Happy Class: Good Discussion

We had a productive discussion today at the end of my upper division course (students with four semesters of music theory under their belts). Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve really struggled with how to improve discussion.  I’ve done reading, met with master teachers, observed, and experimented.  But, today really was the first where I think I found a good combination of strategies.  There were three:

(1) Prepare them by having them do in-class low-stakes writing on a good prompt.  I told them ahead of time this activity would happen today.  And, completing in-class low-stakes writing is part of their class grade (10%).  I grade it P/nP.  Finally, I was transparent about why we’re doing this activity.  “We’re doing this for you to organize your thoughts a little bit on this question.”

Today’s prompt was two-fold.  We had read an expert’s take on the “extra burden” of a minor-mode sonata form, and we had noticed the uncanny feature of a returning Introduction in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata.  I asked them to think about how these two issues might feed into each other (or not) to create the remarkable effect this movement has.

(2) Tell them that I want them to talk to each other and not me.  Reassure them that I will help the class if they get stuck or venture into less productive territory. And tell them that when they talk to me instead of their colleagues.  I’m going to look at the floor.  I’m not being disrespectful; I’m just giving them a visual reminder to talk to each other.  This idea came to me anecdotally from a dear friend who tried it out with success last week.

(3) Tell them to put a big checkmark on their informal writing after they open their mouth and say something. Participation is not required, but this activity had the effect of 10 out of 11 (I think–I spent most of the time looking at the floor, so I’m not sure) students contribute.  I modified this idea from the strategy discussed in this blog post by Maryellen Weimar.

Their discussion was great. I have some new ideas about this piece based on where they went in their 10-minute discussion.  And the entire class invested in this inquiry in a more meaningful way than passively listening.

I’m hoping I found the magic formula.  Maybe it’s only going to work today, but I do hope it’ll work 9 out of 10 times.

8 thoughts on “Happy Class: Good Discussion

  1. Preparing the students for the discussion in some way is the key, and you did it in several ways here, which clearly worked well. I find that when students are used to talking to each other and not me, every day, they get used to it pretty quickly. (Permanent teams help with this, in my opinion– but my classes are much bigger than this one). The best part is when I interrupt the discussions to make some point or other, and as I’m doing so, see that clearly, most of the students see *me* talking as an *interruption*! Victory! 🙂

    So, a couple of questions: 1) Your low-stakes writing was in-class. Could it be out of class? You’d have more class time for discussion that way. But maybe you didn’t want to reveal the prompt until class time? 2) When the students were talking to each other, was it a whole-class discussion or were they talking to each other in small groups? It sounds like whole-class? In a class of 11, that’s doable. In a larger class, it’s often productive to start the discussion in small groups and then move to whole-class.

    • Thanks for the ideas–I figured that as they got used to talking to each other, I would need less drastic measures on my part. It’s good to hear that’s been your experience. I love the idea of permanent teams and see how that would be excellent in large(r) classes.

      (1) Yes–it could be out of class. And I’ll probably take that route soon. Today, I wanted to guide them through the expert reading myself (I took a page out of a 600-page book, and it needed some setting up, to say the least). (2) we did a full-class discussion since it is such a small class. Although it’s not so small that we couldn’t start the discussion in small and then move to whole-class. What proportion of time do you usually plan for the two activities (small, then large?). Do you ask the small groups to assign a recorder to report?

  2. Sounds great, Jan. Good preparation. So here’s one thing that you can do: write down everything that led you to characterize it as a “great discussion.” What, exactly, made it great? But knowing what the features of a good discussion are in your mind (i.e., your goals for the discussion), you can work backward to work on those elements in other discussions that could use some tweaking. it’s wonderful to hear when things work!

    • Ah…. reflection!!! One of my favorite activities for anyone trying to learn (especially myself). Thanks for the reminder. That one is worth it’s weight in gold. 🙂

  3. I’m trying it tonight with my graduate-level classroom assessment students. The topic is bias in classroom assessment. The writing prompt is “if you were asked to support a high school graduation test you knew would result in more minority than majority youngsters being denied a diploma, could you do it? If so, under what circumstances?”
    They also read Ramirez and Carpenter (2005) and a chapter from Popham’s (2011) Classroom Assessment text.

    I’m pumped to see how it goes. I’ll post a follow-up later.


    Ramirez, A., & Carpenter, D. (2005). Challenging assumptions about the achievement gap. Phi Delta Kappan, 86, 599–603. Retrieved from http://www.pdkintl.org/

    Popham, W. J. (2011). Classroom assessment: What teachers need to know (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

      • We just finished class, which ended with the discussion. I planned 45 minutes for the entire activity (including the reflection) and we could have continued longer in a productive, lively, and focused discussion than the allotted time!
        Because the topic was sensitive and it is hard to get folks to take a stand on controversial topics, I had to redirect the conversation a few times to bring the focus back to the prompt. But, they slowly began to be more comfortable taking a position and supporting their position with reasonable arguments and evidence.

        I made the writing portion very informal. In fact, I told them to just “puke on the paper” so they got their ideas out prior to hearing their peers’ opinions. 🙂

        Thanks, sis!

        • puke on the paper. I love it. Excited to hear it went well. That silence while they try to become brave enough to talk is really really awkward…

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