Good class sessions rarely just happen; they usually grow out of careful planning and execution.
Planning the Class Session
Designing a successful class session will, like course design, move through a few steps, some of which will resemble the work you did in formulating the course, but on a smaller scale.
- Decide on your learning goals for the session. Maybe you want students to fully understand an important concept or finding, to learn how to do a certain kind of laboratory test, or to see connections and points of disconnection between two texts. Whatever your goals are for the session, articulating them will help you decide how to spend the time in class.
- Give special attention to the beginning of the class session. As James Lang—director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College—points out in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The opening five minutes offer us a rich opportunity to capture the attention of students and prepare them for learning.” His suggestions include beginning class with a discussion-generating question or using the time to assess the students’ understanding of concepts from previous sessions or previous courses.
- With those goals in mind, decide on the activities that will take place in class. The session may consist of lecture, discussion, hands-on work (e.g., lab work, in-class writing, problem sets), or any combination of these and other things. It can, in fact, be helpful to vary activities across the length of the class, as it holds student attention, offers different modes of learning for students who learn in different ways, and may promote active learning. This step also involves organizing the activities—figuring out how best to lead into the session, determining how many activities can realistically take place in a single session, organizing them so that each activity builds effectively on the one before it, and preparing a conclusion. NOTE: On the topic of realism, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to include a little more in your lesson plan than you think you might be able to cover, in case the class moves more quickly than you anticipate. It’s also a good idea, once you have your plan, to decide which parts of it can most easily be skipped or postponed, in case class moves more slowly than you hope.
- Consider leaving time at the end of the session to verify learning—in other words, to make sure that students have met the goals that you set for them. You might ask the class general questions about what they feel they learned that day, or more focused questions about the day’s material, having them respond orally or in writing on the spot.
- Flipping the Classroom: Consider how out-of-class activities will complement the work you do inside the classroom. You may want to shift activities such as lectures from in-class to out-of-class time, a practice known as “flipping the classroom.” To learn about how some Georgetown faculty have experimented with this approach in projects supported by the Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning (ITEL), see this issue of the Prospect.
Georgetown Professor Yoshiko Mori on how flipping her classroom helped students learn Japanese characters more easily and freed up class time for conversation.
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Discussions can take an extra layer of preparation.
The nature of the discussion varies depending upon the discipline and the course. Often, a discussion session in a math class is an opportunity to go over homework assignments together. In a philosophy or literature class, a discussion might involve the critical unpacking of a text that all have read before coming to class. The following guidelines are oriented toward the latter sort of discussion.
Considerations for Planning Discussions
First of all, decide on the role you will play in the discussion.
- If the class is one for students just beginning work in the discipline, you might think it important to model the sort of questions and analysis you expect them to bring to the text, by leading the discussion with questions yourself.
- If students are farther along in their studies, you might work more narrowly as a facilitator of the discussion.
Next, you’ll need to develop a structure or road map for the discussion. Such a structure is not a verbatim script that you expect your students to follow. In fact, depending on the discipline and course, it’s possible that any number of radically different but still fruitful discussions could happen within the structure you develop. Some instructors prepare a “question thread,” a series of questions that lead a pathway through a text. Others find this “thread” metaphor too confining, and instead enter a class discussion with several themes, issues, or text passages that they expect the class to address at some time in the discussion, leaving the order to emerge from students’ questions and comments. In general, you’ll often want to enter the room with both a plan and an openness to new directions offered by the students.
Finally, you will need to think in advance about how you'll prepare students for the discussion. Even instructors who expect students to take the lead in shaping the discussion find that they can help students to take on this role. In fact, in all but the most advanced classes, students are more likely to engage the text productively if they have some guidance from you as the instructor.
- For example, you might begin a semester by providing two or three focusing questions for each reading assignment. As the class progresses, you might pass this responsibility on to the students, requiring each of them to prepare and circulate discussion questions for one or two classes.
- Alternatively, you might ask each student to come to class with a question or two about the text that they recognize as important but that they aren’t able to answer to their satisfaction.
- An online discussion forum, be it on a blog or through a course management system like Canvas, makes it relatively easy for students to make comments and questions available to you and their peers before the face-to-face class begins. Online discussion can help focus the conversations that take place in class. For more ideas in this area, see our Teaching with Technologies page.
Georgetown professors on the best ways to facilitate discussions in the classroom.
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Potential Challenges in Discussions
Once discussion is underway, you will likely find a variety of scenarios emerging over the semester that need your attention. For one, you’ll find that students’ comfort with verbal participation in class varies greatly. Some students will tend to be quiet, while others may dominate the conversation. Dealing with each of these requires attention to the dynamic of the class.
- To reach the students who are uncomfortable speaking up, you might supplement the classroom with other venues to share their voice, like a course blog.
- You can also set guidelines for discussion that discourage people from taking over the discussion. For example, students can be told to refrain from speaking a third time unless all other classmates have spoken at least once, or should refrain from speaking twice in a row, instead letting two or three others speak before adding more to the conversation.
Managing a room full of varying comfort levels can take creativity.
You’ll also find yourself grappling with moments of silence in response to a question you pose. It’s worth trying to accustom yourself to these silences and realize that sometimes students need extra time to form their responses and work through their uncertainty, especially when dealing with a tricky concept.
Finally, depending on the subject matter you teach, you may find yourself facing an emotionally heated discussion at some point in the class. Difficult discussions are difficult precisely because most people don’t engage them outside of their own small circles of close friends and family—and sometimes not even then. Most students can be afraid to engage in difficult discussions because they might be labeled negatively, express an unpopular opinion, or be pigeonholed as a particular identity or having a particular opinion. In order for difficult discussions to be productive, faculty do need to set ground rules (or perhaps help students set them) that can guide discussions and encourage students to treat one another with respect. This includes requiring students to use respectful language, asking students to avoid personal attacks, and reminding students that people do not need to agree in order to respect one another’s perspective. When a difficult discussion begins, you might use this as an opportunity for students to see both sides of the argument by trying out a role reversal exercise in which students are asked to defend the position with which they disagree. Support for difficult discussions also comes from the faculty member’s willingness to model open and respectful communication, and to engage difficult questions.
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