talking with students: Conferencing and classroom discussion

Part One: Conferencing and office hours

Conferencing has long been a key part of a student-centered approach to teaching, allowing students and teachers to talk one-on-one in what are generally less formal circumstances. The aims are to give students more individual feedback and to allow you a chance to evaluate your own classroom by viewing it through the eyes of your students. While this view of conferencing is perhaps a bit naïve, a good conference is still the best way to talk about individual revisions with a single student. The following chapter explains the fundamentals of conferencing, gives some basic tips on good conferencing, and presents different modes of conferencing (group conferences, etc.).

Conferencing: What, Where, & How?

The PWR requires that you hold at least two conferences per quarter with each of your students. Generally, such conferences are held for all students (even those few who attend office hours regularly), primarily because you will often have specific goals for conferencing that won’t necessarily match up with students’ reasons for coming to office hours. You’ll want to hand out a sign-up sheet in class for times you’re available or have them sign up using an online scheduling system, such as Doodle; it’s up to you whether you want to try to do them all in one or two days (which can be stressful at first) or spread them out over three or more days. It’s worth noting that if your conferences are aimed at creating a revision plan on an assignment, spreading out conferences too far can give some students a potential unfair advantage when it comes to the turnaround time between receiving feedback and having to turn in the next draft. Conferences are generally 20 minutes long, and you can hold them in your office or at an alternate location, such as a café. Students often forget their conferences, so make sure there is a schedule posted somewhere they can refer to, remind them often, and make sure the location is clear (even if it is your office). Lastly, you may cancel a day (if you teach two days per week) or two (if you teach four days per week) of class to compensate for the time you spend conferencing (which will be nearly 11 hours in talk time alone by the time you’re done); canceling class also allows you to schedule conferences during class time—sometimes a must for those busy students who have packed schedules. To be more clear, this means if you teach two days a week, you may cancel a total of two days worth of classes per quarter to compensate for the required two conferences you hold with each student. If you teach four days a week, you may cancel up to four days of class per quarter.

When to Conference?

Deciding when to schedule the two required conferences will depend on what you’re trying to accomplish. Here are a few suggestions with some of the benefits of each:



In the first couple weeks of the quarter

Lets students find your office early

Gives students a chance to ask questions about the class that they may have been reluctant to ask in the larger group

Gives students a chance to bring up issues such as learning disabilities and accommodations, multilingual concerns, etc.

Gives you a sense of your individual students (helps to learn their names), their interests, and their attitudes toward the class, which can give you a clearer idea of the audience you are addressing

Can help establish an early rapport that may foster more open communications when students come across any questions or concerns

Between assignments in a sequence

Allows you to clarify/decipher comments you or their peers have made on previous assignments

Gives students individual help on specific writing outcomes or concerns

Assists students in coming up with a writing plan for a major assignment (research they might need to do, etc.) and lets you redirect plans that aren’t addressing the assignment

Gives you a chance to show interest in students’ ideas and writing projects, which may help to develop nuance and also discourage plagiarism

After they’ve gotten the first long assignment back from you

Allows you to clarify comments

Allows you to ask for feedback about difficulties students had with the first sequence so you can make adjustments in the second

Allows you to make reference to the portfolio and revisions they’d make for this next step should they choose to submit that paper

Allows you to choose to give fewer written comments since you’ll be able to address your concerns directly with students (in other words, might save grading time)

In the last weeks of the quarter

Helps students decide which assignments to revise for the portfolio and focus their critical reflections

Allows you to get feedback from students about the overall effectiveness of the class

Allows you to clarify grade questions and prepare students who are getting low grades, which might head off grade complaints and improve evaluations

The Conference “Process”

Early discussion in the field of composition regarding conferencing was often rather directive; various authors provided “how to” articles that emphasized the role of teacher as expert. For many of us, this is an unappealing set-up. We try hard to deconstruct traditional power relations in our classrooms and would like our conferences to reflect this. It likely does not need much elaboration here that this move toward more student-oriented conferences is to be lauded.

However, it is important to think about how students view conferences and realize that having the sort of conference that “feels good” may not achieve your goals or theirs. It’s fairly simple really—many of these students would never come to talk to you if they weren’t required to, and many of them are going to be uncomfortable talking about their writing. While flaunting your authority or being merely directive would be out of place, it is not necessarily appropriate to act like you are simply having a conversation as equal partners either. Question and challenge your motives and approaches, but also realize that you will always be “the teacher” and that many students would prefer that you not “pretend” otherwise.

