Classroom Discussion

by Harry on January 31, 2019

I’ve started writing occasionally for the Association of College and University Educators. The posts will probably recapitulate a lot of themes from my blogging about teaching and learning here at CT, but for a different audience. Here is the first post, about making fruitful classroom discussions happen. Here’s a taster:

All teachers experience a tension between the need for engagement and the need for rigor. Without rigor, the students won’t learn what we want them to; without engagement, they won’t learn anything at all. In the classroom, the best way to guarantee rigor is for the professor to do all the talking—this is how they delude themselves that the class is going well. Unfortunately, this is also the best way to ensure complete disengagement, leading to torpor when we do try to stimulate discussion.

I decided to write it because I said something to the effect of the above paragraph in class recently, and a student stared at me, as if having an epiphany, and said “Do you explain this to students?”; it occurred to me that I don’t even say it to other teachers!



oldster 01.31.19 at 5:48 pm

Surely you owe a debt of gratitude to the Crooked Timber commentariat, for multiple empirical demonstrations that engagement and rigour are inversely correlated?


LizardBreath 01.31.19 at 7:33 pm

This dynamic really explains the law school ‘gunner’ problem, where a few students suck up all the airtime in a class — it gets attributed to overenthusiastic students, but IME it’s strongly driven by the professors, who informally pick a small number of students who they will allow to talk whenever they raise their hands, while ignoring attempts to speak from most of the class.

If what’s going on is that the professors have, without thinking about it, identified a small pool of students who they feel as if they can trust to be rigorous/on topic enough to keep the class going in the right direction, and they’re afraid of drifting off topic if they let any other students speak freely, that would completely explain what’s going on there. I mean, it’s still a terrible way to run a class, but it makes more sense now.


Alan White 02.01.19 at 1:51 am

That’s a wonderful piece Harry.

I struggled for nearly 40 years to get students involved in discussion. Since many curricula require continuity of engagement of the material across the semester–a continuous line of thought linking all the classes to see the semester’s forest with all those class tress–I developed the habit to start classes with review by asking pointed questions about recent material, but many times emphasizing how it all fit within the lines of arguments so far. And I tried–with mixed success–to discourage the “stars” who were keeping up to dominate those q&as. Some (usually very good) students are actually SHOUTERS who respond to a question impromptu without raising a hand. You have to get on top of that fast, and with some students, it requires multiple reminders to prevent them from shutting other students out. And you have to cultivate the class culture of question-asking, reminding them that the only way to learn–and use yourself as the prime example–is to forget about perfect questions or answers. The class may be guided by you, but the only final goal is to increase everyone’s understanding, including your own. And that’s not just pedagogical BS–I can’t tell you how much interaction in the classroom led to my grasp of things over my own reading and research. They need to see you as an ongoing fellow searcher, and you need to say that. Because it’s the truth.

And as for increased wisdom by failed strategies, let me also relate one. Way back when (over 15 years ago) when email was really a thing for students, I required–to the tune of up to 5%–that students email me “two substantive questions” over the course of the semester in order to engage those who were reluctant to speak openly in class. I tried it for at least 5 years. It was an utter failure, even with repeated reminders right up to the end of the semester that it was a requirement. Maybe new Instagram or text incarnations of this might work–I dunno. But my ultimate participation rate on that was less than 10%.


TheSophist 02.01.19 at 3:48 pm

Thanks for this, and for your other pedagogical meditations over the years. I teach HS, not college (am I the only HS teacher who’s even a semi-regular commenter? It feels like it), but at a fairly rigorous prep school, and I’ve definitely had many long thinks about my own teaching practice that were inspired by your posts here.


Harry 02.04.19 at 2:14 pm

Thanks Sophist, that’s really nice of you. My dad tells me I should turn them into a small book, but I’m not sure I know how to do that.

LB — that’s really insightful. I hadn’t thought of that. but its certainly a plausible explanation of my own past practice. I really work, now, at ensuring that everyone is genuinely engaged and speaking – -and in my experience students, especially those that have to be prompted to speak — who are unrigorous at first get more rigorous the more they talk.

Alan — absolutely agree with that. I think that makes Philosophy easier to teach than other subjects actually. Its going to be much harder for a freshman in a Chem class to say something that the instructor hasn’t thought of than for a freshman in a Philosophy class. I always learn from my students; I’m not sure I would if I taught Chem or Math. (Well, of course, I would! I mean, I wouldn’t if I were an expert).

I hope you’re not being self-deprecating, oldster!! But.. point taken.


b9n10nt 02.04.19 at 4:29 pm


u r not alone: I teach @ public HS, Chem and Bio.


At last night’s superbowl party I was talking w/ a friend who does pedagogical IT support at University and I brought up this very post. He (friend) amused me w/ stories of professors who were in the digital, as well as pedagogical, Mesozoic. When I read your posts about teaching, I can’t deny a bit of schadenfreude while considering lecturers gradually discovering the need to engage students (or figuring out how to use a digital gradebook!)

Anyway, what I see in HS (& would expect to find in college) isn’t rigor vs. engagement, but more like breadth vs. engagement. We’re increasingly trained to teach “deep” not “wide”, but I and my colleagues are uncomfortable with potentially leaving out core subjects in our classes. In my darker moments, I expect contemporary mass education will crumble under the weight of its own contradictions before capitalism ever does!

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