This chapter offers advice on different teaching methods in the classroom. In particular, it helps readers think about how to foster lively discussion and participation, organize group work, integrate low-stakes writing, and lecture effectively.
- Creating a Classroom Community
- Structuring a Class Session
- Managing Conflict in the Classroom
The methods you choose to employ during class have a significant impact on your students’ sense of the class as a community. Make sure you take time early in the semester to explain how you hope the class will function and what your expectations are for yourself and your students. One way to achieve this is to invite students to collaborate on a community agreement, which can set guidelines for how class sessions will function. These agreements can address everything from the use of technology and rules for class discussion to how to deal with classroom disruptions. They are also a great way of finding out what is important to your students, and for students to learn what is important to you in your shared time and space.
Even if you outline your policies and expectations, or have determined them in collaboration with your students, there will still be moments when things don’t go smoothly. The first strategy for navigating these difficult moments is to be clear from the outset about what your expectations for the classroom are. Make sure that when situations arise, you handle them fairly: if students think a policy (such as attendance, participation, technology, extensions) is only for certain members of the class, that policy (and others) won’t last long. Be as transparent as possible. Every classroom (and every student) is different, and what works well for one instructor might not feel right for another.
What happens in your classroom becomes the class: if a conflict arises, or a student says or does something that other members of the community feel is offensive, you should acknowledge that it happened and address it, preferably as soon as possible. These are never comfortable moments, and when confronted with them it can be helpful to foreground the impact that our words and actions have as distinct from their intention. You can also lay the groundwork for navigating potentially traumatic class discussions by signaling when the course will be engaging with difficult content, contextualizing that content, and working with your students to establish a shared sense of definitions, boundaries, and safety.
To encourage active participation and to help students know what to expect in classroom exchanges, you might hold a discussion about discussion and share criteria for productive class discussions early in the semester. One way to do this is to make two columns on the board and ask the class to brainstorm “characteristics of good/effective classroom discussion” and “characteristics of poor/ineffective classroom discussions.” In addition to what students bring to the discussion, you may declare a classroom speech policy (i.e. “only one person speaks at one time;” “no name-calling”). Developing criteria and establishing ground rules for class discussion early on can help foster a collaborative learning community and prevent contentious situations from having negative repercussions. One strategy for inviting your students into establishing ground rules for how they want to relate to one another is to craft a “class constitution” in one of the first meetings of the semester.
Lectures can be effective if they exist alongside and in balance with strategies to bring more active modes of critical engagement into the classroom. Lectures too often place students in a passive role, even though listening is an active skill that takes energy and full concentration. It takes time and experience for new instructors to find their voices, rhythms, and comfort levels as lecturers, and it’s an important skill to develop. Once you find your voice, effective lectures can punctuate sessions, discussions and student-centered assignments that mix modes of exchange.
Tip: As you prepare a lecture, you might think of it as a model for how you’d like your students to present or make an argument (verbal or written). If you can model that form for your students–-and make it explicit as a model–-then students can begin to recognize how content is organized. This will help them not only mimic that format but also learn how to take and organize the notes they generate from your lectures.
As you’re planning a lecture, be sure to explicitly connect your thoughts to course materials.
- ways you would like students to actively engage during/with/after the lecture;
- the kind of content your lecture provides;
- the relationship between the lecture and the course readings; and
- the relationship between the lecture and course exams or assignments;
- what you expect students to be able to do with your lecture.
Before the lecture: You might produce supplemental materials and distribute them prior to the lecture, or distribute slides that you’ve made for your presentation. In your slides or on a handout, consider providing:
- an outline with major topics (subtopics/problems/examples) that will be covered;
- key vocabulary, dates, titles, names, etc.; and
- visuals that can enhance student comprehension and engage their attention and facilitate their understanding.
Think about time! Our instinct is often to pack more information into a lecture than we can reasonably cover given the amount of time that we have, and given the attention spans of our students. As you think about how to present your material, consider the following questions:
- Multimodality: Would it be helpful to break the lecture up with an activity or a different voice and/or medium (an audio or film clip)?
