Reader query: rules for classroom discussion?

A reader requested some discussion of how best to run seminars in such as way as to make female students feel maximally comfortable. Are there any “rules” that people mention to the students, beyond the usual suspects (let people finish talking, don’t dominate the discussion, be charitable etc.) Or any other tips and tricks?

20 thoughts on “Reader query: rules for classroom discussion?

  1. These are more general seminar tips, but I think they may help make some women more comfortable insofar as they try to defuse the idea that seminar is a combative arena where only the smartest and the sharpest succeed.

    –Mention that if a student is confused, has a question, or doesn’t understand something, there’s a very good chance that someone else is confused by that thing too, and so bringing it up is a productive contribution to the seminar. Sometimes I frame this as, “The virtue of a good student is not to say smart things in class.” (I took that quote from the Dean of my undergrad college.)

    –Emphasize that students should speak up even if their thoughts aren’t fully formulated or if they’re not completely sure they agree with the thought they are expressing. Anything that encourages students to see seminar as a collaboration brain-storming and not as a performance or competition is, I think, good.

    –Encourage students to respond to what other students have said, and not just suddenly change topics to whatever they are thinking about. Hand in hand with this, tell students that when they are responding to something someone else has said, they should first try to summarize that person’s main idea, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

    –If it’s a small seminar (under 10?) I would try to address and engage each individual student from time to time. Some students might not like being put on the spot, but if it’s framed in a, “what did you think about X?” way, students might take that as evidence that you care about what they think. This probably works best for higher-level classes.

    –You could tell students to all come to class with one question picked out that they want to discuss. You can then rotate between students and have that question be the start of discussion. This is a way of demonstrating how good questions are just as good contributions as thoughtful statements (and get all students to speak eventually).

  2. I’ve had fellow students make me feel like an idiot and never want to speak again in class by telling me that I was flat-out wrong and insinuating that I was incompetent (even though later I realized I was right all along). So I can say from experience that it doesn’t matter how well prepared for a class you are if your fellow students think they’ll look better by tearing you down–and if they can use insidious gender stereotypes to do so.

    Maybe if you’re super privileged, then yes, preparing well for class is the best way to feel maximally comfortable. (But even then, everyone has vulnerabilities.) But for the rest of us for whom academia and the classroom are sometimes hostile places, being comfortable goes way beyond how much effort we’ve put into studying. For instance, stress can mess with your ability to recall information, no matter how well you knew the material ten minutes ago or a day ago.

  3. 1. Start off the seminar in the beginning with some ground rules. This can be as simple as pointing out that seminar discussion is an opportunity to learn from one another and ought to be treated as such.

    2. If you make eye contact with male students while they’re speaking, make sure to do the same with female students.

    3. If a students questions and comments get ignored, help them out, e.g., “Mary raised an interesting objection and I’d like to revisit it…”

  4. (My comment above is obviously, in 2 and 3, aimed at instructors rather than rules to give students)

  5. Thanks, Stacey, I completely agree. Also, in my experience the women are usually all very well prepared and yet, they keep quiet most of the time.
    I’d also like to underline Stacey’s observation, “stress can mess with your ability to recall information” and would like to add: “And stress can mess with your ability to present arguments in a clear way, your ability to think on the spot and your ability to react to objections”. Hence, it seems to me, any rule that helps creating a stress-reduced environment is one worth stating.

  6. I don’t know how this would generalize exactly, but in one of the logic courses I took, we got to discussing Turing machines–in the introduction, the professor spent a few minutes discussing the injustice done to Turing on account of his sexuality. That indication that the professor himself cared about equity issues helped me feel much more comfortable in the classroom.

  7. I start my seminars with a rather hard ass, detailed lecture on collegiality and then a talk about how philosophy is difficult and delightful. The point of the class is to get better at it and see how wonderful it is. I tell them that we need to be able to take risks and play with ideas and arguments. A good student is one who is willing to ask a silly question–often the silly questions turn out to be important. I also have the students write a short paper on the readings for every class meeting and we start the meeting by going around the table and sharing what we would like to talk about that day. I take a turn too. Then I take a moment and make up an agenda based on everyones’ questions and we go on from there. This means that at the beginning of every class, every student contributes. My job with regard to gender is to make sure that everyone behaves collegially and has a safe space to play with ideas in the classroom.

  8. Here’s a few things I do:

    (1) I encourage my students to come with something written on the reading(s) to be discussed.

    (2) I send students open-ended questions on reading(s) ahead of time, so they have a sense of what to expect in discussion.

    (3) I try to start the class by going around and asking each person to share one question/point of confusion they had after doing the reading(s).

    That said, I still have trouble with this issue.

    Oh! One minor, and seemingly unrelated strategy:

    (4) (Size-permitting) I try to remember everyone’s name, and then use names as often as possible. I find this makes people at least a little more comfortable.

  9. @Andreas Moser: Well, seems you found a solution to get through class yourself, good for you!
    But not everyone likes to start off the day with booze.

