Like most, I started out teaching the way I was taught. My first inclination as a faculty member was to reproduce the format of the graduate course. I wanted my students to share the same feeling of excitement I had known as a student. I wanted their minds to sharpen and their pulses to quicken just as mine had in those vital forums.
Sociology is my subject so it's probably no surprise that I started teaching by selecting a textbook and several readings from within the field. Mindful of my students' level of preparation, I chose well-respected articles written for a general audience, and I assigned only four of them in my Introduction to Sociology classes. I explained to students early on in the semester that the articles would serve as a basis for in-class discussions.
When the first discussion date rolled around I walked into class with genuine enthusiasm. I welcomed the students, reminded them about the discussion, then I followed in the footsteps of one of my fondest mentors by issuing a familiar challenge. "OK," I said, "who would like to begin?" No one began. There were no hands in the air. I did not hear the cacophony of voices I had come to know so well in graduate school--everyone anxious to support or refute the claims of the author now up for discussion. Instead there was silence. This wasn't graduate school. Twenty-nine pairs of eyes pointed in my direction. So I began. I continued, and eventually I finished the discussion myself. Meanwhile, students wrote in their tablets. They took what looked like detailed notes while I talked, and that was gratifying, but not part of my plan. Unfortunately, I repeated roughly the same series of events four more times the same week. By Friday afternoon, I had decided the approach that worked so well for my professors was not going to work for me.
The Pendulum Swings: Structured Cooperative Learning Activities
The first step in any process of redemption involves admitting you have a problem, which, obviously, I did. I needed help and I sought it out. The first place I found guidance was the literature on cooperative learning. Years before, I ran across a copy of Ken Bruffee's Collaborative Learning (1993). I revisited Bruffee first, because I remembered that he outlines a theoretical foundation for collaboration in the college classroom. For anyone experimenting with discussion leading or the grouping of students for educational purposes, I recommend Bruffee's work.
For the nuts and bolts of getting students involved in conversation, I relied on the work of David and Roger Johnson, namely Active Learning (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991). Over the last several years I have had a great deal of success using the procedures described by these authors. Success with the cooperative learning approach described by Johnson and Johnson hinges on having a clear set of guidelines for students. In the Johnsons' model, each student must have a clearly defined role in the class. The instructor's job is to ensure that the students' roles and the objectives of the class are both well defined. I have found that when I take that initiative, the procedures outlined in Active Learning provide a formal structure for ensuring that students stay engaged with course material, and with one another, during the class periods I set aside for cooperative work.
Although I quickly became comfortable with the Active Learning techniques, I found that I still had a longing to create the excitement and spontaneity of the unstructured and free-ranging discussions that took place in my graduate courses. At the same time, I also began to feel a responsibility to create an environment where students could interact with one another in an exchange that would mirror that of a discussion held outside of the classroom in places where our democratic traditions are strongest (Beckman, 1990). I had in mind the New England town meeting as an ideal (Bellah, et al., 1985). Consequently, I set out to create a forum where I did not personally determine the nature of each student's contribution to in-class discussions. I did not want to prohibit the discussions from unfolding on their own, as they would in a town meeting or similarly democratic forum.
As I began to conceive the new format for my in-class discussions, I realized that citizens who attend town meetings are a self-selected group. The attendees are there because they have something to say. My students are also a self-selected group, but the primary reason for selecting one of my courses is that it fulfills a requirement for the degrees that they seek. Given the lack of inherent motivation, I needed a strategy that would ensure everyone's participation. The solution to my problem was as near as the pad of Post-it notes lying next to my office telephone.
Finding the Middle Ground: Required Participation
Today, I use a particular format to create an environment in the classroom that approximates a town hall meeting. The first step I take is to allow the students to decide the topics to be discussed. I begin by having students brainstorm a list of potential topics in small groups. After each group generates its own list, we compile all the topics on a chalkboard and hold a vote to determine the top ten to be discussed.
Once the topics are determined I select groups of two to four students, at random, to lead the discussions. I require discussion leaders to find at least two articles on their topic and I give them a list of things to consider when they analyze the articles, including a set of guidelines on how to prepare a set of talking points to use during the town hall meetings.
However, in the town hall format, the most important step is to ensure that all of the students have both the opportunity and the incentive to participate. In order to create that incentive I make each discussion worth two points. To earn the points, people have to take part.
I begin town hall meetings by giving two Post-it notes to every student in class. The Post-its are worth a point each, so I have them write their name on each note. After the discussion leaders are given the floor, all of the students are free to raise questions or to comment. Each time they add to the discussion, students stick one of their Post-it notes on the front of their desk for everyone to see. Once a person has participated twice and placed both Post-its on the front of their desk, they can no longer earn points but they may still contribute to the discussion.
I have found that Post-it notes, visible to all, serve two important roles in class. First, for students who might otherwise dominate discussions, the notes are visual reminders that they have already said their piece. I have found this to be a subtle, but important reminder in those cases. Second, the notes are a less than subtle reminder to those less likely to participate. In this case the notes serve as a reminder that you do not earn points if you do not contribute to the discussion. I realize that may seem like undue pressure to place on students who may not wish to participate. However, during the last three semesters I have found that students who participate quickly and place their notes out in front right away often go on to create opportunities for other students to answer questions or to comment. One of the most rewarding observations I have made during town hall meetings has been the tendency of outspoken members of class to encourage others to add their voices to the conversations. Each semester I watch students take steps to ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute.
During the time I've spent using Post-it notes and town hall meetings, I have felt very close to the format of the graduate seminar I enjoyed so much as a student. The discussions flow freely, they are full of excitement and they serve as a model for democratic participation. As an unintended consequence, I have also been pleased to find that Post-its have had the effect of producing an environment where students consistently demonstrate that they value each other's thoughts. When I use the notes in class I am guaranteed not to face the silence that vexed me as a beginning teacher. At the same time, they provide a structure that is subtle enough to allow the freedom necessary for students to determine the nature of their own contribution to class. Today I can say that the unassuming stack of Post-its that sits next to my phone provides the means to create balance, equity and a model for democracy in the classroom.
Beckman, M. 1990. "Collaborative Learning: Preparation for the Workplace and Democracy?" College Teaching, 38/4: 128-133.
Bellah, R., et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Bruffee, K. 1993. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Johnson, D., Johnson, R., and Smith, K. 1991. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
Downloaded from Tomorrow's Professor Listserv, January 18, 2001. Originally published in the National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Oct. 2000.