- Interactions: How will you handle student questions, requests for clarification, and discussion? If you save questions for the end, be sure you leave enough time. Is it more effective to divide your lecture into sections and take questions after each section? Moreover, have you factored in time for reminders and/or questions about future assignments or reading?
- Note-taking: Do you expect students to take notes during the lecture? If so, it’s a good idea to say so, and even to devote some time to addressing note-taking best practices.
- Interaction: Will the lectures be interactive—that is, will you ask students to contribute any lecture content themselves, or will you intersperse activities, such as writing and/or problem-solving exercises, to keep them actively involved?
After the lecture. Consider distributing slides and notes for students to review. You may also let your students know how you intend to connect your lectures to other moments in the course: do you intend to assign discussion board questions or to require a response paper? Will material covered in the lecture appear on an exam?
For strategies in how to bring critical thinking into lectures, consult Chapter 11 (pp. 202 - 205) of John Bean’s Engaging Ideas. For more resources on preparing a lecture for a large class, check out “Handling the uber-large Lecture: an Interview with John DeNero” and “Six ways to make lectures in a large enrollment course more manageable and effective”, both from UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
While the lecture is a method that allows instructors to exert more control in the classroom, discussions and group work invite student contributions. Broadly speaking, classroom discussion refers to a student-driven conversation—ideally, one in which many members of the class participate. Through discussion, students have the chance to interact with and learn from their peers and share responsibility for determining the focus and direction of the group. Many faculty members initiate class discussions by asking a series of questions and then working with student responses to generate momentum around a topic. This approach can be effective, but it can also lead to conversations that are dominated by a few strong voices or are unbalanced in other ways.
Students’ expectations for discussion are affected by cultural and class backgrounds, prior experiences, individual personalities, and many other factors. Class discussion can be stressful for some students if they haven’t experienced it before or if they are otherwise uncomfortable. Some students may position themselves as experts and dominate discussions to the detriment of collective understanding. Regardless of the scenario, it’s important that faculty communicate expectations to students, model what an effective class discussion can look like, and make clear to students how participation in discussions will be evaluated.
The following are a few possible scenarios you may encounter, followed by a few potential strategies to deal with them.
- Scenario: a very extroverted and eager student in the subject monopolizes the conversation and the rest of the class feel they have been denied the opportunity to participate
- Strategy: Support other students’ participation by posing questions for discussion ahead of time, possibly on a course blog or site. Remember that questions require critical thinking both to ask and to answer. Avoid broad questions such as “What do you think about colonialism?” in favor of specific questions like “What do you think is an important defining feature of colonialism?” or “What does [x assigned source] say about how colonialism has impacted life in Puerto Rico?”
- Strategy: Have students take turns serving as discussion leaders and generating questions for the rest of their classmates (be aware that teaching students how to formulate questions can take time). This structure helps students embody different roles in the classroom at different times, and usually results in more people participating in discussion.
- Scenario: a student is very engaged in the class discussion, carefully paying attention and following along, but the student doesn’t feel confident about the material and decides to not to speak because they’re afraid of being wrong or looking foolish.
- Strategy: help students feel ready and comfortable for the discussion and by asking them to generate and/or discuss questions in small groups before opening it up to the whole class (Think-Pair-Share)
- Strategy: scaffold discussion by having students do a brief freewrite (low-stakes writing) on a question before you solicit responses.
Tip: Remember that participation goes beyond speaking in class. As you are preparing for your class, you might consider more structured approaches to nurturing class discussion. Think also how comfortable you feel and how you deal with silence.
Class discussions offer students an opportunity to interact with each other, generate a shared knowledge base, and think through problems and issues as a group. Since discussions allow students to interact with each other, they can also help foster a sense of classroom community.
For more ideas about how to foster generative, inclusive discussions, check out several posts on discussion strategies from Visible Pedagogy.
