“Now: What questions do you have?” I heard a colleague ask this of her students, midway through a class I was visiting, and I was struck by the helpfulness of the phrase. Rather than asking, “Any questions?” (which can imply that the professor wants to move the lesson along unless someone still doesn’t get it) this question instead suggested there certainly should be questions. And she made space, expectantly, for the conversation. I took mental notes.
Whether you are newer to teaching or have decades under your belt, it’s good to have more tools for effective classroom discussions. There will always be days when students seem lifeless and you feel like the hapless teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Anyone? Anyone?”
In this spirit, I have been following with interest a discussion my colleague Jay Vander Veen alerted me to on the surprising virtues of “cold calling” in the classroom. “Done right,” Gerard Dawson argues, cold calling can improve student confidence and ensure more voices are heard. Of course, when “done wrong” this practice can be used to shame or embarrass students, so Dawson suggests some in-class scaffolding (quick conferring with a neighbor, moving to corners of the room to express a perspective, or quick reflective writing) so that students have an “intellectual rehearsal” before being called on. He notices a dynamic you likely recognize from your own classrooms: Once students’ ideas have been affirmed in a discussion, they are more likely to speak up again.
I hadn’t thought about cold calling as the friend of less-confident students, but Doug Lemov, author of Teach like a Champion, makes the case that with warmth and encouragement, cold calls can be a tool for classroom inclusivity, encouraging students who otherwise may feel their ideas aren’t worth sharing. Significantly, those less-confident students might be disproportionately first-generation or marginalized.
Certainly, I keep these real classroom dynamics in mind as I craft open-ended and wide-ranging questions about readings in the prompts for students and instructors in From Inquiry to Academic Writing. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer many ways for students to practice the question-asking habit of mind that is foundational to scholarly discovery — both aloud and in writing — inviting connections within texts, between texts, and between texts and experience.
In the rest of this piece, I’ll offer a reflection exercise that helps students see classroom conversation as a place to practice and name the academic moves they make in their writing, the topic of my last post. This reflection tool, designed by my colleague Ken Smith, helps over-talkers, under-talkers, and occasional talkers name the different purposes of their interactions, and helps them connect oral and written academic conversation. This checklist brings class participation into focus, and is quick to administer at the end of a class. Adapt as you like, and let me know how it works for you:
Thank you for your thoughtful evaluation of the work today. I hope you will
be encouraged to continue good habits of class preparation and to build
other practical participation skills for use in college and beyond. Keep me
informed if you have questions about this part of the course.
How many times did you contribute to the large group discussion today:
_____ 0-2 _____ 3-5 _____ 6-9 _____ 10 or more
In discussion today, did you do any of these valuable things:
_____ Ask a question that advanced the class’s conversation
_____ Help answer a question that advanced the conversation
_____ Point out an example that helped advance the conversation
_____ Explain the meaning or significance of an example
_____ Build on a comment by a classmate
_____ Build on an idea from a previous class
If we had small group work today, were you:
_____ A more active contributor than most of your group
_____ A less active contributor than most of the group
_____ Silent or rarely spoke
_____ No small group work today
Any questions you wish we’d turn to next time? Other suggestions?
Any of the strategies in this post can help you foster richer classroom discussions that will help students practice the habits of mind of academic writers. Of course, this can only happen in an atmosphere in which student responses — and questions and ideas — are truly valued. That part is up to you.