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Conversation #5: Classroom Discussion

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Tracy Zinn

I tell my students that one of my goals for every class that I have is that I want them to be uncomfortable at times. I say that if they're comfortable with everything we've discussed and it doesn't sound new to them or unusual then they're not learning in the class, and that in order to grow and develop we have to have some growing pains, and so we have to have some discussions that push our boundaries a little bit, that make us a little bit uncomfortable... Thinking sometimes hurts.

A conversation with Dr. Tracy Zinn of James Madison University about teaching, learning and classroom discussion.

Links referenced in this episode:

  • Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos
  • QQTP: Connor-Greene, P. A. (2005). Fostering meaningful classroom discussion: Student-generated questions, quotations, and talking points. Teaching of Psychology, 32(3), 173-175. [order]
  • Types of Questions Based on Bloom's Taxonomy (from Honolulu Community College's Faculty Guidebook)


E: Hello today we are talking to Tracy Zinn and assistant Professor at James Madison University, were she regularly teaches statistics and research methods. Tracy’s research interest includes affective teaching behaviors motivation as applied to university classrooms and students perceptions of diversity in the Universities. Recently she published a chapter on classroom discussions, and so today that’s what we are going to do: discuss discussions. Hi Tracy.

Z: Hi Elisa how are you?

E: I’m doing very fine. I’m actually sitting in my office looking out at very rare snow in New Orleans. It snowed here this morning.

Z: There is snow in New Orleans?

E: Ah hah ah hah.

Z: I’m jealous...

E: You have to come look. On the weather channel, it snowed all morning very very hard. Yeah. It’s very celebratory around here.

Z: Yeah!

E: Have y'all had snow yet?

Z: We have torrential rain right now.

E: Aww aww... very good, very good. Well what I wanted to talk to you today was about your chapter on classroom discussions. I think that’s such an interesting topic, such a useful teaching tool and yet something we really never get trained on.

Z: Yeah I was just thinking about that.

E: Uh hum. . . So to start off for you, what qualifies as a good discussion?

Z: Uhm. I was thinking about what qualifies as a good discussion, and I thought maybe it contrast of what with qualifies as a bad discussion

E: Okay.

Z: And when I think of the discussion going bad, it’s usually dominated by one person. A lot of times it’s unnecessarily contentious, like you have one person who thinks being contentious means it’s a good discussion and not relevant to the actual point. It’s not that I mind contention, but unnecessary contention. It’s when you see a lot of students zoning out and not really paying attention, they’re doodling, there are one or two people that are involved. That’s pretty much your bad discussion. So a good discussion I think is when you have a broader range of participation, you actually cover relevant topics and not just let the conversation get off on a tangent. I think that a good discussion makes people think about the topic and find blanks between that subject and other subjects or that subject that you’re talking about that day and the ones you talked about previously in the semester. I would think that’s a hallmark of a good discussion, and then one thing I think is a good discussion is that there are moments of uncomfortable silence

E: Humm!

Z: And I think that’s often over looked as a good part of discussion, that uncomfortable a little bit squirmy, “I’m not sure if I should be talking about this” is often a good hallmark of a good conversation too.

E: I wonder if you’ll expand on that a little bit, how, give me an example, what does that mean?

Z: Sure. One of my goals for every class that I have. I want them to be uncomfortable at times. I say that if they’re comfortable with everything we’ve discussed and everything doesn’t sound new to them or unusual, then they’re not learning in the class, and that in order to grow and develop we have to have some growing pains, and so we have to have some discussions that push our boundaries a little and make us uncomfortable and that encourages us to think about things and ways we're different or encourage us to rethink our positions on things that we haven’t done before. So if you’re having a discussion and nobody’s uncomfortable or everybody is saying their opinions are the same as they've always been there whole lives, then that’s not really a challenging discussion. They can do that in their dorm room, with their best friend. In the classroom setting you really want to push them to think of new ways and thinking sometimes hurts. LOL

E: Yeah (Lol) true. Are you teaching Stats and Research methods now, are there other courses you teach?

Z: I’ve taught Stats, Research Methods, I also teach Industrial Organizational Psychology

E: Uh hum.

Z: And a class in business psych, called Performance Management. So Statistics and IO are my two hallmark classes that I teach almost all the time.

E: Okay.