Student participation can take many forms. To help as many students participate as possible you might consider beginning class discussions in small groups, asking each student to address specific questions/topics. Or, you might give the students a few minutes prior to the group discussion to get their thinking organized through a freewriting task, a practice quiz, or some other low-stakes assignment.
If a discussion stalls, write the main ideas on the board and have the class work to connect them. Or indicate the ideas with which you’ve started, and then map where you want to end or what ground you’ve covered. Discussions will veer off from your intended course; sometimes, this can be beneficial as students connect to or process material in different ways. As the instructor, you will have to weigh the benefits and challenges of intervening at any moment in a class discussion. This requires a delicate balance between keeping discussion focused on course content and learning goals, while also giving students space to learn and explore in their own ways.
One strategy for balancing students’ participation is to increase the time you wait after asking a question, giving more students an opportunity to organize their thoughts. Some students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts immediately while others need more time to reflect on their ideas before sharing with the class. If you always call on the first few students raising their hands, you might risk calling on the same students. Instead, try to wait for 15-20 seconds in silence. If hands start going up, you can make eye contact with those students and say “let’s wait for a few moments until everyone has enough time to think and formulate a response.” This way, students can feel they have equal opportunity to participate and can develop comfort with prolonged silence. You might also let students freewrite for several minutes and invite less talkative students to read their freewrite.
Tip: Do not fear silence in the classroom. Silence can be generative, useful, calming, reflective, and is a key tool for inclusive practices.
Check out this resource for more ideas:
Gonzalez, Jennifer. “The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies.” Cult of Pedagogy.
As an instructor, it is also important to acknowledge that speaking need not be the only form of class participation. You may emphasize the importance of attentive and careful listening and discuss how to listen effectively in class. You can also provide other forms of class participation. For example, small group work is a good place to start. John Bean suggests asking students to select a “recorder” and a “checker” for each task in a session, and rotating the roles regularly. The recorder can lead the discussion, take note, and make an oral report to class whereas the checker can intervene in the discussion if someone is dominating the conversation or not participating enough to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.
Tip: Acknowledge how different identities (i.e. race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) and linguistic diversity might shape the dynamics of classroom discussion.
For more strategies about balancing students’ voices in class discussion check Chapter 9 of Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching and Chapter Chapter 10 of John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.
In addition to classroom-wide discussions, instructors can break their classes into smaller groups to focus on a particular task or problem. You can organize group work as an in-class or out-of-class assignment, and use small group structures at nearly any point in the learning process. Group work often invites students who are hesitant to participate or ask questions during class discussions or lectures, and it’s a great way to build a sense of community among students. Group work also encourages students to become active learners by inviting them to work independently of the instructor, while still providing them with a support structure within which to ask questions and test ideas.
You might consider putting students in groups of three to four students and then rotating the groups three or four times in the semester, or you might decide to put students in a new group each time an activity or assignment asks them to work together. Both models have benefits and potential drawbacks. On the one hand, by working together multiple times, students will likely feel increasingly comfortable with their group and method of working together. But then, once a group’s dynamic is established, it isn’t likely to change: the leader of the group will likely be the leader for the next project as well; some groups will work together better than others; people drop the class and shift the balance of a group, etc.
You might consider assigning roles within a group to allow participants to focus on particular tasks such as note-taker, reporter, or researcher. When assigning group projects, consider introducing peer evaluations as a way to address anxiety about assessment in this kind of assignment, and to give participants another opportunity to both reflect and report on their contributions to the group’s work.
Similarly, giving small groups specific tasks and/or an artifact to produce, as well as a time limit, can help keep them focused. This artifact can take the form of collective notes with key points of discussion and questions, a presentation, or something more creative. Producing something that archives the group work allows you as the instructor to check in on their engagement, as well as for students to have a reference to which they can refer back at a later date. Consider having small groups share their resources with each other, so that students can benefit from the work of all the groups, not just their own.
