Organization of Student Led Discussions (SLDs)
I had 16 students in my Human Health and the Environment course, most of whom were either seniors or juniors and therefore exhibited greater confidence and comfort in an unstructured format.
These students were previously divided up into four groups to conduct community engagement research projects. I drew upon what I learned from the initial work of these groups, along with individual performance on assignments early on to structure the groups.
I organized the students into three groups (Two of five students, one of six students). I attempted balance sex (a male in each group); class (equal distribution of seniors/juniors/sophomores) and discipline (mixture of non science and science folks)
The first SCD (we called them Student-Led Discussion SLDs) demonstrated a need to shuffle the groups a bit, balancing personalities a bit better. In particular, there were several students that were clearly very comfortable discussing in one group and another was filled with very quiet students.
The arrangement of groups for the second SLD was successful and students indicated that they wanted to remain in the same groups for the remaining three SLDs.
Assignments for SLDs:
The SLDs were themed according to major subjects covered in the course. One week prior to conducting the SLD, I assigned one or two additional readings from the photojournalist book What Matters. These essays and photos were very thought provoking, adding a new dimension to the subject we had been studying. They were also aimed at creating an emotional response to issues.
A leader and scribe volunteered for each SLD. All students in the class were sent a general overview of questions from me. The SLD leader was to use my questions to whatever extent they desired to form the outline of their discussion. Following the discussion, the leader and scribe met to write a summary of the discussion based upon both their perspectives. There were five discussions so that each student led and recorded a discussion (one discussion was co-led).
I put each of the three groups in a separate room during the 75 minute discussions. The rooms have large glass windows that make the interior visible from the hall. During the discussions, I would quietly enter into each room and sit down to listen.
The discussion summary was posted by topic as a discussion thread on Blackboard. Every member of each discussion group was required to read all three discussion summaries and then post their response to their own discussion summary. Comments on posts were invited.
Discussion leaders earned up to 20 points and each discussion response was worth up to 5 points. I am still reading through the summaries and posts from the last three discussions. I can already see from the Final Exams that a lot was gained from these discussions (more on that later).
My reaction to SLD (student-led discussions) methodology:
I described how I organized the students into three groups in the first blog post. I also mention how each leader and “scribe” post a summary of the discussion on Blackboard. Every student must read all three discussion summaries and then post a reaction to the discussion in which they participated. Last week I spent a long time reading each and every post, and I really liked what I saw.
Overall, the students really appeared to enjoy the chance to lead their own discussions. It freed me up to let them explore a topic more deeply (and broadly) on their own terms. I was nervous about letting go, but the final exam demonstrated that students did develop a greater understanding about each topic through the SLDs. Many of them referenced a particular discussion when answering an integrative essay.
I found the discussions seem to work best when I provided more structure. For every SLD I assigned readings, but outlining some questions ahead to time for the leader to consider helped direct the discussion. I should say that that it appeared that the leader never used my questions, per se, but they provided a framework from which he/she could develop their own discussion.
The other thing that struck me was how the discussions of each of the three groups developed differently, sometimes drastically, and yet, many of the core conclusions were the same. It was those differences that were most interesting and that I wanted to share with the other groups. This would be the most frustrating point. I required each group to read the summaries of the other groups, but it was difficult to enforce this. There was just so much to learn from each discussion – I need to develop a new mechanism to capitalize on this.
Finally, I think summarizing, reacting and writing about the discussions is key. In general, it is labor intensive to keep up with all of these blog posts (both for me and the students), but the reflection that goes on when they revisit a discussion and write about it seems priceless. I just wish there was a way to get them to comment MORE on each others’ posts.
Admittedly, I was afraid of this methodology and therefore prolonged its use until a third of the semester had passed. I now feel confident enough to introduce it earlier. I just wish that there was a more practical way of getting students to lead more than one SLD. However, with 16 students in the class, it is difficult to give them a second chance.