Whole-class discussion works well enough on the fly when I am tired of the sound of my own voice, but it's far from perfect. Foremost, there are always a few students who regularly chime in, but there are many more students who are all too happy to sit back silently and let others do all the chatting. I also find that many students don't feel comfortable in this setting to ask for clarification of a point, and so, again, they may sit back silently, hoping that the clouds will part and a ray of sun will illuminate whatever is confounding them. Another issue I experience with whole-class discussion is that, because I am the one leading it, students are less likely to take risks with the ideas they share. Instead, they are inclined to say what they think I want to hear.
A strategy I find myself relying on more often than when I first started teaching college is small group discussion. Think-pair-share is a great strategy because it takes very little preparation. Sometimes I'll step up my game and grab the Student Sorting Pencils from the CTLE. These allow me to keep the groups moving in unexpected ways by breaking them into groups by color, numeral, or symbol. This method takes a few minutes of prep time, but it feels more exciting for everyone than being asked to turn and talk to a neighbor.
In these small group discussions, I am able to hang back and listen to what students are saying. Students seem to feel more comfortable asking classmates for clarification on a finer point that they might not ask the whole class. They also feel more comfortable calling me over for 'official' clarification. In small group discussions, I can overhear not only whether or not they understand the material, but I can listen to their thought process as they arrive at an answer. Furthermore, if I am tired of the sound of my own voice, surely they are too. The small group discussions break up the class time and allow students to relax a little.
Even in these small groups, when I sidle up to them, sometimes the conversation will cool, like I've removed the lid from a boiling pot. I don't know if they are worried that I might overhear The Wrong Answer and frown disappointedly? Or maybe they think I am there because I want to chime in, so they are making space for my interjection? Either way, I regularly find myself assuring students that I am just listening in and to continue as though I am not there.
One discussion strategy that has been collecting dust for the last semesters is the Socratic Seminar. Although this strategy takes more than a few minutes of preparation--not only on my part, but on the part of the students as well--it solves a few issues that whole-class and small-group discussions present. In a Socratic Circle (where an inner circle of students discusses prepared questions, and an outer circle of students thoughtfully observe and jots notes), I am not the leader of the group. This clears the way for students to strengthen their connections to one another as they share ideas and moderate their own discussion. Furthermore, I don't have to meander around the room to eavesdrop--I can take a seat at the back of the room and listen. They all but forget I am there when the discussion gets rolling. This is a safer space for students to share their thought processes and to take risks than in an instructor-lead discussion. Finally, students seem to like it. Win-win.
With each of these small(er) group strategies, I am able to use the authentic information I gather from students to shape future lessons or to know when to slow down and revisit a concept that seems to be tripping them up.
The opportunity to compose this post has set the gears in my mind turning. Most instructors use Socratic Seminars to facilitate a discussion about something the class was assigned to read, but I don't see why this strategy wouldn't work in a writing lesson. Maybe students could examine a sample essay or could talk about small portions of student drafts in a modified peer review. I'll let you know what comes out of these lesson plan ponderings.
I'd love to hear your tips and tricks for using discussion as a formative assessment. Do you use Socratic Seminars in your courses? What is your favorite strategy for class discussion?