Highlights from the “Leading Discussion” DTAT workshop, 2/25/11

We had a very productive DTAT workshop on leading discussion yesterday.  CTE people on hand were Dave Mazella (facilitating), along with Aymara Boggiano, Tamara Fish, and Bruce Martin, assisting throughout.

To begin with, Anadeli Bencomo (Hispanic Studies), David Phillips (Philosophy), Peter Copeland (Geology), and Nathan Shepley (English) began with a roundtable where they outlined their own approaches to leading discussions in their respective disciplines.  Each of them gave the assembled TAs a glimpse into how they conduct their classes.  Here are some highlights:

  • Bencomo talked about the necessity of telling stories in her Spanish literature classes, and leading students to imagine different kinds of readers and different forms of response to those stories.
  • Phillips argued about the need for instructors to use silence strategically, to create the necessary spaces for students to enter into discussion, and how important the early weeks of the semester are to set the expectation for the conversations to follow.
  • Copeland gave us a whiz-bang 5 minute lesson in geology, to show how he uses examples like sand poured into the middle of a room and the Grand Canyon to teach his freshmen the basic principles of geology; he stressed the need for instructors to question students to the point where students arrive at the desired formulation or answer, instead of just delivering the answering straight away.
  • Shepley talked about the best ways to start a conversation, by beginning with the familiar and working out from there, and by dividing the class into groups with its own specific tasks to complete and share.

After some questioning from the floor, the class broke up into smaller groups to discuss and reflect upon the potential problems inherent in discussion (how, for example, does one maintain focus?) along with potential solutions (simplify one’s topic, and make clear one’s goals to the group, so that everyone knows where the discussion has to end up).

One interesting observation emerged about the varied uses of discussion for learning: in more skills-oriented contexts like language instruction or technology courses, discussion is intended to give students practice, and to help them master a particular skill or type of speech; in other contexts like literature courses, open discussion is what enables students and faculty to imagine and entertain alternative interpretations and explanations of the topic at hand.

The TAs sent a representative from each table to help summarize the best insights gathered from the session, and the group adjourned around 12:30.

Have we left anything out?  Are there any topics you think we should cover?  Let us know by hitting the Comment button.



Highlights from the Faculty Brown Bag, “Engaging Large Classes”–2/17/11

Presenters were Nancy Young (History), Amy Vandaveer (Marketing), Barry Lefer (Earth and Atmospheric Science), and Simon Bott (Chemistry).  David Mazella (English) helped facilitate the discussion.  37 faculty were present.

Dr. Young talked about her background as a teacher at a liberal arts college, and how she continued these engagement strategies at UH, even with larger classes.  Some of her practices include:

  • Moving around the classroom, moving around the aisles, never letting them get too far from her voice. Asking specific students, allowing them to stumble to grow.
  • Using slides with specific engaging/confronting quotes, then asking students to predict the author – age, sex, color, etc.  Slides become basis to question the material.
  • Using clickers in class room. To take attendance silently (divided through class hour). Used also to reflect reading and to facilitate discussion. Then she can talk to the students based on their decisions.
  • Starting lecture with an open-ended question, similar to the scholars’ questions, involved in the debate. Framing the lecture’s argument with a question makes it more likely for students to remember the discussion.
  • Using “challenge” questions, which unlike the opening question, do have a right or wrong answer.
  • Exploiting multimedia, bringing in sound file, music, film clips, links of recorded conversations

Dr. Young views the lecture as an embryonic distillation of actual historical inquiry.

In terms of classroom management, Dr. Young does not tolerate side conversations. She navigates the classroom to hear the students in their own voices.

Ms. Amy Vandaveer talked about the teaching principles that she had developed over years of teaching large sections:

  • Purposeful preparation
  • Unplug and engage – zero tolerance of student tech in classroom
  • Become mobile – the podium is not your friend
  • YouTube is your friend
  • Peer learning can be powerful
  • Relatable information and Collateral – visuals from real culture; use story-telling

Dr. Barry Lefer offered some of his own strategies for holding the attention of large classes and maximizing their learning:

  • Take attendance and have class participation count as grade or extra credit
  • Start lecture with “News of the Day,” some news item related to course content
  • Ask questions from names included on Attendance Sheet, wait for answers
  • Walk around the classroom.
  • Use stories from personal research/experience to bridge their understanding of course content
  • Build on students’ experience – they often know the answer, but don’t know why
  • Pop quizzes
  • Multiple cumulative exams; review exams after grading, top 10 incorrectly answered questions

Dr. Simon Bott, described how he keeps control of a 550 student class every semester.  On the first day of class, he establishes two simple rules:

  1. $1000 buys them presence in that classroom three times a week; anything that takes away from any student’s hearing chemistry is evil; no one has that right to take away that $1000 experience. Bott embarrasses late-comers, early-leavers, talkers, cell-phone users, no lap-top users
  2. Bott is the king of the classroom. Students are his subjects. Confiscates lap-tops and cell phones for class duration.

He also gives them a brief written quiz every day, which he personally grades immediately following the class and enters into a spreadsheet.  By the mid-semester, he knows the roster and is able to match faces to names and grades.

After these presentations, the group discussed the best way to ask questions to a large group, and how to make them approachable yet challenging enough to keep students’ interest.  They should ramp up in difficulty as the semester proceeds.  Marketing demands that novices learn how to ask questions of their customers or clients.  Science teaching is often based on basing questions on visual materials like graphs or illustrations.

There was also a discussion of the usefulness of attendance, roll sheets, and various kinds of attendance policies.  One audience member suggested a mid-semester survey that asked students three simple questions: what’s working? what can I do to help you learn better? and what can you do to learn better?  Another suggestion was to survey students at the beginning of the semester to ask them their goals for the course.

The brown bag ended around 2:30.

[thanks to Bruce Martin for taking the minutes for this meeting]


So, have we forgotten anything?  And what should we discuss next?  If you have a suggestion, hit the Comment button, or email us at cte@uh.edu, or visit our website at http://cte.uh.edu/.