‘Why Won’t They Talk: Using Discussion To Facilitate Learning’

Annual CTE Symposium focuses on engaging students through classroom discussion

Rice University faculty members gathered Jan. 5 to examine innovative teaching methods at the fifth annual “Symposium on Teaching and Learning,” hosted by the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). This year’s symposium focused on the importance of discussion in facilitating education.

Jay Howard at the CTE Symposium

Jay Howard, professor of sociology and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis, led this year’s CTE Symposium. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“Our workshop today is a part of a focus that we’ve placed this year on discussion-based teaching,” said Joshua Eyler, director of the CTE. “Over the last few years, I’ve heard feedback from faculty and graduate students about having some programming on effective ways to lead discussion in the classroom, so this year we’ve focused on that a bit.”

The symposium began with a welcome by Robin Paige, associate director of the CTE, who introduced the event’s keynote speaker, Jay Howard, professor of sociology and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. His presentation, “Why Won’t They Talk: Using Discussion To Facilitate Learning,” focused on engaging students in the sorts of conversations that sharpen their critical-thinking skills, both addressing the challenges professors typically face in beginning these conversations within their classrooms and providing ideas for how to overcome those difficulties.

“Why should we bother with discussion in our classrooms?” Howard asked. “Because if you stop to think about it, that’s a really risky thing to do. You have to let go of control to some degree if you’re going to invite students into a discussion. All sorts of things could happen. Students might respond with really insightful comments and be very enthusiastic, or you might ask a question and the room goes silent and everyone starts getting very uncomfortable in very short order. Or even worse — you could have a student say something that’s vile and offensive. And how are we going to respond to that? So why should we bother?”

Howard pointed to 30 years of research (much of that his own) that shows students learn better when they’re engaged. Discussion is one of the best tools for encouraging that engagement, he said. During his presentation, Howard took an informal poll of the instructors at the symposium, who agreed that when students are stakeholders in the process of learning, they’re more likely to take ownership of their education. Professors, meanwhile, are more likely to identify gaps in their students’ knowledge and are more liable to elicit diverse perspectives from their classrooms on the whole during these conversations.

But what happens when students don’t want to engage in discussion? Research shows that only 30 percent of students regularly speak up during class, with students in the front third of the classroom talking twice as much as those behind them. (Older students chime in four times more frequently, Howard’s research also showed.) These so-called “dominant” talkers can dissuade less vocal students just as easily as general shyness or unfamiliarity with a topic.

For one, Howard said, it’s imperative to establish a norm of classroom discussion at the onset of a semester, as opposed to setting an expectation of passive education in which students are silent, passive receptacles of knowledge and are only expected to pay what Howard calls “civil attention.”

“You’ve got to change that expectation,” he said. “The very first day of class is important for doing that. How many of you spend the first day of class reading your syllabus to students? If yours is the only voice that is heard on the first day of class, guess what? You’ve just established the norm of civil attention.”

CTE Symposium 2018

A lunchtime workshop allowed faculty to brainstorm new ideas for engaging students in discussion.

Howard asked the symposium attendees to share their own tried-and-true methods for setting that open-dialog expectation on the first day of class. Creative audience approaches included the group creation of a concept map that links terms used in the course of a semester; a competition to see which group of students can create the tallest possible tower using only a small assortment of dried spaghetti noodles, string, tape and a single marshmallow; and one chemistry professor who tells her students, “If I make a mistake and they catch it, I’ll do 10 push-ups.” (She admitted to doing those 10 push-ups about once per month.)

Howard’s own suggestions for engaging reluctant students were equally active: Move around the classroom, instead of staying put behind a lectern; arrive early to greet students and take an active interest in their lives outside of class; and call on students directly, while ensuring they understand this isn’t a punitive measure, nor one designed to embarrass them if they’re unprepared.

During the symposium’s lunchtime workshop, small groups of instructors brainstormed ideas for encouraging their students to share more — and more frequently.

Rewarding participation was a prevalent option, with many professors opting to assign a portion of their students’ grades based on the quantity and/or quality of classroom conversation. Encouraging discussion partners or small groups, which can then talk about their findings with the larger class, was also a popular choice. One professor warns her students ahead of time that she draws names at random to answer questions during class; another allows his students to “phone a friend” a la “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” if they’re stumped.

Regardless of technique, Howard stressed, what’s important is finding a way to engage the entire classroom — not just the dominant talkers. “You’ve got to convince the quiet students they’ve got something to share — that they have something worth talking about,” Howard said.

Whatever the barriers to creating more conversations within the classroom, Howard said that the subject itself is rarely one of those obstacles. The No. 1 reason students in his research work cited for keeping quiet was simply that they’re shy. The second most commonly cited reason was the knowledge that someone else in the class — one of those dominant talkers — would answer first, while the third was a “fear of appearing unintelligent to their peers,” Howard said.

“It was really only 5 to 8 percent of students who said, ‘I don’t talk because I’m not interested in the topic.’”

The symposium ended with closing remarks from Mike Gustin, professor of biochemistry and cell biology and faculty chair for the CTE. “I thought the workshop nicely revealed the ways in which the classroom is truly a social space with its own norms,” Eyler said of the day’s events. “It was an inspiring way to begin the semester, and we were delighted to see so many faculty participating.”

For more information on Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence, visit http://cte.rice.edu/.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.