Discussion by Design: A Focus on Pedagogy

May 17, 2016

75x75By: Dr. Cynthia Sarver, Instructional Designer, Information Technology Services/STELAR Center

‌For three years, Bethany Timmerman has been helping undergraduates develop critical thinking, reading, writing, and discussion skills in UST’s English department. This past fall, she began participating in the Center for Faculty Development’s Faculty Learning Community, “Creating Meaningful Classroom Discussions,” where -- guided by group facilitator Angela High-Pippert -- she and her colleagues explored the pedagogy of discussion laid out in Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom (2015). ‌

Looking for extra support, guidance, and incentive to put her new ideas into practice, Bethany applied for and was awarded the Adjunct Professional Development Grant in Fall 2015.  The grant includes an opportunity for faculty to work with instructional designers to help plan for and achieve teaching and learning goals. This is where I entered the picture.

When Bethany and I initially met during J-term, she shared a draft course calendar, highlighting the “discussion days” that she wished to make more engaging.  Seeing both discussions and quizzes on the syllabus, I asked about their differences and learned that the goal of both was basically the same:  incentivize students to engage (quizzes) or engage more deeply (discussions) with course texts. I suggested replacing quizzes with a discussion format that – like a quiz -- would hold students accountable for the reading while also preparing them to discuss it. Moving students toward higher order thinking is always a goal in instructional design.  So it made perfect sense to replace a quiz that asked students to demonstrate only a surface understanding of the text with an exercise that required them both to read the text and prepare quality discussion questions about it.

The model that we ended up going with was a variation on the “Socratic Seminar,” a student-centered discussion activity in which, on alternating days, half of the class serves as “speakers” and the other half, “listeners.”  On “seminar days,” speakers are tasked with preparing a list of text-based discussion and follow-up questions that they use to lead and engage other speakers in a critical analysis of the day’s readings. Listeners, on the other hand, must also prepare in-depth for the day’s discussion; however, as their role title implies, listeners’ participation takes the form of active listening, not speaking.

Student desks configured in outer (listener) and inner (speaker) ring for Socratic Seminar”
Timmerman's Socratic Seminar with student desks configured in outer (listener) and inner (speaker) rings.

At the beginning of each session, each listener is randomly handed a slip of paper containing the name of one speaker whose discussion questions and overall contribution the listener evaluates with a rubric.  Listeners are then evaluated by the instructor on the accuracy and textual bases of their feedback. It’s an elegant system that motivates everyone to be well prepared to engage, contribute, and learn.  Below are all of the documents that Bethany developed for this activity. Feel free to use and adapt them.

The following is an interview that I conducted with Bethany after observing a seminar day last month. The assignment for that day was to discuss the poetic works of Diane DiPrima and Amiria Baraka.

CS:  Great class! Before I say anything, tell me what you thought went well.

BT:  I was pretty pleased with how it went. While not everyone spoke, as is the goal, overall I felt that the speakers were able to uncover some good insights and dig into the text.  Books were open, students were quoting from the texts, challenging each other’s viewpoints, and building upon ideas. It’s always really gratifying to see them own their learning by taking a stand on the literature, defending their viewpoints, and truly engaging with each other, rather than just relying on me to tell them what to think. I feel like this level of discussion not only helps cover the material in a more significant way, but also develops really important critical thinking skills.  Most importantly, really, they were engaged.

CS:  I agree!  I was impressed by the quality of the discussion once it got rolling.  Students disagreed with each other and based their arguments in the text. What about the structure of the assignment helped foster this depth of discussion?

BT: Well, most of the students in the class are non-major freshmen and sophomores, so my goal for them – as well as for the aspiring English majors in the class --  is to help scaffold the types of discussions that expert readers like upperclassmen and their professors regularly engage in. Most students have successfully participated in teacher-led discussions of literature in high school, but I am trying to help them develop skills to support their own inquiry into not just literary texts, but their reading and discussion in other disciplines as well.

Another thing that really helped, I think, was that when I introduced the assignment at the beginning of the semester, we spent two days participating in activities, discussion, and reflection to help clarify the details and requirements of the assignment. The topics we covered included dialogue versus debate, generating thoughtful discussion questions, roles you can play during a discussion, discussion feedback, and then participating in a practice seminar. I wanted to give students the tools they needed to be successful during seminar days and also be clear about my expectations. I think that this early semester preparation, as well as the preparation speakers are required to do before seminar day, sets everyone up for insightful and detailed discussion.

CS: So I noticed that you had to jump into the discussion a couple of times.  Can you explain where that fits into the “student-centered” philosophy of this model?

BT:  Most students are just developing these skills, and I am still definitely the expert reader in the room.  So when I see that they are circling around some very important ideas but are still unable to make connections, I step in as a “coach.”  I model how they might look for patterns, more textual evidence, and so on.  But then I pull back again and let them “practice.” Now that I see that this is something that I need to do for them, my plan for next semester is to be more explicit about using literary techniques such as metaphors and themes in their questions, finding textual support for their insights, and then turning these analyses into discussion questions -- basically, the same thing teachers do when they prepare for class.

