Keeping up with the Conversation: Assessing your Discussion Leadership

The fifth strategy of a five-part post about discussion strategies.

These five strategies will help students to improve small group communication while also allowing them to synthesize important course content in large group discussions.

It is appropriate and fair to see setting up discussions as one of the most difficult instructional strategies in our lessons. The easiest way to do it is to just pose questions to students. The downfall, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, is that we tend to have frequent high-flyers in the discussion, which lets many others fly under the radar. This post offers the first of four different discussion strategies that can be used to (1) hold students accountable for their learning, (2) improve small group communication and culture, (3) integrate different types of learning styles, and (4) promote student ownership of their learning. This series’s fifth and final post will be about keeping track of the discussion and appropriately evaluating discussions.

The four different types of discussions I will share include: (1) Jigsaw, (2) Fishbowl, (3) Speed Dating, and (4) Affinity Mapping. Beyond explaining each type of discussion, I offer (a) what you (and sometimes students) need to do to prepare, (b) what students need to do as part of the discussion – their engagement with the lesson, and (c) what type of reflection could be used to conclude the discussion.

Do You Have “It”: Assessing the Role of the Instructor in Discussions

Planning for a discussion can feel like a time-consuming element, and in some cases, it is. However, it is also important to consider how you will assess your students, the strategy, and your leadership when planning a discussion. Unlike the other four posts in this series, this post will focus on strategies to assess the environment (not the rubrics we use to assess the discussion). Rather than how to prepare and execute a discussion, this post is about reflecting on the purposes and needs of the discussion. It is also about considering what matters outside of the discussion rubric you may have already created.

Thinking about our own role in discussions is more difficult than we think. While this list isn’t representative of an evaluation, it is a list of assessment strategies that relate to potential underlying biases that emerge in our assessment or our leadership strategies in our classes:

  • Map it: One of the strategies I use early in the semester is to map my classroom space. By drawing out the room (and making copies of that drawing), I can use the map to do a few different things:
    • Track student participation by putting a tally under student names I’ve put on the map. The tallies help me to visual cue calling on other students, or it can be a quick post-class assessment opportunity for the grade book.
    • Track disparities: Sometimes, I’ll mark identities on my map instead of names. I do this in two ways: (1) to see if there is an imbalance in participation based on identity, and (2) to see if I (or someone I am observing) are calling on certain identities more than others. I often use this strategy in observations to help establish improvement patterns.
    • Track connections by drawing a web among the students on the map. I sometimes will see who speaks and who the speaking shifts to. It is interesting to watch the nodes grow in the class and the underlying connections of comfort some students have with one another.
  • Time it: Invite a colleague to observe your class and have them time the amount of speaking you do in a discussion versus students. If you’re really bold, ask a student to do it. And when you have that person track, have them break down questioning versus responding versus clarifying. This will help you do a richer and deeper dive into how you interact with the discussion time.
  • Exit it: Instead of asking a reflection question about what students learned in the discussion, try and ask questions that ask about the process, form, and function of the discussion. For example, try asking students to reflect on the organization of the discussion and how it moved from person to person.
  • Pause it: Take the temperature of the room mid-discussion. By pausing the discussion to ask students how they feel it is (1) going and (2) what could be done to improve the scope and flow, you are providing students the opportunity to make decisions that improve their participation.

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