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.



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

  1. Burcu Mutlu says:

    I just would like to share with you that this was one of the most effective workshops I have ever been. I leart so many useful ideas that would come in handy while leading class discussions in my classroom.

    I would love to have some workshops about critical thinking and assertiveness in teaching.

    Burcu Mutlu

  2. Dave Mazella says:

    Thanks, Burcu, for your kind comments. I’m glad you found it helpful. Both those topics sound like they would be of interest to our TAs. We’ll see if we can set up one of those topics in the future. Best, David Mazella

  3. Bruce says:

    [A participant at our last workshop asks the following: ]

    How does a “young” TA establish legitimacy in class in the first two weeks?

    How do TAs treat a class full of people where the age range varies? I find that when I make general comments like “please bring your reading materials to class,” the older students take the comment as a personal attack and become defensive.

    This is a broad question, but if a class is roughly distributed as (Group A – reads their stuff, are at the top of their game. Group B – does their homework, but are not grasping the materials as well as group A. Group C – free riders who often miss class, just sit there and not contribute, yet complain about bad grades). How does the instructor decide at which level to teach in order to not isolate any of the groups?

  4. Dave Mazella says:

    These are excellent questions, which I think could be addressed in our upcoming workshop on adaptive teaching on March 10.

    In the meantime, anyone care to venture a suggestion? Have you faced a similar issue in your classes, and how did you deal with it?


  5. Insightful and very effective workshop. I particularly liked hearing the opinions of professors from various disciplines. This helps create a broader perspective of how to implement classroom discussion.

  6. Dave Mazella says:

    Hey thanks, Vivian. Do you think teaching challenges like the range and age diversity of students affect all teachers equally, or do you think particular disciplines might be better prepared to deal with those challenges? I agree about the benefit of the multidisciplinary approach, but I’m curious as to why it makes this kind of instruction more illuminating.

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