There are many things to be aware of when conferencing. Laurel Johnson Black’s analysis of conferences in Between Talk and Teaching, which you will read in English 567, reveals that teachers ignore student attempts to narrate their experiences; teachers reinforce gender and class divisions; students are sullen and uncommunicative (because they sense the unequal balance of power and resent it); and students don’t participate in their own learning. Yet, despite all of these factors, the teachers and students who participated in the conferences described considered each of them “successful.” Thus, as teachers, we are in the tricky position of trying to resist simply telling our students what to do as we want to “create” knowledge with them, but at the same time sometimes need to “communicate” knowledge to them. Unsurprisingly, you’ll need to decide what your goals are for individual students as you plan to conference: Will the session be an opportunity to flesh out the student’s ideas as a team? Will the conference be about explaining to the students that they’ll likely need to start a paper over for one reason or another? Clearly, these are different kinds of conferences and need different approaches.

Basics of Good Conferencing

Ask the Student What Works for Them

As with everything you do, students will have different needs. While some of us have been trained under strict writing center rules to “never write on papers” or to “always require students to take notes,” this will not always work for all students, particularly students with certain disabilities. Be sure to offer a variety of choices in order to make the conference accessible to each student (the student taking notes, you making some notes while you explain your comments, tape recording the session if they would like, etc.).

Clear Expectations

There isn’t much that can intimidate a student more than trying to come up with something to say during that first face-to-face encounter with an instructor. Since most of your students are unfamiliar with the idea of conferencing, they’ll be looking to you to take the lead and guide them through the conferencing process. This doesn’t mean that you have to take full responsibility for directing the conference, but it does mean that you have to make clear what responsibilities you’re expecting your students to assume. Articulate your expectations during class time before each conference (you might even write them out in a handout or in the syllabus) and clarify them again before the conference begins.

Help Your Students Prepare

Part of making your expectations clear is giving your students tasks to complete before (or at the beginning of) the conference. Telling students to “be prepared to talk about your paper” isn’t usually enough guidance. Here are some specific activities to help students prepare for conferences:

  1. Writing at the beginning of the conference: you can ask your student to answer a brief question at the beginning of the conference. For example:
    • Paraphrase or restate your central claim/argument in this paper. Doing this will take you back to your original goals and give us a chance to explore how you met them.
    • While the student is writing, you can reread the paper and your comments, and remind yourself what you wanted to accomplish with this individual student.
  2. Freewrite in class: give students time in class to write out a plan for the conference. This can be as simple as having them jot down a few questions that come to mind or a more involved exercise where they go over an assignment, mark sections that worked well or didn’t, take time to respond to your comments (so you know they really had time to read them), etc. Have students bring their response to the next conference.
  3. Worksheets: asking students to fill out a “pre-conference worksheet” is often a good way to make sure that they arrive at your office prepared and engaged with their work. This has the added benefit of giving you a chance to remind students what they should bring to your office (drafts, their textbook, etc.).

Example 1: Pre-Conference Worksheet (Due in conference)

For this conference, bring a revision plan. This consists of no more than one page of notes describing specifically how and where you plan to revise your paper. Feel free to write on your paper so we can talk specifically in conference.

The content of your notes should follow the grading assessment rubric (see “Essay Evaluation Criteria” in this packet). What are the paper’s strengths and why? What are its weaknesses and how do you plan to address these? Remember that revisions cover more than grammar and spell-check; these should be last on your priority list.


Argument: needs to be sharpened (still vague)

Support: needs to be more fully developed with other outside sources

Organization: A BIG problem. I need to rearrange the order of my evidence and provide more transitions in between paragraphs.

Example 2: Conference Preparation Worksheet

As talked about in class, I want you all to feel comfortable with 3-step quotation analysis (the “quote sandwich”), as this will be important in all your papers. Please take some time to examine each quote in your paper. Which is your strongest quote integration? Which could use some more work? Why?

Also, bring any other questions you may have.