I also hope to rely on the listeners to provide this sort of synthesis and pattern recognition as we move into the later seminar days and once students have seen me model this type of approach. I find that these coaching moments are substantial enough that they often result in paper topics for students, so I know that this kind of synthesis is valuable for them and helps them to see how our daily discussions can bubble up to more substantive themes and applications.

CS:  Say more about the peer assessment.  I’m interested to know more about how you’re using that without the usual awkwardness of peers assessing peers.

BT: The evaluation pairs are secret from the speakers, which I think allows the listeners to be honest about their evaluation. The listeners are asked not only to identify where on the rubric their assigned speaker lands, but also provide details about why they graded them the way they did. This holds the listeners accountable for the reading, too, which they know I will be evaluating when I look at their comments about the speakers.

I also ask them to provide a letter grade for the speaker, which I actually use for grading, although it is subject to adjustment by me should I see fit. I think the anonymity piece and the listeners’ preparation is really important to getting honest and objective grading from the listeners. This paired with the fact that they know that they, too, will be evaluated by their peers sets up a mostly impartial grading dynamic. While I do not share the listener’s specific feedback with the speaker directly, in my grading of the speakers I do reference the overall gist of the grading – what the speaker did well and not so well – so that the student knows that their peers and I are in agreement.

Just to fill out the grading picture, I also ask the speakers to do a self-evaluation, using the same rubric and providing details as to why they graded themselves the way they did. I think that this multi-tiered grading structure makes a lot of sense for a discussion-based assignment. Discussion is, after all, a group effort, so I believe that grading discussion should be a group effort as well. Not only that, but the process of self and peer evaluation requires students to look at themselves in the mirror and consider what they can do better.

CS:  How are you using Blackboard to help facilitate the project?

BT: I do all grading on Blackboard for this assignment. Speakers are required to submit their discussion questions, with supporting passages and details, before seminar day; and listeners submit their peer evaluation and their summary and reflections after seminar day. For next semester, I’m also considering how I might better integrate Blackboard with this assignment. Grading is a bit clunky as I have to access the speaker and listener documents both for grading. I’m also considering trying out a digital seminar day so that those students who have thoughts to share, but may be reluctant to share them in class, would have a venue that better suits them. If I did go that route, though, I would probably supplement it with at least some in-class discussion as well.

CS:  Do you have any other plans for revising next semester?

BT: Yes, there are a few things that I plan to tweak or change. First, I hope to do more seminar days and start off with them more frequently at the beginning of the semester. While discussion during these seminar days is great, it’s not necessarily translating to better discussion on other days, which was one of the goals I had with this assignment. I think if I establish more frequent seminar days earlier in the semester, students will get into the habit of speaking up during class in substantive ways.

Also, regarding the role of the speakers, I think that I will make their preparation for seminars a bit more thorough. Right now they are generating good questions, but they haven’t always spent enough time developing their own thoughts on the subject. While I do ask them to identify passages from the text to support or address their question, I may also ask them to come with a potential “answer” to their question, or thoughts they have on it.

Finally, I’d like to get the listeners more actively involved during class or perhaps give them a specific follow-up assignment. Rather than just evaluating their assigned speakers and summarizing and reflecting on the discussion topics, I think it might be valuable to have them provide a sort of post-mortem the following class period, so that their feedback is out in the open and we can apply their suggestions on how to improve to subsequent seminar days. At the end of this semester, I plan to ask students for feedback on how they felt the seminars went and what they might change or revise in order to get the most out of the activity.

If you’re interested in trying a Socratic Seminar or any of the evaluation and preparation tools Bethany describes, feel free to download and use/adapt Bethany’s documents (linked below).  Also know that the University of St. Thomas employs three full-time instructional designers who are available to help all adjunct and full-time faculty with their course design needs.  Please be in touch; we’d love to hear from you!

Course Documents (Word format)

  • Socratic Seminar Assignment: Lays out the basic requirements as well as the assigned days and topics for each student.
  • Seminar Guidelines: Details regarding the assignment mostly for student reference. Includes the assignment objective, description, process, developing discussion questions, and discussion roles.
  • Seminar Speaker Worksheet: For speakers to complete and bring to class for seminar. This is where they list discussion questions and pertinent passages. The second page is the discussion rubric for their self-evaluation after seminar.
  • Seminar Rubric: The first page is the rubric listeners use to evaluate their assigned speakers. The second page has summary questions the listeners answer during and after seminar.
  • Socratic Seminar Supporting Activities: Lesson plans for instructor use before the first graded seminar. This document covers, in activity and discussion lesson plan format, much of the material provided in the Seminar Guidelines document.