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Often, especially at the beginning of the semester, it may seem difficult to get students to participate in classroom discussions. Below are some strategies that may help get conversations started:

  1. Wait at least 10 seconds before you clarify a question or add a new one. A lot of the time, students do have thoughtful answers to the questions that instructors ask, they just need some extra time to formulate them.If no one has offered an answer after around 10 seconds, you may need to reframe your question, ask a more direct question, or move on to the strategies below.
  2. Have students write down their answer to a specific question or set of questions. This approach both offers students the thinking time they need while also leveling the playing field for students who may fear speaking off the cuff or in front of a group of people. Once everyone has had time to compose an answer, they may be more willing to share with their classmates.  
  3. Engage students in a think/pair/share. This activity splits students’ responses into three parts: first they answer the questions on their own (as described in #2), then they discuss them in pairs, and finally they share their responses with the entire class. Students are more likely to feel safe sharing their thoughts if they have had time to not only formulate their answers, but also test and build upon those thoughts in a lower-pressure situation before having to share in front of the entire classroom.

In my last Blog Post I mentioned Bloom’s taxonomy as a tool for building course goals. It can also help you build better questions. If you have tried all of the above methods and students are still struggling, you may want to revisit the types of questions that you are asking. Perhaps you are asking questions that rely solely on declarative memory and thus won’t generate much productive discussion. Conversely, it might be that the questions you are asking students are all higher-level questions and thus overwhelming for students. Make sure that whenever you are asking questions, you are making sure that students first have knowledge of lower level concepts pertaining to the subject so that they are able to build off these lower level concepts to achieve higher level understanding. The following chart pairs Bloom’s taxonomy with a list of verbs and is helpful for building level specific questions:


    Remembering: can the student recall or remember the information? define, duplicate, list, memorize, recall, repeat, reproduce, state What percentage of Americans voted in 2012?
     Understanding: can the student explain ideas or concepts? classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate, paraphrase Describe two costs and two benefits of voting.
    Applying: can the student use the information in a new way? choose, demonstrate, dramatize, employ, illustrate, interpret, operate, schedule, sketch, solve, use, write Propose one way the United States could reduce the costs of voting.
    Analyzing: can the student distinguish between the different parts? compare, contrast, criticize, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test Compare the Michigan and Rochester models of voting behavior.
    Evaluating: can the student justify a stand or decision? appraise, argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, evaluate Defend the merits of the Michigan model of voting behavior.
     Creating: can the student create a new product or point of view? assemble, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, write Design a replacement for the electoral college system.


As always, the Kaneb Center is happy to hold a private consultation with you if you feel you are still having difficulty with classroom discussions.


Further Reading:

Jon Saphier, Mary Ann Haley-Speca, Robert Gower. The Skillful Teacher

Therese Huston. Teaching What You Don’t Know

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