Ask Questions to Identify the Student’s Goals/Intentions

It’s essential that you and your students agree on what needs to be addressed before you try to address it, so ask students real questions, perhaps based on the course outcomes and traits you are targeting at that time (they can spot a leading question from a mile off). Questions might include: “What do you mean by flow?”; “What specific places in the essay aren’t flowing?”; “Which places are?”; “Are you satisfied with the ways you have supported your claim, or do you want to modify it?” (Okay, that last one was leading.)

Create Opportunities for Student Critique

For obvious reasons, students tend to not want to critique or question you or the class. Create opportunities for them to do so by directly inviting critique, such as: “What just isn’t making sense so far? Or, What can I clarify? The relationship between inquiry and argumentative claims? The idea of pitching your writing to address a particular audience?”; “If something about the class could be different, what would work better for you?”; “What do you feel you need more time and space to practice?” While these will sometimes elicit the “it’s fine” response anyway, you may be surprised what you hear and the students may even feel a bit empowered.

Ask for Feedback

A simple way of evaluating our conferencing practices is to ask students to respond to the conference after it has taken place. The following example presents a few brief questions that accomplish two goals: students respond to the process of conferencing, thereby asserting some power over the shape of future conferences; and, students are asked to reflect on the content of the conference, a method which reinforces the learning that happened there.

Example 3: Conference Feedback

After our conference, please respond to the following questions:

What was the most useful/helpful comment that I made? Why/how was it useful?

What was the most important new idea you had about your paper during (or shortly after) the conference?

What questions did you have that were not addressed satisfactorily during the conference? How would you change the process of the conference for the next time?

Varieties of Conferences

Most instructors choose to have individual conferences with students, but you may choose to design conferences in alternative ways:

Group conferences: sometimes working with more than one student at once is useful. This is especially effective if you ask students to do longer-term group projects/presentations. Meeting with students in small groups is also a good way to cover the same ground (e.g., a particular grammatical issue) with several students. Remember, however, that you cannot discuss an individual student’s grade in front of other students (or other instructors), as this violates the FERPA Act: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html

Brainstorming sessions: working with students at the very beginning of the writing process is usually rewarding for both of you. This kind of conference is especially useful if you have asked students to analyze a new genre or conduct some other type of research, as students are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they have collected. A productive brainstorming session can head off obvious claims and broad generalizations before they make their way into an essay draft.

Revision workshops: the revising process is one that most students are (at least at first) resistant to. Rewriting large chunks of prose is uncomfortable and won’t happen without some encouragement from you. Asking students to bring a page of writing to a conference and then working extensively with that single page can be a good way of modeling the revision process.

Difficult Conferences

There are times when you need to conference with a student because of more serious issues than the student’s writing. For example, you might suspect a student has been dishonest in the production of their paper, or you may want to discuss a student’s disrespectful behavior/language in the classroom. These situations can easily become painful ordeals. Please talk with any of the PWR staff about any concerns you have, and, where possible, it may be best to do so before meeting with the student. In addition, you have the right to request that a faculty member or one of the Assistant Directors be with you when you conference with a student. We are here to back you up, and if you are at all uncomfortable meeting with a student alone, don’t hesitate to ask one of us.


See the PWR website for specific University and PWR policy guidelines, as well as Chapter 9 of this manual for a discussion of some of the nuances and complexities involved in plagiarism. Our general approach is to begin by listening to students with compassion and patience, rather than start with an approach that sees all cases of plagiarism as cheating that deserves strict penalty. If you are concerned that a student’s work might be plagiarized, consider the following conferencing approaches:

  • Check-in with your student to see what their take is on the assignment in question. Many students who have “plagiarized” don’t realize that they have done anything that could be considered wrong. Consider asking your student to describe their writing process so that you can better understand where they are coming from. Did they get a bit too much writing assistance from a friend or tutor? Did they simply forget a citation? Did they simply not understand that paraphrases must be cited, even if the words are original?
  • Explain in plain terms why the assignment in question is problematic. Depending on the situation, the best tactic may be to simply explain why the assignment seems troubling from your point of view (and/or how others may perceive the issue as problematic) and to suggest a way that the assignment might be made right. This can be an effective course of action for any form of plagiarism that you feel has emerged from ignorance, misunderstandings or cultural differences (See the “Plagiarism” section in Chapter 8 of this manual).
  • Ask for help before your conference! If you feel that your student has indeed been deliberately dishonest and you are uncertain how to proceed, the PWR Director and Assistant Directors are available to help!

