Time to Talk: Energizing Group-based Discussions

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   Asking students in a survey course to break into discussion groups will generally elicit negative responses ranging from audible groans and snickering to eye rolling. “Come on,” I plead, “It’s going to be FUN!” My enthusiasm for what is to come during discussion of that day’s historical topic is rarely contagious in these opening moments.


   I teach at a two-year college comprised entirely of commuter students. In terms of age and life-experience, my students are diverse: some are “traditional” college age (18-22) but more are men and women in their twenties, thirties, forties and beyond -- single-parents, veterans, husbands, wives, caregivers, service providers and retail associates, police and firemen. Most days when I enter the classroom I am conscious of the fact that nearly every student is sitting in silence staring at his/her smartphone, intentionally disconnected.


   Maybe “fun” is a subjective term. Nonetheless, here are a couple of the simple methods I have employed to enhance the class discussion experience for my students in an effort to move them beyond isolation and into group-based learning, which in turn has dramatically improved the quality of our time together in the classroom.   


   First, introductions are mandatory. Students introduce themselves to each other and are instructed to be prepared for me to quiz any member of the group on his/her members’ names. When the class is back together after group work I follow through: random students are asked to introduce their groupmates. Often after some giggling and awkwardness, students will help each get through the names.  They smile and laugh, and I enjoy the camaraderie they’ve established in a very short period of time.


   Second, whiteboards (or chalkboards!) add to the energy of the room while aiding in the process of students sharing what they have discussed. One of my favorite practices is to give all of the groups the same four questions to brainstorm for 10-15 minutes. On the whiteboard I designate a space for each question to be answered by each group. We are ready to discuss and share as a class only when every group has added their answers to the board with one catch: no repetitive answers.  It’s amazing how quickly the students can get to work brainstorming when they fear another group “stealing” their answer before they can write it on the board!


   Although they would never admit it publicly, my students are noticeably energized when I pass out the whiteboard markers! Often the students will snap a photo of the board notes before they leave the room because the no-repeat rule leads to very thorough brainstorming. It never fails that in classes where I utilize regular (every other week) group discussions the students are more engaged with each other inside and outside our classroom.  Seeing students from my classes studying together in the campus common areas in the days following group work confirms my belief that they are craving the connections forged when I ignore their eye-rolling and assign low-stakes group work.   


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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.