Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Conducting Small-Group Discussions in a Large Room

Applicantus asks:

Fellow smokers, I need a bit of teaching advice or some help brainstorming. My class will be taking place in a very large classroom where the chairs are pinned to the floor. I was planning on quite a bit of small group discussion during class, but that would now be a challenge. Or will it? How realistic will it be to ask students to turn around in their chairs and discuss with those seated behind them? How many at a time? This is a medical ethics class, and so I was planning on many case studies. (The reason I only found it out now is that the classroom was being renovated and last year the chairs were not bolted to the floor in that particular room; it is now much fancier, though not very conducive for my purposes - and it's too late to change rooms, since I have 80 students).

Any thoughts?

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

In my own cynical experience, students in the back will have no problem rubbernecking around. Getting them to actually talk about the case instead of football may be a problem.

More seriously. At least in our parts there is usually ample floor space, aisle space, space around the walls, etc. to accommodate students in small groups. You might also be able to take them outdoors.

OR, back to cynicism....given the modern students' propensity to text and chat online, I'm sure they can all communicate from their seats without problems.

Anonymous said...

How realistic will it be to ask students to turn around in their chairs and discuss with those seated behind them?

It's almost completely unrealistic, unless you're willing to provide them with painfully explicit guidelines for what to discuss, how to record their findings, and a reward (points) for doing all this well/correctly.

I suspect that anything less formal than that won't work very well and will seem like a waste of time to the students and you.

zombie said...

You don't mention the class size, but I'm assuming a moderate-sized class in an overly large room. This can work. I've taught phil & film classes that way, with 30 students, where we were in a large lecture hall with fixed desks so that we'd have the use of the projector.

What I do is this: at the start of the first class, I ask everyone to move to the first 3 rows, partly so I don't have to shout to be heard in the back, and so that I can hear them. At the start of EVERY class thereafter, if anyone is sitting further back, I ask that everyone move to the first three rows. After the first week or two, they all just sit in the first 3 rows without being asked. No one has ever refused to move. (During the film screenings, they could sit wherever they pleased)

I assign the discussion groups based on where they're seated, rather than letting them choose their own groups. After the first few weeks, everyone pretty much has their "spot" fixed. The chairs in the lecture hall swiveled around, so it was easy enough for them to turn their chairs to talk to each other. Typically, I broke them up into quadrants. Usually I asked everyone to discuss the same questions. I would write the questions on the board so that they could keep them in front of them. They'd get a fixed amount of time to discuss and come to a decision. And then each group would be called on to make their case. Sometimes, if we were discussing the prisoner's dilemma, e.g., I'd assign each group to a specific position and make them defend it.

I'm all in favor of encouraging class discussions like this. The students seem to enjoy it, and it gives them a break from listening to me yap.

I find that getting the students to move to the front of the room is pretty important when you're in a room that's too large. The students who migrate to the back tend to be the least attentive, the most distracted, and the ones who do the worst. When they're right in front of you, they have to at least pretend to be paying attention.

zombie said...

Upon reading your post more carefully, I see that you do mention the class size. I suspect that breaking 80 students up into manageable discussion groups would be somewhat difficult and time consuming. Not impossible, but difficult. If you had groups of ten (which is a large group for discussion), you'd need to sort them into 8 groups. I suppose you could permanently assign the groups at the beginning of the term to save time, as long as they all sit in the same places.

As for physically grouping them, what I said above still applies, adjusted as needed.

Applicantus said...

Thank you all for your comments. I intend to give them very clear directions - a case study and a few specific questions to guide the discussion, either printed out or projected, and will ask them to write down their answers. So I expect this to take up quite a bit of time, but I want it to; I want a valuable discussion. Sadly, the classroom will be completely full, and no extra space around the seats. Mostly I was wondering about the viability of having small discussions under such conditions, in case anyone has ever tried that. I suppose I'll have to try for myself and report back!

Anonymous said...

assign small groups to give in-class group presentations, where each kid speaks for, say, 5 minutes of the group presentation. They'll meet on their own and discuss, and then you'll hear the product of it.

gwern said...

I'd say it's unreasonable. And any attempt to address the whole class will be stymied by size, and that's assuming you're lucky enough to be in a large yet quiet room. (Many large university rooms have distinct background noises that render normal conversation at a distance impossible.)

Anonymous said...

I've taught medical ethics with 80 students in an 80-seat classroom with fixed seats. My class was fortunate to have Friday recitations where they met in smaller groups, so I saved extended group discussion assignments for then. But in lecture I did, with reasonable success, often ask them simply to turn to the person next to them and discuss the possible answers to a specific question about a case. I kept these discussion breaks to under 5 minutes (usually closer to 2 minutes), and then went around and randomly asked people to sum up their discussions.

Something like this might be a good compromise, if having longer discussions in bigger groups turns out to generate chaos. You could also assign them to small "study groups" at the beginning of the semester and require them to meet outside of class, then report back.

If there is no recitation, I think it would also be reasonable to cancel a small number of lectures, with replacement assignments to meet in small groups and put together some kind of presentation or report (could be a written report posted on Blackboard that others then have to comment on).

Applicantus said...

Anon 7:31, thanks so much -- this is incredibly helpful. I actually just managed to arrange recitations instead of my Friday classes (it's a M-W-F class), and will also follow your pairwise (or slightly larger) discussion breaks. Between these two things, sounds like I'll have all the discussion I need. Many thanks!!