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Student-Led Discussions

Written by Elizabeth Cornell
January 04, 2013

The following was first posted on my website:

“21st c classroom needs to be about thinking, collaborating, and creating #pk20″ (Tanya Sasser)

In the “Tales of Gotham: NYC in Literature” course I taught this semester, I challenged my students to lead all the class discussions. The responsibility for leading rotated among small groups of 3 or 4 students who were encouraged to master Prezi to present their questions.

This ongoing assignment had several pedagogical goals:

  • To make my classroom student-centered
  • To use technology with purpose
  • To help students learn to ask great questions so they might discover excellent answers.

The idea of the student-centered classroom challenged many of my students. Initially, some resisted the idea of working in groups. Most students were unskilled at creating decent presentations. They are accustomed listening to a lecture and answering the instructor’s questions, and so they had trouble asking good questions. By “asking,” I mean both senses of the word: They could neither construct a good question nor did they know how to ask it well.

Overcoming Resistance to Group Work
Perhaps the most important factor in helping students overcome their resistance to group work was technology. Specifically, the presentation software they used allowed them to easily collaborate online. They did not have to find a time when they could all meet in the library, for example, to plan the discussion. This was a boon especially to commuter students and for students who work off campus. One student usually took charge of starting the Prezi (or GooglePresentation), and everyone added some questions to it. The end result was that students really enjoyed working in their groups: the technology connected them and the finished project was a group effort that they shared with the class. Learning how to use Prezi together also prepared them to use it in their individual projects, or to tackle other software that was new to them, such as TimeGlider and Vuvox.

Using Technology with a Purpose
As we all know, most students use technology with a purpose every day, all day long. In general, from Facebook to Microsoft Word, they use these familiar tools always for the same purposes. In their other classes, my students are not often asked to explore other digital tools for academic purposes. Out of 80 students in my three classes, only one or two had even heard of Prezi. Most of them loved the way it allowed them to insert background images and add multimedia for their discussions and other projects they did for the class.  It helped teach students how to create an argument through design.

One common problem in these presentations was that students placed too much text in a frame. When shown a frame with a few carefully chosen words and one that was loaded with wordy bullet points or long paragraphs of historical context, students could easily see which frame was the stronger one. By the end of the semester, most students demonstrated the ability to use only essential words in a frame. Needless to say, this exercise develops their critical thinking skills because they must decide which words best articulate their claims and which ones to leave out.

More challenging was the problem with the images they chose for illustrating their frames. The solution led students to become familiar with online image archives. For example, in a discussion on Joseph Mitchell’s 1930s essay “Drunks,” the group illustrated a question with a clip art image of a beer mug, circa 2012. We compared it to an image of a fancy hotel menu from the New York Public Library’s online collection that had been used to illustrate another group’s discussion on Edith Wharton’s short story, “After Holbein.” Though it seems rather obvious why the latter image was much better than the former, many students expressed puzzlement and/or indifference. Through class discussion, they came to understand why a cartoon beer mug sheds little light on New York’s early twentieth-century saloon culture. As a result, they became acquainted with the many fabulous digital archives of images, from the New York Public Library to the Library Congress, and their use of them helped make the course readings far more alive and vital to them than if they’d stuck to the first image to pop up on a Google image search.

Asking questions
Asking a good question was by far the most challenging part of the assignment. This, in fact, surprised me. But it quickly became to clear to me that my students are rarely asked to ask a question in class. They’re much better at answering them, particularly if they’re asked to give factual answers. Thus, many of the questions they asked were about facts: “Who is Peter Lick [a protagonist Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale]?” “What is the weather like in Winter’s Tale?” When these questions were posed, I sensed the rest of the class’s boredom setting in–though few students understood why these questions failed to stimulate them.

After the first discussion, we critiqued the questions themselves. Comparing the more successful questions with others that fell flat, students learned the difference between a simple question and a critical one. They discovered that making a critical question can be as simple as changing the wording. Instead of asking “what is the weather like,” ask “why is the winter important in Winter’s Tale?” or “what role does snow play in Winter’s Tale?” Questions that begin with “how” or “why,” questions that engage wider issues and themes, questions that hone in on the significance of a single word or image that reappears throughout the book, questions that engage context–such as comparing the state of New York City in the 1970s, when Helprin wrote his novel, with the New York portrayed in the book–helped us dig out textual meaning and create lively discussion.

Delivery of the question posed yet another challenge: Often, students would ask the question and then, without taking a breath, proceed to answer it. The best method I’ve found for addressing this is to interrupt the student in a friendly way and ask them to hold off giving their answer. Some students drowned the class with a lot of context before asking their question. Best method: interrupt in a friendly way and ask student to just ask the question and supply the context later, if necessary.

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As a result of this assignment, my students brought to their final research projects strong skills at asking probing questions about their chosen subject, and I think this led them to finding better, deeper answers. Standing in front of the class within the safety of their group as they led a discussion, as well as other group presentations, gave them experience in public speaking and prepared them for individual presentations of their final projects at the end of the semester. They were confident, practiced, and provided some terrific answers to good questions they’d posed to themselves.

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