I used the IF method last year in one class and found it both productive & rewarding. This semester my response is more mixed. This year, in the freshman class the benefits were less evident. Was it due to a different group composition/dynamics? I am not sure… I suspect the focus of the IF discussions this fall was too abstract for first-year students! Last year students focused on the “value of college” — something more immediate and personally relevant; this year students focused on “what it means to be American.” Both last year and this year first-year students complained about the “repetitive” nature of discussions. I am beginning to think that with freshman classes, diversity of topics is essential.
In my upper-level classes, the benefits/drawbacks were less clear. The discussions were more guided — they had a reading & a news report to use as point of departure for discussions. The focus of discussion was more practical (school issues) and of special interest to students (future teachers). The students were able to generate conversation for prolonged periods. I must admit, however, that I felt awkward at this level. I relinquished a lot of class time for group discussion and was never sure of how much they were learning.
In all my classes I asked students to post summary reports of discussions, and to complete peer evaluations. But I did not have time to look at these during the term, and this is definitely my failure. The (serious) assessment of group discussions take a lot of time during the semester; to do it well — and for students properly learn the method — one has to follow up closely; when one teaches for courses per semester, this becomes nearly impossible…
Students completed informal evaluations about the discussion sessions in all my classes. I will post the outcomes (and my response) on this blog as soon as I am able check them!