Z: And it's funny because people say Statistics wouldn’t be a class you have a lot of discussions, but I actually think discussion is vital in statistics, and one of the first things I do in my statistics class is I have them read a portion of the book called Innumeracy. It’s by John Allen Paulos and it talks about how a lot of the American population likes to brag that they're not good at math, they're not good with numbers, and he likens it to somebody bragging about being illiterate.

E: Uh oh.

Z: Nobody says, "I’m illiterate," but we’re perfectly find with people saying, “I’m just not a math person, I just don’t, I can’t do math.” I had them to read that at first because I want them to know that I believe they can do the math I’m asking them to do, and it’s not good enough to just say, “I’m not good at math and I’m not gonna try in Statistics.” So that’s one of the linchpins of the beginnings of our statistics courses, we have a long discussion about Innumeracy and what that might mean to them. Talk about misconceptions about math, and it really opens them up to pursuing statistics in a way that if they wouldn’t have had that discussion.

E: Uh hum uh hum... and let me see the way they formed the question. Is that where you get the uncomfortable silences there?

Z: Oh yeah, yeah, one of the things they read about in Innumeracy is the idea that a lot of people brag and say, “I’m not a math person, I’m a people person.” As if those two are mutually exclusive, as if, if you know how to do statistics you can’t possibly be a people person.


Z: And inevitably we have this pause, and somebody raises their hand and says, “I have said that a lot.”

E: Uhm hum.

Z: "Now I realize that’s like a silly cop-out way of getting out of doing thinking a hard way about math." So we always have that real uncomfortable silence right before talk about that part, because inevitably half the class has used that line.

E: Yeah uh hum. So now when you think about those... awkward silences, uncomfortable silences, it doesn’t have to be topics that are uncomfortable, just the students kind of challenging themselves.

Z: Right, right.

E: Or their own thinking.

Z: Right, and it might be the topic that’s uncomfortable, because in IO psychology we talk about IQ test and the predictive ability or not of an IQ test, differences across populations that we have often seen with these standardized tests, what reasons we might have for those. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable to talk about these group differences and IQ tests, we shouldn’t even be talking about this, we should just skip over that and not talk about that, but it’s really important to present something and talk about the reasons for it, talk about the reasons for it and have it as part of the class discussion. Rather than just sweeping something uncomfortable under the rug.

E: Uh hum uh hum.

Z: Yeah

E: The other thing you mentioned, in addition to that, is good discussions don’t have a lot of the students zoning out or doodling or that kind of thing. So what do you do about that? I can think about times when me and three students in the class are having a good conversation, and when I really get objective and look around, I can see the eyes glazed over. So what are some of the practices you have to help that problem?

Z: Well, one of the things I’m a big fan of is setting up your class to promote social interaction with other students, not just with you. Because the classroom is set facing forward — looking at you, and you’re looking at them, so it’s so they can have a conversation with you, but not set up for them to have a conversation with each other. So what’s an easy thing to do is arrange your classroom where they're looking at other students, and even in big classes I often tell students, "For the next ten minutes you are going to talk to a partner or a small group about this topic." Have them scoot their chairs so they can face somebody. Set up your classroom where it can promote social interaction among students, not just with you, and if you give them a chance to think about and discuss in the small groups, then they’ll have something to share when you rejoin the large group discussion.

So just to give you an example of what I might typically do is have a situation or problem they need to think about, get in groups of three or four, take ten minutes to think about these things and discuss them among yourselves, take notes about things you want to discuss, give them ten, fifteen minutes to discuss these things, then come back in the classroom as a whole and ask each of the individual groups to share something they discussed about the particular problem. And that way not everybody is talking to the whole group, but you're giving them an opportunity to discuss in a small group and that makes the students so much more comfortable, especially the shy students who don’t want to share something in front of 50, 70, 100 people, but would be fine sharing something with two. So they can participate in the discussion that way, and another person can share it with the whole class. So you’re capitalizing on different people's strengths. Where they have people who don’t mind talking in front of large groups and they can do that, where some prefer the smaller group discussion but they still will be part of the discussion.

E: So when you talk about discussions, they can be broadly defined, they can be small groups of student discussions or large class discussions and that sort of thing.

Z: And I think that’s important because, really, a large classroom, if you have 70 people it would be virtually impossible for each of those 70 people to say something in a one hour discussion, but if you give them an opportunity to be in smaller groups to share their opinion then you’re still hearing from everybody just in a different way.

E: Uh hum uh hum.... That makes sense. I think one of the biggest challenges that a lot of faculty have with setting up group discussion is coming up with good questions, you know, good problems and good questions to discuss. I wonder if you can give some tips on questions that won’t fall flat.

