In small classes in the past, I’ve had students sign up for a day on which to do a presentation to the whole class. They had to come up with several questions for the group to discuss, and present reasons why these questions are important (maybe some background information, connection to larger themes in the texts, etc.). I found that even when students asked excellent questions in their presentations, it was too often the case that few or no other students would engage with their discussion questions. I’d have to push and pull to get people to talk. I began to wonder if this was in part because of the problem of discussion in large-ish groups: it’s too easy to just sit back and hope someone else says something!
That, plus the practical problem of not being able to use this method in larger classes, led me to adapt the activity. Now, I break the class up into small groups and each student presents questions for discussion (and rationale) to the small group. Discussion is much more lively this way, when there are only 3-4 other people in the group–people are more likely to speak up to fill the silence, and more likely to talk about things they’re not quite sure about when there are fewer students to hear and a more informal setting. Here are the basics:
1. I set up the small groups before the course begins, and they are in the same small groups all term. This is to allow them to get to know each other over the course of the term and to thus (hopefully) be more comfortable discussing things with each other. This also helps with organizing the presentations: I have a sign up sheet organized by group, with the dates for presentation under each group. Each member signs up for one of the dates, so I’ve got a sign up sheet that lists one member of each group for each date.
One exception is in very small classes (15-20): there, I often just have a sign up sheet with the dates of the presentations and spaces for 3 or so names under each one. Those 3 people will be giving presentations at the same time in 3 different groups. The groups can form spontaneously, on the spot, those days. In such small classes, the students already know each other quite well.
2. Students must prepare beforehand, and write up a 1-2 page summary of: 2-3 questions for discussion, and rationale for why these questions are important or interesting. This could be because they raise potential problems with an argument in a text, or because they are needed to help figure out something in the text that is difficult to understand, or because they relate issues in the text/lectures/discussion to current events, or some other reason.
3. On the day of the presentations, each group meets at the same time, so that there are several presentations going on at the same time. This means that I can’t be there to hear every presentation. I walk around between groups to hear parts of each one, and the ensuing discussion.
4. Because of #3, the oral part of the presentation is not marked, just the written. I usually mark these pass/fail.
Great discussions! Great questions! I’ve been impressed with the calibre of student questions on these assignments, and the excellent discussions they’ve generated.
Problems I’ve encountered:
a. Students forgetting which days they are signed up to do presentations. If I remember to do so myself, I try to remind them the week before.
b. Not enough of the group members show up on presentation days, and the students are presenting to one other person. On such occasions, I usually try to combine groups so that one group has two presentations that day. To forestall this happening in future, I may try to make attendance on presentation days a more significant part of the participation mark. In the past, I’ve required that students make comments on at least two other students’ presentations on web site discussion boards; but this sort of “busy work” is at times resented by students and too much work for me to check.