Discussion courses

Tina Wambach twambach at uoguelph.ca
Fri Nov 21 22:38:31 EST 1997

>    Next semester I am teaching an upper-division, undergraduate
> biology course in which I want students to engage in seminar-type 
> discussions. I tried it last year but felt that the
> students never really did feel comfortable enough to speak freely.
>>  CUT >>
>    Does anyone else have a better idea on getting students to
> make significant contributions to class discussion? 

I want to share an idea for which I have not yet found any evidence
/support but knowledge based my own behaviors tells me there might be
something true about it. I wonder if the 'ACTS' of reading/writing can
limit the scope of discussion or degree to which a student can get
involved in a discussion. Discussing involves other skills than extracting
an argument from a flowing text; to summarize a discussion on a piece of
paper in a most complete and understandable way + quick always ends up
being a diagram in my case, NEVER a 'text'. I say this to show that
thinking-processes in a discussion might be more
plastic/dimensional/colored than those induced when reading a text.
Reading out texts to others most oftenly results in the reader having to
listen a couple of minutes before being able to fully participate. Apart
from these thoughts I can tell from experience that word-games or
assigning particular subjects/tasks to individual or groups of students
has not relaxed the situation but increased awareness of an artificial
classroom setting and reduced interest in the issue itself and therewith
conversation. Further I am honestly bored by students and think I do the
same to others when coming to class prepared for a discussion unless the
subject matter lies outside the range of the explainable within maybe 15
minutes of class-time. In the 'prepared case' most of the class time then
seems to be taken up by listing a large number of perceptions instead of
justifying one position or developing an argument (with arguing I refer to
the process involving reason, not simply colliding different views). I do
not think it would get too monotonous in a 'one-class/one-argument' case 
as I can always rethink how I came to my view and refine it to withstand
more criticism, a skill also to be developed further from practicing
discussion in class. If I fail I might adapt someone elses view or at least
reject my previously accepted one.

I suggest to introduce a topic to be disussed in class possibly using more
than one means of 'media' with immediate discussion without 'prepared'
experts and task of discussing/writing at the same time unless someone
wants to develop this skill in particular (e.g. I see this as a skill
distinct from either discussing or writing). 

For those who disagree with the latter part referring to the
ineffectiveness of word-games etc. relative to the true picture of
discussions in real life I hope I have nevertheless given you some
thoughts about sitting, listening, thinking and speaking, 'all and only
these', at the same time as being different from a one-directional
author=>reader or student1=>student2 exchange of written information;
one might not foster but limit the other. 

Tina Wambach

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