Grade Complaints

Because students don’t receive grades in English 131 until the end of the quarter, meetings with students to discuss grade complaints typically happen after the quarter is over. Grade complaints are not common, but it is likely that you will receive one at some point. It is important to note that they can occur for a variety of reasons and that there is a range of outcomes to grade disputes. If you have any questions about handling a grade dispute, please reach out to an PWR staff member before meeting with your student.

Grade disputes are often resolved through conversation with the student. When you handle grade disputes, we encourage you to express a willingness to listen to the student’s rationale and to avoid being defensive. In advance of meeting with the student, we also encourage you to ask the student to prepare her/his complaints in writing and be prepared to explain why s/he feels her/his work was graded unfairly based on whatever examples or reasoning s/he may provide. If the student is serious, this will give her/him time to formulate a coherent argument. Also, be wary of dealing with grade complaints over email. Students will sometimes say things over email that they would never say in person, but such discussions also violate the student’s FERPA rights.

If you have no intention of changing the grade, consider telling the student this before or at the conference (though of course this doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about why the student received the grade s/he did). Unlike the regular student conference, grade complaint meetings usually require you to be firm and “explain” or “justify” the negative.

If you have either made a mistake in your evaluation or find that there is a reasonable case for reassessment, given the student’s argument, you can submit a change of grade form (or give the student more credit for the assignment in question). However, keep in mind that you cannot reevaluate every essay from every student and that it would be unfair to the rest of the class to change the grade unless you had genuinely made a mistake (It helps to remind students of this fact). If the student is still not satisfied with your explanations/responses to the complaint, refer the student to the procedures for course complaints (which should always be included in your syllabus and are posted to the PWR website).

Office Hours

You should set and keep two office hours per week, and let students know if you must change/cancel a given office hour. Some instructors find their Padelford, Art, or Savery offices less than appealing, and prefer to hold office hours in an on-campus café—in which case, department policy requires that at least one of the two office hours be held in your office. One office hour may be virtual or held elsewhere on campus, if you choose. In any case, make sure your chosen meeting place is accessible to all your students (who may or may not tell you they have a mobility impairment).

Many students do not know what office hours are for, are intimidated to come in for a one-on-one meeting, or just don’t know how to find the Art Building or navigate Padelford. If you want students to attend office hours voluntarily, make it clear that you have reserved that time especially for them, and that you will always be happy to see them during office hours. Explain the advantages of face-to-face discussion as opposed to email, and be sure that your students know where your office is. (Offering students the option of walking back to your office with you after a class early in the quarter can help with this problem.) Some instructors find it helpful to require students to drop in for a quick hello in the first weeks of the quarter to break the ice and let students see that it’s really not so painful to stop in during office hours, and this approach can work wonders for building rapport in your classroom.

Part Two: Class Discussion

Regardless of your teaching style, the fact that you will be teaching writing to a class of about 23 students shifts the basic course structure away from lecture and towards discussion. This is not to say that lecture does not have a place within the English 131 classroom—it does—but our small class sizes provide rare opportunities for UW students to express and develop their ideas in close cooperation with their instructors and with one another. Particularly during the beginning of each writing cycle, fostering student-centered discussions is an excellent way to take advantage of these opportunities.

Discussion, Lecture, or Q&A?

Typically, there are three ways that information gets bantered about in a classroom: 1) lecturing to students when you need to convey information; 2) using question and answer when you’re testing for understanding or want “right” answers; and 3) leading discussions when you want to flesh out the material and student ideas in perhaps more organic ways.

What makes for a rather unsuccessful experience for many new teachers is failing to clearly establish which approach they are taking (especially when they let lectures or question and answer sessions bleed into their discussions). For example, if you begin a discussion with the goal of getting your students to talk about their understanding of a text but keep interrupting with biographical tidbits about the author, you are sending the message that your reading of the text should be privileged over theirs, which defeats the purpose of trying to get them to talk in the first place. Even worse is when you hold a question and answer session under the guise of a discussion. This is where the dreaded “leading question” comes into play and the discussion turns into a test of mind-reading.

