Guest Post: Engaging Students in Class Discussion by Sarah Koehler

An image of Sarah Koehler
Communications Instructor Sarah Koehler

One of the most challenging parts of teaching can be getting students to engage in meaningful discussion during classes, especially if those classes meet early in the mornings! But there ARE ways to get kids talking! When I first started teaching, I admittedly struggled with getting my students to buy into the lessons and participate in class, but as the years went by, I learned some valuable tips from my colleagues, administrators, and yes, even my students.

One of the primary goals for teachers should be to find topics which interest students, even when it doesn’t seem possible to do so. Are you teaching a grammar lesson? Use your students’ names in your practice examples, and ask the students to correct the question which includes their own name. Personally, I find that using humor also helps immensely. Why not make the sample sentences funny? If we’re laughing while we learn, we can have a lot more fun in class and still meet our academic goals. Students who are allowed to laugh – and even are encouraged to do so – are also more likely to participate when the lessons shift gears and need to be more serious. Even though much of the required material is serious and academic, there is nothing that says we can’t teach it in ways that are engaging – and even fun.

Let’s consider Works Cited pages, for example. The task is admittedly tedious, time-consuming, and irritating. But rather than showing a number of examples on the board and asking students to take notes, why not put a pile of sample sources on the table and have kids work in small groups to put them in alphabetical order, pull the required publication information, and create a sample citation for each source? While students are working, it’s a great time to walk around the room and engage with each group. Getting students to speak in class often begins with getting them to speak in a more casual or low-pressure scenario. Check in with each group; answer their questions; get to know them by more than just a name. Then when you ask for their feedback, they’re more likely to engage in the discussion.

Second, engaging students in class discussions can sometimes feel like “pulling teeth.” When this happens, I find that having students engage in a Think-Pair-Share activity can work well. For a minute or two, have them jot down their thoughts about a given topic or question. Then, for the next four minutes, have them share their answers with a partner (each participant will have two minutes to share his or her notes). Now everyone in the class has something to say, and students aren’t caught “off guard” when they are called on to share their ideas. Once everyone has shared their notes with a partner, complete a “class jigsaw.” Essentially, take all the pieces and put them into one complete picture.  Allow all answers to be added to the board, so that no-one feels that his or her answer isn’t “good enough.” In many cases, simply giving students a chance to organize their thoughts and verbalize them with a partner can be enough to prompt thoughtful answers and contributions to a larger class discussion.

Finally, be honest and admit your own shortcomings and faults. If you don’t know the answer to a student’s question, admit it. Sometimes it feels like our students forget that teachers are human, too. Allowing them to see us as vulnerable people who may in fact ALSO use Google to seek out answers is often a perfect way to get students talking. Learn that it’s okay to say, “You know, I’m not sure. How do you think we could find out?” Ask for students to provide answers as to how their questions could be answered.

But perhaps the most important piece to all of this is to create a learning environment in which student feedback and input is valued, respected, and encouraged. My own students never know where I stand on issues because if they did, they may not participate when asked to do so. My students never have to feel that if they disagree with me, they’re somehow “wrong.” And the easiest way to make sure they feel this way is to ensure that they simply don’t know whether their own views align with mine or not. Our job is not to teach kids what to think, but rather to teach them how to think. If we want them to share their ideas and contribute to meaningful class discussions, we must first admit that our own opinions are often not what’s important in the classroom.

Sarah Koehler is an Instructor of Communications. If you’d like to contact Sarah, please contact the CTL and we will forward your message to Sarah. Be sure to reference this post in your message.