Z: Well I think this is a really important question because like you said we don’t get training on how to have a classroom discussion. It really wasn’t part of my graduate school training, how to have a good classroom discussion. Students need a lot more scaffolding on how to have a discussion than we often think, faculty need a lot more scaffolding than we think we do. We think, “I know the topic” and can go in and free wheel it, and actually we might need to prepare more for a discussion-based class than you would for a lecture-based class, if you want it to be a quality discussion.

So a couple of things I would say, first I think the biggest problem that we have when we’re asking kids to discuss, we don’t do enough prep work and don’t ask students to do enough prep work. We need to give them information about what the discussion is going to be about, what reading it’s going to cover, give them some ways to prepare for that discussion and give them that time to think about it. Because students can answer a lot of questions if they prepared for it. If you ask them at the spur of the moment sometimes how it's put, they're afraid to say the first thing on their mind. So having prep work is really important. So what I like to do to have a straight discussion. You ask questions of varying content and discipline. You don’t want to ask, but to start off with probably an easier kind of odd funny question. That way students are seeing participating can be done, and it can be fun. But you want to mix it up, not always asking very simple questions, but you’re not always asking very difficult questions. That keeps people’s interest, also keeps them thinking.

Another thing, a lot of times when we're leading discussions we'll ask a compound question —

E: Ahh yeah... (lol)

Z: — two questions in one, and so the student might know the answer to one question or might have something to say about one part of that question, but not know the other, so might not say anything. So if you can keep it to one question at a time, you’re going to get a lot more participation.

And also we really need to be patient. I know when you’re up in front of a class, and you ask a question, and there’s five seconds of silence, those five seconds seem like so long. Really if you’re asking a good question, a good question that makes people think, they need a second to think about it. So a lot of times if you’re asking easy questions at first, funny ones, maybe get people loosened up and involved, then you ask a complex integrative question. That requires students to integrate information from different classes, different theories. What’s a great thing to do is pose that question then say, okay, take a minute and write down what you think, take a minute and just write a reaction to that question. Compose some things you might want to share with the class, and that gives them time for complex questions to really pull out some talking points they want to say. You can ask them to pair up and talk about your answer to that question and come back to the whole class and select people to share their answers. So often we want to ask these difficult, complex, and sometimes uncomfortable questions, and we don’t give students time to reflect on it, because we’re trying to get through the material and rush through the class. When it’s really uncomfortable for us is the silence.

E: Give them a moment, it’s like, "Take a moment," and it minimizes the silence, and I don’t have to feel uncomfortable about it. Yeah Yeah

Z: I’ve gotten a lot of good reflections based on that technique, giving students a second to think about it. And that way you can say, yes, this is a difficult complex question, this is asking for your thought, and you shouldn’t be answering off the tip of your tongue, you should think about it for a minute. We really want to encourage thinking and wrestling with ideas and to give them the space to do that.

E: Absolutely, and I can think of examples of that, where I’ve been at presentations, conferences, and without time to digest the figures, the data, and it passes by. I’m going to recap a little bit, because you said important stuff there. I want to be sure that I got that all. In terms of common problems, you say: prep work, that some faculty don’t put prep work into it or give the student the background for the prep work. The types of questions you ask, you know, you ask reflective questions, and timing, allowing students the time to ingest and come up with their answers.

Z: Right, and if I could give a little recommendation, Patty Connor Green wrote an article about a preparation technique for students and it called QQTP’s or “Questions, Quotations and Talking Points,” and this is a way to get student prepared for an in-class discussion before they come to class.

E: Okay.

Z: There is reading to cover, and students are asked to come up with questions pertaining to different parts of the reading, and you can put requirements on the questions. They need to be synthesis questions or validities questions, thinking about the science in me. Then they’re going to come up with interesting quotes from the readings they want to share. And then finally: talking points, important points that they want to bring up during the class discussion about the reading. Those talking points can be integrative with other reading material, but they’re going to be points they can bring up in class. They would have it with them; they’ll already have several talking points, so they’ll already have something to say when they come into class. So they don’t have to feel put on the spot, being prepared to be involved with this discussion and participate. I’m trying to think of the year it was published, I want to say 2005, but I’m not sure.

E: Okay, we can look it up and link that and Bloom's text from our website, our podcast website, so listeners can link to that. Just a question in your practice, do you do technique for every class discussion or just periodically?

