Susan Naomi Bernstein

File Card Discussion: A Beginning-of-Semester Activity

Blog Post created by Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert on Sep 5, 2016

Near the beginning of the semester, once my students have had time to digest the syllabus, the assignments, and my teaching style,  we engage in a file card discussion. The activity unfolds in five basic steps:

  1. Each student receives a blank file card.
  2. Students are requested to write down their questions, comments, concerns, suggestions, and complaints regarding the course.
  3. Students are asked to turn in the cards anonymously.
  4. I collect the cards and shuffle them, so as to rearrange the order in which the cards were returned.
  5. I read the submissions on the cards and begin a discussion with students regarding course design, including the syllabus and assignments.

I often make revisions to the course design based on these discussions. Even as standard outcomes and assignments must be maintained, I can adapt course activities that appear to be a better fit for the needs of the students in the course. In other words, the File Card Discussion helps to facilitate revision of course delivery to achieve goals stated in the syllabus and the assignments.

The file card discussion also works for community building, as the center of class discussion becomes dispersed. The questions of students who would rather not speak in a larger group receive the same attention as students who enjoy talking in class.  Additionally, as they hear their own written questions repeated again and again, students realize that their classmates share common concerns.

As the facilitator of this activity, I have an opportunity to address questions and to listen for for the repetition of questions. Repetition indicates to me that either I have not explained a policy or in sufficient detail, or that I may need to tweak the assignment to create a better fit for the needs of the students in the classroom.

Perhaps teachers may prefer the distance of a course management virtual discussion board. A virtual discussion board can be read at a more leisurely pace away from the possibility of direct confrontation in the classroom. But, unless teachers fear for their safety, the file card discussion offers more fulfilling opportunities for us to offer compassion and support for the worries that students may feel more comfortable expressing anonymously.

While the virtual discussion board offers anonymity,  the process of submitting questions may unfold quite differently. For example, students can easily see if another classmate has already asked the same question. The incentive to repeat that question may disappear, and neither students nor teacher would experience the critical mass of their classmates’ shared concern.

Even as the questions are written individually and the writers remain anonymous, our face-to-face classroom environment offers the potential for students to create a collective and embodied community voice. Often, as the file card discussion moves forward, and their comfort level increases, students may decide to speak aloud with elaboration or additional questions. Face-to-face, as their teacher, I can learn more about our community, clarify confusions, and address suggested changes in the syllabus or our assignments in real time with immediate feedback.


Afterward, holding the material evidence of anonymous questions and suggestions in my hands, I can begin to contemplate equitable and informed responses based on the file card discussion.

Outcomes