Why Won’t They Talk? Breaking the norms of the college classroom – #TPC12 Keynote Speaker

“A lecture about discussion is always a bad idea,” says Jay Howard of his keynote speech at the Teaching Professor Conference on June 2, 2012 in Washington, DC. Howard, Professor of Sociology and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Butler University, says effective discussions require careful planning and structuring.

Norms exist in college classrooms. The professor’s job is to plan ahead to set better norms early in the term. Below are some of the typical norms and strategies for changing them:

The norm of civil attention
The norm in the college classroom is not to pay attention. They must only create the appearance of paying attention to support the norm. Research shows that college professors support the norm by not calling on students unless they signal they have an answer (Weaver & Qi, 2005).
Strategies for breaking the norm of civil attention:

  • Establish a new norm on the first day of class with the syllabus presentation
  • .

  • Random direct questioning
  • Change the layout of the room and/or move around the room
  • Talk with students outside of class
  • Reward participation by grading it
  • The norm of the consolidation of responsibility
    In the college classroom, regardless of class size, 5-7 students will make 75-95% of comments (see Howard, Zoeller, & Pratt, 2006). Some of this can be personality-based. For example, introverts would rather process before speaking whereas extroverts generally think while speaking. But what else separates speakers from non-speakers?

    According to Howard, Zoeller, & Pratt (2006) student age (older students participate 4 times as much as traditional college aged students), instructor gender (students in classes with female instructors participated 3 times as much as those with males instructors), and seating (students seated in the front third of a room was 2 times more likely to speak than the back two thirds). Student gender and race didn’t have a significant impact. In addition, talkers perceived participation as a course expectation whereas non-talkers perceived classroom participation as optional.

    Strategies for breaking the norm of consolidation of responsibility:

  • “Let’s hear from someone who…”
  • Use direct questions
  • Carrots & Sticks (Just-in-Time quizzes, Reading checks)
  • Break into groups
  • Structure the class with discussion questions shared in advance, then:
    Use the board to highlight the key points in the discussion
    Overtly emphasize the key points
    Summarize periodically
  • Why bother with classroom discussion? It increases learning, increases critical thinking, makes students co-creators of knowledge, and makes class more interesting and fun

    What are your thoughts?

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