When Discussions Become Train Wrecks into a Dumpster Fire

Words written: N/A
Words that need cut: 300
Time spent writing: 3 hours
Writing grade: C-

I really, really, really wanted to finish this essay on teaching religion and sports today. But it's not going to happen. I let myself get sidetracked. And then there was stuff. Stuff. Thanks, stuff. Now, I will need to carve out time over the weekend to edit and revise. Oh well.

But I like what I have, and I feel good about being close to hitting send and liberating myself from the aforementioned Guilt Ghost.

One portion of this essay deals with my previous frustrations with leading class discussions. Early in my teaching career, I got very excited about "active learning." I read some books on it, and the idea really resonated--less lecture, more interaction... be the "guide on the side" not the "sage on the stage." What scholar doesn't see the genius in active learning? It speaks to the way that we learn in our profession--pursuing an intriguing idea, developing questions, seeking answers.

So I decided to make discussions central to a course that I was teaching. The result? Well, it was basically a train wreck that veered right into a dumpster fire. That experience made me REALLY skeptical about active learning in general, and discussions specifically. To be sure, I still had discussions in my classes. But I had come to expect great opening questions to be met with blank stares and deafening silence.

Then I experimented with letting student lead the discussions. I tasked groups of 3 or so students with covering a given reading for the day. I wasn't sure if it would work. But from the first conversation onward, I sat back and watched students talking among themselves for entire class periods, and saying smart things too! OK, yes, the conversations can meander WAY off track. But for the most part, students do a better job of talking to themselves than when I'm up front. Why? I suppose they feel a deeper obligation, knowing that there will come a time when they are in the front of the class. But also, I think that I suck the air out of the room. My questions just don't click. And when I talk I tend to be more definitive than provocative.

So I let my students do what I can not. What I have found is that I enjoy the entire experience as a result. I do chime in whenever necessary, to pull the conversation back from the brink or to elaborate on a key point. But for the most part, I listen. Ask anyone who knows me: It's REALLY HARD for me to shut up for any period of time.

But these student-let discussion remind me of what made me interested in the academic life in the first place--interesting people saying interesting things about interesting topics. What's not to love?


  1. I've tried to have students lead discussions in my classes as well, but with very different (i.e., dumpster fire) results.

    So, I have a few questions, which I hope you'll indulge: What guidelines do you give to the students whom you task with leading the discussion for the class session? How do you set the expectations for participation in the rest of the class? How do you assess (and grade) the discussion leaders?

  2. Great questions! There's lots to unpack here, so here's what I'll do... I'll run through all of this on Monday's post. Sound good? Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Sure. Thanks for being willing to continue the discussion.


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