Explore potential strategies.
Students may not have the general background knowledge to participate.
Background knowledge may be culture-based or discipline-based. For example, in the United States, there is often an implicit understanding of the relationship between education and income that is not necessarily true in other countries. Similarly, methodology or language that is necessary to frame, contextualize, or evaluate a question, issue, situation, case, etc., under discussion often varies by discipline (e.g., significance has a different meaning in history or philosophy relative to psychology or statistics).
Identify and articulate for students the minimal level of discipline-specific prior knowledge and skills necessary for your discussion-based course if it requires prerequisite knowledge or skills. Include this information in your course description so that students can make an informed decision or, if it is a required course, find a way to acquire the needed knowledge and skills before the course begins. Without this knowledge their contributions to discussion will be limited. Also include this information in your syllabus.
Determine students’ level of prior knowledge by administering an assessment on the first day of class (or in advance of the first day, if possible). This assessment should indicate to you and to the students their level of understanding of the content that you expect them to already have. Again, lack of content will impact their participation in the discussion.
Your strategy for dealing with students’ lack of prerequisite knowledge that will negatively impact their participation in discussion depends on how many students fall into that category. If, based on the assessment, the majority of students lack sufficient understanding of a topic/concept/theory that you expect them to be conversant with, you will need to provide remediation (e.g., spending class time on the topic, having your TA do a special session on the topic outside of class time, suggesting reading material). There is no use moving ahead if the material you want students to learn is contingent upon something they should already know but do not. If, based on the assessment, only a few students lack sufficient understanding, you can suggest they find a tutor, postpone taking the course until they acquire the prerequisite knowledge, or drop the course.
Generate multiple examples, analogies, metaphors, etc., that cut across boundaries (e.g., nationality, race, gender, socioeconomic class, regional) because if you use “white male middle-class culturally-based” examples, etc., students from other groups are disadvantaged and often become silent during the discussion. For example, using sports analogies and/or language can alienate students who are not sports fans because they don’t understand the reference.
Give students a set of questions to direct their attention while reading. This is particularly important for the first several reading assignments if your students are new to your discipline (e.g., freshmen, sophomores, or non-majors). This will help them learn, for example, to identify the author’s argument and distinguish ideas from minutia, in order to cultivate the kind of meta-cognitive behavior you want them to have. As a result, they will develop the skills to become more effective and critical readers in your discipline, and hence be able to more meaningfully participate in class discussion. Make sure to integrate the questions as part of the discussion.
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