Whatever approach you choose, you need to make that choice clear to your students and make it clear when you’re shifting gears. If you decide to start out your class with a lecture that leads into a discussion, mark that shift: “Okay, enough of me talking. Let’s hear what you have to say about all this.” Or, if you want to finish a class by putting the discussion in context: “It’s been great to hear all of your perspectives on this text. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Now, for the last ten minutes of class, I’d like to sum up with what I believe are the key points of this essay.”

Facilitating Productive Discussions

Although many of the factors affecting class dynamics are out of your control, there are some basic practices you can learn that will improve your chances for having successful discussions:

  • Share with students your discussion goals. Let students know what you hope to accomplish through discussion: what issues or questions you hope to examine and why, and how this discussion fits in the progression of the assignment sequence. This way, students participate more knowingly in their learning, and they will recognize that the discussion will actually help them with their writing assignments.
  • Establish discussion guidelines. Acknowledge with your students that productive discussions are challenging, but rewarding, if everyone pulls his or her own weight. Often students want to have good discussions but don’t know how to contribute, or don’t realize that it’s actually tough for you to lead discussions if not everybody is involved. In order to set guidelines for productive discussions, you can ask students to describe what makes for a good discussion and what makes discussion boring or unsuccessful. Make sure someone takes down all of the contributions (you can make two columns on the board), type them up, and distribute them as written guidelines at the next class meeting.
  • Ask students to prepare for discussion. Discussion preparation can be more or less formal: you may ask students to answer questions for homework, or you may simply have students freewrite for a few minutes before discussion starts. Sometimes just letting students know ahead of time that they’ll be discussing a particular text or idea will allow them to gather their thoughts and make more substantive contributions. Preparation may also help less talkative students have the confidence to enter the conversation.
  • Resist the temptation to respond to every student’s comment. If students come to expect your response after every remark, then they’ll be less likely to jump in and respond to each other. Furthermore, you risk setting up a situation in which you are seen as the only judge of which contributions are valid and which are not. Try to limit yourself to neutral responses like “ok” or “anyone else?”—until at least a few students have chimed in. Take notes during discussions if you’re worried about losing a thought (plus, this can model good discussion habits for your students!).
  • Redirect discussion back to students. Consider asking the class “what do you think?” when a question or comment comes your way. Not only will your students surprise you with their abilities to often explain things better than you can, but you might also get a better sense of where the gaps are in your students’ comprehension.
  • Get comfortable with silence. Be willing to wait out the silence in order to give students time to reply. If the silence continues, you might try another approach: have the students free-write on the question or get them to talk about what makes that question so hard to respond to.
  • Call on students. In every class you’re going to have students who do not volunteer to speak up, especially in large group discussions. There are a number of reasons for this—cultural differences, disability-related issues, lack of preparation, indifference, shyness—and you can’t make everyone talk. But sometimes, these students want to share their ideas, but they aren’t sure how to get their voices into the discussion. Calling on them takes that pressure off and gives them an excuse for contributing. One key to making this work is to be sure that your request is an invitation to respond, not a demand. If a student still doesn’t want to participate after being called on, then respect their choice and move on. Another strategy is to not let any student speak twice before everyone (or most everyone) speaks once. In these cases, the zealous talkers tend to help the less talkative ones speak (mostly because they look like they’ll explode if they don’t get to contribute again). Asking students to prepare for discussion (especially in writing) can make calling on students easier and more productive, since they can have the option to report what they’ve written rather than thinking on the spot.
  • Be willing to not call on the zealous talkers. As referenced above, some students will want to talk too much. You can certainly say, “I’d like to hear from some new voices,” etc.
  • Recap the discussion. It will help both you and your students get the most out of your discussion if you can briefly summarize the main points at the end of class (helping students remember the vital bits of class) and/or the beginning of the next class period (providing continuity between classes). Many students will have a hard time extrapolating ideas from discussion, incorporating discussion points in their papers, or using their peers’ comments as a launching point for their own ideas, so if you model this students will get a lot more out of your discussions. It may be hard for you to do this at the beginning of your teaching career, when you may be more worried about your own performance in the classroom, so you can pass this job to students if you prefer. You can make it a rotating job for students to verbalize or circulate via email or Canvas the most important discussion points.

Facilitating Conversation on Difficult Topics

Over the course of the quarter, you will be facilitating conversation on a wide range of topics that can at times feel tense, fraught, and uncomfortable for you and your students. Here are some practices that can help you navigate such situations.

