Class Discussion Challenge: Getting Students to Listen and Respond to Each Other’s Comments

Issue 1: The classroom discussion is going pretty well. Students are offering some good comments and more than one hand is in the air. Then a student makes a really excellent observation that opens up a whole avenue of relevant possibilities. You follow-up by calling on a student whose hand has been in the air for some time. Her comment is fine, but it’s totally unrelated to the previous comment. How do you get students to respond to each other’s comments? How do you get student comments to build on a key topic so that it becomes more like a real discussion?

What about this idea? Tell students that when they hear you say “hold on to it” that means the next comments must respond to the comment just made. The faculty member who suggested this to me pointed out that often students aren’t listening all that closely to each other, so after saying “hold on to it,” you may need to repeat the original comment and give students a bit of time to prepare an appropriate response.

This same faculty member mentioned that those of us who’ve been doing academic discourse for almost as long as we can remember are sometimes a bit blithe in our assumptions that students know how to do it. She recommended identifying for (or maybe with) students a few ways they could respond to a comment made by a classmate. Here are some ideas:

  • Agree or disagree with it and say why. The “why” is the most important part of the student’s response.
  • Ask a question about the comment. Asking for an elaboration on part or all of the original comment is a good approach, assuming it needs further explanation.
  • Provide an example of it. Examples can come from content covered in class, from the reading, or from experience.
  • Relate or link the comment just made to another comment, maybe one the teacher or another student made. A link also can be made to something in the reading material.
  • Make a new, related comment. It needs to be different from what’s been said and don’t assume that how it relates to the first comment is obvious to others.

The “hold on to it” request can mean two other things as well. For students who have things they’d like to say unrelated to the comment being elaborated on, it means they should “hold on to” their thoughts; maybe jotting down a brief note so they don’t forget what it is they want to share. For the teacher, “hold on to it” is a good reminder to not succumb to the sometimes irresistible urge to say something in response to every comment a student makes. It’s a much better class discussion if students offer three or four responses before the teacher chimes in.

Why do students so rarely comment on the contributions of other students? First off, they tend not to value each other’s comments, especially if the teacher has a habit of clarifying and elaborating on everything a student says. Those elaborations sound a lot like right answers to students, so they tend to tune out their peers knowing the teacher will put everything in just the right context. And then there are those participation policies where the grade is primarily a function of how often one speaks, with little mention as to the quality of the contributions.

Issue 2: “Talk to each other.” It doesn’t matter how often you say it or where you position yourself in the room, students still address all their comments to you. You are the person in charge. Do you tend to be the person who answers the most questions?

Try this: assign yourself the role of the recorder. As students make comments, type them on your computer or write them on the board. Take a look now and then at the student speaking, but mostly keep your eyes on the comments you’re recording. If you use the board, that permits you to keep your back to students and it’s pretty awkward talking to somebody’s back.

If class size permits, seat students so that they face or at least can easily see each other. Sit with them and let them speak without being called on. You can step in and facilitate when too many students are talking at once, when someone needs help getting into the conversation, and to gently offer a reminder when it’s needed: “You’re responding to Reid’s comment, speak to him.”

What are some strategies you use to get students to listen and respond to one another? Please share in the comment box.

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