Planning (In)Effective Class Discussions

Jocelyn McWhirter, Religious Studies

I have been planning group discussions for 20 years. I’m familiar with various types of discussions and the kinds of prompts students need to get them thinking at various levels. The ACUE Course in Effective Teaching Practices calls these levels “fact, analysis, inductive, opinion.” I had never intentionally thought in terms of these labels, so I used them to guide discussion-planning for my first-year seminar on the Holocaust. Since most first-year students are very good at fact and opinion, I wanted to create some good prompts for easing my students into analysis and inductive thinking.

We’d been watching segments of Schindler’s List and discussing them before and afterwards. I was interested in how Dacher Keltner’s research on “the power paradox” could be applied to the characters of Oskar Schindler, Amon Goeth, and Yitzhak Stern. So I made up three discussion questions asking small groups to gather facts, analyze them, infer something about power dynamics, and give an opinion — all with regard to Keltner’s research as applied to one of the three main characters in the film.

The discussion flopped. My exposition of Keltner’s research and the related questions were met with dazed looks and blank stares. It didn’t take me long to realize why. Although “the power paradox” is my preferred lens, it means nothing to most first-year students. In short, I got to apply “the power paradox” theory to myself that day. I had the power to design an activity, and I did so with little regard to how the students would receive it.

I decided to save the classroom environment next time by taking another tack. We had already laid out some facts about what Schindler, Goeth, and Stern say and do in the movie. So before showing the next segment, I asked an inductive question: “What motivates these characters? What are they after?”

This time the answers flew fast and furious. Then, after watching the segment, students discussed in pairs what they liked about it, what they didn’t like, and why (opinion questions with analysis). They then shared with the large group (pair-share). We double-checked the character motivations, just to see whether we still agreed with what we’d said and whether we wanted to add anything else (inductive question). Much better.

I plan to keep designing discussion questions using a mix of fact, induction, analysis, and opinion, and I’ll try keeping to topics that actually interest the students!