  10. The best seminar instructor I’ve ever had includes a little boilerplate in his syllabuses. Something to this effect:

    “Nobody is going to ‘win’ this class. We aren’t swordfighting or debating, we’re discussing and teasing through areas of knowledge. With this in mind, comments which have the primary purpose of shaming or ‘calling out’ classmates are unwelcome. Students are free to disagree, and to be vocal and colourful in doing so, but please channel your energy into explanations, further questions, references to text and understanding new perspectives, rather than on merely correcting or showing up your classmates.”

    Another one of my undergrad instructors had a fantastic system where you could claim participation marks for either speaking in class *or* for writing a short (~300-500 word) mini-paper briefly summarizing and then responding to elements of the classroom discussion. You were expected to have at least 2-3 references to text, and to conclude with at least one major new insight, rather than merely rehashing what had happend. (“It interested me to hear Jeremy raise the issue of XYZ, but I was surprised nobody ran to what I consider to be a logical conclusion: ABC. Going back to what we discussed two weeks ago…”)

    This was a fantastic idea for three core reasons: (1) it accommodates a wide variety of disabilities and related issues [social anxiety, speech disorders, ESL, etc.] without requiring that pupils declare or disclose; (2) it forces people to pay attention, rather than sitting through the class playing solitaire and getting marks for showing up; and, most importantly, (3) it was a springboard.

    Mini-papers were due by e-mail within 48 hours of the end of class and promptly graded. If you’d written something especially good, she would compliment you on the quality of the insight and invite you to share it with the rest of the class. And when she got affirmative responses, she would do precisely that: the first 10-15 minutes would be devoted to revisiting last week’s topic, and the student would briefly present their perspective (with support and framing from the instructor), then we’d have a brief discussion.

    There were only 15-16 students in the seminar, and about 4 of them took her up on the offer; 2 of them subsequently became active participants in classroom discussions, having been silent up until that point, and one more involved herself occasionally. (I feel I should add that all 4 were women, and 3 were POC at that.)

    The obvious downside is that this must have been a metric buttload of work on her part. (Extra grading, tracking participation marks, extra correspondence with students, re-arranging her sessions to student responses, etc.)

  11. In my experience, students have basically no experience with a seminar before they get to my class. I’m still trying to figure out how to explain to them what a seminar is supposed to be and how they can make the best use of that format. So I appreciate all of the suggestions from other folks along those lines in this thread!

    My answer to the original question: I keep an eye on quiet students — both women and men — looking for the “I’ve just had a thought but it’s not worked out yet” expression. When I see this, I’ll invite them (by name) to say what they have in mind. This seems to help make everyone more comfortable sharing preliminary ideas.

  12. I also wanted to add one of my favorite deflections for seminars. Many of the students will look at me while they’re talking, no matter where I’m sitting (at the back, out of their circle, etc.) and even when responding to another students’ comments. I’ll often gently respond to these comments, while pointing to the rest of the class, with something like “That makes perfect sense to me. But I already have a Ph.D. in this stuff. What do they think?”

  13. I took a graduate intro level class that was formatted half-seminar, half-lecture, and I was surprised how well it worked for such a large group (almost 20). The assignment every week was a topical selection of readings, and a 1 page paper in which we had to formulate and defend a thesis statement about the readings. (Those papers were some of the hardest and also most helpful assignments I had in my coursework, because they had to be *so concentrated*.)

    Then at every class, the professor would ask two students to lead off the discussion by reading their papers. These were not pre-scheduled assignments, so everybody came to class with their papers in front of them knowing they might be called on. This also meant that everybody was very well prepared for the discussion, and if the professor called on someone who had been relatively quiet, they could either respond to the point under discussion, or raise a new point that they’d written about and come prepared to talk about. The professor also took an active role in calling on people and framing additional questions.

    The class sessions were about 3 hours, with a break in the middle. We did the first half following that format; the second half was a lecture that would sometimes start with a followup on the previous week’s discussion and papers, in case there had been points people made in their papers that hadn’t come out in discussion.

    Both this professor, and another prof I had that required short weekly papers, would often start by talking about how much agreement or disagreement there had been in the papers, or what had been controversial or inspired passionate arguments. This was a good discussion starter too: the prof might say, Well, most of you agreed that X, but there were a couple people who thought Y. Jane, you were one of them: start us off by talking about your argument supporting Y because of Z.

    This was very helpful for people who were shy or insecure, because it was basically a pre-approval from the professor that the point this student was about to make was a valid point that was worth talking about.

  14. I try to stress to students that the better course of action is to try to strengthen others’ arguments, rather than simply tear them apart. Everyone learns a lot more, I think.

  15. The simplest and most effective technique I’ve seen is to give every student two colored Post-Its (e.g. one yellow and one pink) at the beginning of class. Then say: “No one can speak twice until everyone has spoken once.” The first time a person speaks, collect the yellow Post-It from them. Let discussion continue until all the yellow ones are gone. Then, and only then, can people speak a second time. As they do, collect the pink Post-it.

    It’s artificial, but it helps structure the discussion so no one feels singled out.

  16. (Sorry! Didn’t realise these aren’t threaded. That last comment was @macdance.)

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