated with either not having experience participating in discussions or the fast-paced nature of discussions, give students time, individually or in small groups, to actively engage with the material by discussing an issue or question before they are asked to share a perspective or response with the class.
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