ON DEMAND: Facilitating Productive Class Discussions in Large Graduate Seminars (5 mins)
Graduate seminars are commonly discussion based, yet large class sizes often create a challenge for effectively facilitating class discussions. In my presentation, I will cover strategies for optimizing class discussions in larger than optimal in-person and online graduate seminars. I will discuss: (1) establishing class participation guidelines, (2) randomly assigning participants to discussion groups, and (3) facilitating large group discussions following smaller group discussions of thought-provoking questions. As a result of this session, participants will be able to implement new strategies for facilitating effective large class discussions that are applicable to any discipline. While my presentation will focus primarily on graduate seminars, the strategies are also applicable to undergraduate discussion-based classes.
To help establish the desired classroom dynamic, I distribute participation guidelines on the first day of class. We discuss these guidelines as a group, which often leads to refining the guidelines. These guidelines include: (1) a request for students—particularly those who speak up frequently—to make a specific goal about their classroom participation behaviors to help ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak, (2) specific suggestions for how to encourage quieter peers share their insights, (3) guidelines about open-mindedness and respect for others, and (4) a unique hand-raising policy that helps facilitate an organized discussion. Every class period, I randomly assign students to small groups of three or four students. This approach allows students to interact in a small group setting with each of their classmates over the course of the semester. As the Mason study body is very diverse, the rotating assigned group approach—along with discussion guidelines that promote being respectful and open-minded—allows students to derive the educational benefits of deep engagement with diverse viewpoints. During class, I provide thought-provoking questions for students to discuss in these randomly assigned small groups prior to facilitating a full class discussion. By providing small group discussion time, students—even those who tend to be quieter—are able to actively discuss the material with their peers. When discussion questions are particularly challenging, I use a think-pair-share approach, giving students a few minutes to think about the question before discussing with their small group. As I facilitate full class discussions, I encourage students to mention important insights that their quieter peers had in the small group discussion. Quieter students are often willing to share when a peer has pointed out a particularly insightful point they had in the small group discussion. As students see the value in sharing others’ insights, it has become more common for more vocal students to opt out of sharing their own thought and instead to highlight and draw attention to important insights of quieter peers—a dynamic that I consider to be an important success with respect to drawing out all perspectives. I will share my initial experiences using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to replicate these strategies online, noting the aspects that are most challenging to facilitate—and surprisingly, those that are easier to facilitate—in an online environment.