  • Center the discussion around the readings you assign. Lead students to conduct a thorough rhetorical analysis of the text that asks, what are the stakes and urgencies motivating this particular project? For whom are they writing and to what end? What is the specific historical context in which they are writing and how does that inform our reading of the text? Having an explicit discussion of the stakes motivating a particular piece of writing (for example, to make a call for an equitable distribution of wealth, resources, and power and the building of a just society that affirms rather than devaluing human life) as well as the specific context in which its author was writing will make it more difficult for students to dismiss the text as irrelevant, uninteresting, or outdated. Let students know that even if they disagree with the text, they will still be expected to be able to know, engage with, and respond to it in a thoughtful and analytic manner.
  • Use students’ emotional reactions to texts as a starting point for discussion. If students have a particularly negative reaction to a text, push deeper—ask them why and what assumptions of theirs the text has disrupted. A common student response to the Black Panther Party’s “Ten Point Plan,” for instance, is that it is too aggressive, outrageous, and irrational. Yet, what the Black Panther Party is ultimately demanding is universal healthcare and employment, a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex that has consistently criminalized black people, and reparations from the state for its ongoing exploitation of black people. For the Party, these are completely reasonable, rational, and fair demands. Rather than dismissing the “Ten Point Plan” as “outrageous,” then, students can be pushed to engage in a deeper analysis of their own emotional reaction to think through how an assigned reading has pushed, complicated, expanded, or challenged their understanding of the topic and issue in question.
  • Establish a code of conduct on the first day and make it clear to your students what your commitments are as a scholar and instructor. Make it clear on the first day what kind of classroom and intellectual community you’re expecting to build for the rest of the quarter by explicitly defining what appropriate behavior and conduct looks like to you. Belle Kim includes two clauses—a Statement of Commitment and Code of Conduct that she crafted—in her syllabus. She uses the language of “We at the English department” in order to convey the idea that the commitments she describes is shared across the body of instructors and professors in the department rather than just being her own individual preference. Having such clauses in writing is useful because they allow you to set clear expectations and hold your students accountable from the first day onwards. You are welcome to use or adapt either.
    • Statement of Commitment. We at the English department are committed to valuing the lived experiences, embodied knowledges, and scholarship produced by people of color and Indigenous peoples; queer, trans, and disabled people; immigrants and refugees, and other targeted identities who have historically been excluded from sites of knowledge production; denied access to wealth, resources and power; and forced to negotiate multiple interlocking forms of structural and institutional oppression and violence. This commitment emerges from and reflects our shared vision for a just and equitable world that actively affirms and values the humanity of every individual and group. It is this vision that informs our pedagogical practices.
    • Code of Conduct. We at the English department do not condone hate speech. According to the American Bar Association, hate speech is “any speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” While this could and does apply to many groups, one of the tenents of this course is that hate speech is a violence, and that these violences do not impact everyone equally. Rather, the force of their impacts is dependent on systems of power. Marginalized communities and people are vulnerable to and impacted by such speech in ways that groups or individuals in power are not. With this in mind, I will specify that I interpret “hate speech” to be any forms of speech that targets already vulnerable people/communities. Racism and xenophobia will not be tolerated in this course, nor will transphobia, homophobia, ableism, classism, or other statements or practices that uphold white supremacy.
  • Consider also inviting your students to help you generate ground rules for productive difficult conversations across difference. Rather than just providing rules to students, you can also provide guidelines for a code of conduct, such as those examples above, and then ask students to discuss and grapple with them in class and to generate a collective set of practices, commitments, and rules for how the class is going to productively hold space for difficult conversations. This give students a chance to share input and might facilitate a sense of shared trust and responsibility for facilitating conversation.

Preparing for Discussion

Although many of us remember our favorite professors as the ones who made teaching look easy—who could breeze into a classroom and apparently lead brilliant discussions without notes or any other evidence of forethought—most good teaching results from solid preparation.

Discussion Questions
One simple way to prepare is to assemble some discussion questions in advance. Impromptu discussion questions often come across as complicated and muddled, so having a note card or handout with your discussion questions on it will help ensure that your students get the clearest possible articulation of the question. In general, good discussion questions share several qualities:

They cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” For this reason, questions that ask “How,” “What,” or “Why,” tend to be more effective than questions that begin with “Can” or “Is.”