Integrating low-stakes exercises into your curriculum, no matter the discipline, can increase student engagement, keep students on track with reading, and prepare students for more formal and higher-stakes assignments later on in the semester. Low-stakes writing can take the form of in-class freewriting, letters, journal or notebook entries, and blogging. These assignments can help students find their own language to think through the issues the course raises.
Low-stakes writing can help students get in the habit of producing prose that’s clear, alive, and natural, preventing contrived and tangled language in follow-up exercises. These assignments are not graded and often are read quickly by the instructor, mostly to gauge the students’ thought processes and responses to both content and teaching style.
It is important to acknowledge that the mere presence of low-stakes writing exercises does not guarantee that your students learn and write better. It’s important to explain to your students why you ask them to do such exercises. You want the purpose and value of regular low-stakes writing to be clear both to yourself and to your students.
For instance, when you discuss a complex theoretical concept, you might:
- ask your students to try describing it in their own words;
- do a brief in-class freewrite in which they connect it to their personal lives so that it becomes more tangible;
- ask your students to write two letters about the topic to two different audiences—perhaps one to a friend and one to a professor—to help them become more aware of the rhetorical choices involved in writing; or
- ask students to summarize what they learned in a short free write or “exit ticket” (low-stakes writing that students hand to you as they exit) during the last five minutes of class.
These activities can help them later prepare for any exams as well as serve as an indicator with which you can assess your students’ learning so far.
Community-making involves the incorporation of individuals into shared space with a shared set of goals, and classroom communities aspire to become spaces for individuals to learn in community with each other. If every participant in a classroom is to have equal value and say, ultimately differences will arise, and conflict may ensue. It is important to find ways to assess what is really happening during or through a conflict. Often, conflicts in the classroom go unacknowledged, which can lead to resentment, poor communication, decreased trust, and persistent tension.
If, as educators, we recognize conflict as a necessary or inevitable part of the learning process, then we can equip ourselves with some tools to understand and try to resolve conflicts while maintaining the integrity of a fair, just, and safe(r) learning environment. Below is a list of common strategies that we can employ to engage with conflicts that may arise in the classroom.
As an educator, students/learners will automatically look to you as a source of authority. Thus, when conflict arises you should commit to intervening or mediating in some capacity. The following strategies can be used as tools to deflect, de-escalate, learn through, or otherwise engage a variety of conflicts that may come up as either an educator or learner.
- Give Time: If a discussion is quickly becoming an argument, take a moment to reorient the entire classroom by giving 2-5 minutes for silent reflection, or to write a written reflection about what happened. Sometimes giving the class time to acknowledge and address what happened can change the dynamic. The worst thing an educator can do when conflict arises is to use the excuse that there is not enough time to address it. Giving even a little bit of time can create a space for self-reflection and introspection.
- Validate Experiences: When conflicts arise there may not be a clear distinction between who is being harmful and who is being harmed. Sometimes differences mean that people clash and an important part of de-escalation is understanding that differences are valid and that we cannot dictate another person’s experience, but we can acknowledge that someone’s experience may be their truth. It is important to be able to name this dynamic in the classroom.
- Use Body Language with Intention: Body language can communicate tone and seriousness of a situation. Try to uncross arms, maintain eye contact, and employ a neutral or sympathetic facial expression. Rearranging the class into a circle can also help relieve tension.
- Breathe: Take a collective or individual breath for an extended period of time to restart the nervous system and encourage stillness and calm, and to resist reflexive responses to something upsetting.
- Establish and Maintain Boundaries: Educators should be in the practice of continuously questioning what healthy classroom boundaries look like, explaining the reasoning for boundaries, and ensuring that learners consent to the established boundaries. When educators invite learners to be a part of the decision process around what constitutes a meaningful classroom community, the responsibility of maintaining that community falls on everyone present.
For some common conflict scenarios, check “Conflict in the Classroom” (Handout by Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning) and Crunk Feminist Collective Book (short selections about issues of microaggressions), and further reading at the end of the handbook.