Z: No, it’s actually a quiet of bit of work, but for my stats class where students lead discussions, I do require every class meeting, but it’s a very small class, and it’s a reading and writing intensive class. So it makes more sense to do it with those, for other classes you might just use it periodically if there’s a particular topic you think the preparation would be necessary for. You can just pull out parts of that, and say everybody needs to bring out two talking points to class. You know, you don’t have to do the whole thing. Or bring one quotation you want to say and one talking point, and that gives all your students something to have tangible, so they’ll never feel put on the spot. They’ll have something already prepared to say. It should be more thoughtful, therefore promote better class discussion.

E: I’m going to try that for sure, that sounds neat. Let’s take another perspective real quick and talk about the risk of class discussions. What are the risks of faculty members that might be the standard lecturer and just doesn’t want to give up the podium. What’s the risk or the perceived risk of class discussions?

Z: The "risk," in quotation marks — I’m doing a little air quotes — is loss of control. You don’t have control of what material exactly would be presented and in what format and how long it would take, you lose control a little bit. Now there some days when you might say, “I need to lecture on this material and make sure they get these particular points," but there should be days when the students can participate more and take more control of the content, there should be days that's possible for you. You may not feel comfortable every day, but there should be some days that you can.

But there are real risks in losing control, and I think a lot of that is not setting ground rules for the discussion at the beginning. And if I may give you an example of this, I was a PA at Auburn when I was a graduate student. I had no ground rules for the discussion at all. I also had an all white classrooms, all of a sudden one of the students starts going on a tirade and using extremely foul language, including they worst word you can use, if you know what I mean. I just didn’t know what to do, I kicked him out of my classroom, and I had completely lost control of the class. People were arguing and fighting across the classroom and angry at each other. It was a very sensitive topic. And I didn’t know what to do, I kicked that kid out of class, mainly because I couldn’t believe someone used that word, and I didn’t know what else to do.

Well, I think what you need to do before you use discussion, especially when covering discussions that could be very volatile, you have to set up ground rules with your students. You have to have them, but I think it’s important to let the students come up with the ground rules. I have students who talk about what do we want to say is a ground rule for discussion. Basic things, do people need to raise hands or not, can they interject, or what are the ground rules for showing respect for other people opinions and ideas, what do we need to do, what we won’t tolerate, and what are the consequences if someone breaks these rules? And it’s really great when students come up with those rules, they don’t get broken, because they have come up with them, they believe they are good ground rules for discussion, and things tend to go more smoothly. So I was just thinking, we’ll have a discussion, it’ll be great. But you really can have people with very strong opinions, and if you don’t have a discussion of respect, you can lose control pretty quickly.

E: That is very good advice, as you're saying that I’m thinking of my own examples over the years where I learned. I taught a human sexuality class, and that’s what we spent the first full class day doing. After the syllabus day we spent the full day talking about respect and confidentiality, appropriate etiquette.

Z: I teach a class on science versus pseudo-science. I can’t believe I didn’t mention it at the beginning. It’s a general science class, it’s not just psychology students, but we talk about a wide range of topics from ESP and astrology to ghosts and afterlife and creationism versus evolution. So it can get pretty interesting. And this is probably a general rule for professors, being able to establish rapport with your students, being able to have an environment that they feel you’re a trusted person is so important when you’re talking about things so sensitive. When I’m talking about evolution to a group of students who may never have had a real presentation of this, might have a different view, it’s real important that they have already been able to establish some rapport with me, and I show them respect with my daily interactions. Once you do that, students are much more open to hearing new information if it’s coming from a respected source. Discussions tend to go a lot more smoothly if you’re respected and if you respect your students. And I don’t mean just acting like you respect your students. There are some teachers who clearly don’t like students, you know, and students can tell that. But if you really like your students and have their best interest, treating them with respect and setting up those ground rules first, you can have a much more interesting class discussion.

E: Very good. Tracy it’s been so good talking to you. I wonder if you want to offer any final words of advice to faculty who are thinking about using this technique more.

Z: I would say, don’t be afraid to not cover some content; discussion takes more time than lecturing; you may not cover as much content, but you’ll get a much more rich covering of that content, even though you’re not covering as much, to make up for it. They can always read another chapter on their own, but they won’t be able to recreate those discussions.

E: Thank you so much for sharing with us today, I really appreciate it.

Z: Thanks, Elizabeth.

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