They are specific rather than general, and they do not place too much of the burden on novice students. As graduate students, we are familiar with the practice of classroom discussion, and arrive at our seminars prepared to comment on the text(s) in question and respond to one another. We know that the burden may be on us to provide the class activity, so if our instructor should begin by asking “So, what did you think?” we can still initiate a productive discussion. Not so for our English 131 students, who are generally unfamiliar with student-centered discussions and will respond to initial questions such as “What should we talk about today?” with a combination of dismay, distrust, and/or horror. While we do not want to be so specific that students have no latitude for response, we need to establish some kind of point from which students can work and add some initial structure to the discussion.

Example 1: Discussion Freewrite (Vidali)

Here’s where we apply Percy’s principles to something in particular, and I’ve attached a description from the “Grand Canyon Junkies” website [not included here]. This helps you transition from only doing personal readings to applying Percy’s theories to something specific. As you’ll read, these folks have a little bit of a different take on the “wonders” of the canyon.

The goal is for you to make some connections between Percy and the attached piece. You might wonder if this piece describes getting off the beaten track of the Grand Canyon or not, whether dialectical movement might apply, etc. You may also bring in other ideas regarding these “junkies” as experts, loss of sovereignty….Don’t worry about making a brilliant argument – just do your best to make some connections.

Most important is coming up with something you can share with the class during discussion, so concentrate on ideas, not perfect writing.

Play With Your Environment

Try putting the class in a circle (if your desks are moveable). This encourages students to look at each other and to acknowledge that their audience is the whole class, not just you. In addition, many feminist and liberatory pedagogies encourage circling desks because it can disrupt the traditional hierarchal structure of the classroom. Of course, explain to your students why you want them to sit in a circle and what you want the circle to look like (each student should be able to see everyone else, no huge spaces between desks, etc). Don’t be afraid to give specific instructions to students—especially in the beginning weeks—in order to get your classroom the way you want it (i.e. “Suzy, could you scoot your desk back a little so that Paulo can see?”).

Other Suggested Discussion Activities

  • Read a passage from the text that you want to use as an entry point. Because some students cannot read from the text easily or feel uncomfortable doing so, be sure to ask for a volunteer. Reading first allows students to participate who might not otherwise; it reminds the students what the text was about; and it allows students who didn’t do the reading to find an entry point into the conversation.
  • Start in small groups. Ask students to take 10 minutes (or so) and work in small groups to accomplish specific tasks, such as having them summarize the text and generate one or two discussion questions. You can have students report back to the class or write ideas on the board. The latter is a good idea as it refocuses the class’ attention onto ideas rather than people.
  • Start with students’ experiences. If students are hesitant to talk, you can always start with a topic they are experts on—themselves. Ask if they had favorite passages in the reading and ask them to explain why, or if it was particularly difficult and why. Did they find anything in the piece they could relate to? It shouldn’t be long before you can make a connection back to your planned questions.
  • Have a written discussion. To prepare, write out your discussion questions, putting one each on the top of a separate page (or have student groups come up with their own questions). Then divide the students into small groups and give each group one question to discuss. They should record their response on the question page. After about 10 minutes, have the groups pass their question and response around to the next group who will then read the previous group’s response and offer one of their own. You can continue this in a “round-robin” fashion until all the groups have responded to each question. You also might reserve a day in the computer-integrated classroom and take advantage of GoPost, Catalyst Tool’s real-time, online discussion board program.
  • Have students write the discussion questions. Once students have had time to practice discussion, and have seen your discussion questions in action, you can review the qualities of effective questions and ask students to come up with the questions for the next discussion. Giving students this responsibility teaches them to engage critically with the material, and it can also be a way for students to collaborate on comprehending a difficult reading or idea.
  • Guest panel. Some instructors have had success inviting other graduate students to come to their classes and model an academic discussion. One approach is to have the guest panel begin by the instructors discussing the text amongst themselves—so that the students can see the kinds of statements and responses that are used—and then ask the students to join in. It can also be effective to make time for the students to discuss what they noticed about the graduate student discussion as compared to the discussions they’ve encountered in undergraduate classes. You could end by generating a list of goals or guidelines for discussion in your classroom community.


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2023 English 131 Instructors Manual Copyright © 2022 by kersch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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