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Diversifying Social Skills, Ryan’s Story

Here’s another story about student experiences with discussion facilitation from my colleague Jack Byrd (you can find his first entry on developing social confidence here). This story focuses on some of the ways students might expand their social skills by participating in a student-centered discussion course.

–Jeff Prudhomme

One of the things that often happens in a student-centered discussion course is that students will diversify their social skills.  Many students start such a class with a set of social skills that work fine in a fairly narrow peer group.  When students participate in a discussion course, they begin to develop social skills that are suitable for a more diverse society.  Consider the case of Ryan.

To be blunt, Ryan has been a horrible student so far. His attendance has been spotty and he rarely does homework. He has been on academic suspension once already and will be suspended permanently if he doesn’t improve.  Recently he enrolled in a facilitation course where students are assigned to discussion groups.  Students are taught to be facilitators and are asked to facilitate their group discussion on a rotating basis.  Since it is a performance class, attendance is mandatory. Both the individual student and members of the discussion team are penalized for missed classes by any team member.

At first Ryan didn’t fit in with his group.  He comes from an urban area while the others come from rural communities. He is full of bluster while the  others tend to be shy.  Ryan is really into sports, while the others don’t really don’t follow sports at all.  His group is a mix of low-performing and high-performing students.

Ryan’s role in the group has been fascinating to observe. Almost right away he found out that his typical bluster wouldn’t work. The other students wouldn’t engage him when he was trying to bluster his way through. His group developed some strict cooperative behavior guidelines.  This was a big change for Ryan. He now had a group for which he was responsible when it came to attendance and homework.

Once Ryan understood and embraced the rules of the group, his performance changed.  One thing that helped him make this change was to see how his group functioned like a sports team. He’d taken part in team sports before, and he understood and valued the idea of not letting down his teammates. Pretty soon, the others started to look upon him as a team leader, like a team captain. Never before in college had he felt that his contribution was that important.

Ryan has now become a major contributor in the class.  He is an excellent facilitator.  He has become respectful of all his classmates.  This is especially striking because at the start of the class it was clear he had social prejudices that were common in the urban neighborhood where he grew up.  Ryan has also helped his group develop a harder edge.  The other group members were initially too polite with each other.  Ryan never held back on his strongly held beliefs, even when these were often contrary to the majority. He has helped his teammates learn to express what they really believe rather then holding back on ideas that might not fit the mainstream.

Some lessons learned:

  • When students are in the same discussion group throughout the semester, they develop a sense of responsibility for others in their group. This sense of responsibility can improve a student’s own academic performance.
  • Blending cultures in a group can be very effective in building up a broader range of social and communication skills among the group members.
  • Groups can function as sports teams.  For some students, this can be a valuable frame of reference for working within the group.

–Jack Byrd