How can we get the most out of small group discussion in large classes?

My latest post for the Teaching United States history blog is up.

One of the perennial challenges of the U.S. history survey is that its classes tend to be large. Here in Texas, for example, all undergraduates, regardless of major, have to take the course to graduate. At UTEP, our smallest classes start at 120 and our largest are 270. Regardless of where things fall along that spectrum, holding a discussion in class is a challenge. Last month, I wrote about some lesson plans that I’ve developed using response software that add a layer of interaction and conversation to my lessons. For example, I asked a series of yes/no questions to make a point about the legal and social construction of whiteness. This month I want to talk about some other ways to add a layer of discussion to the class. The basic idea is to use small-group activities so that everyone has an opportunity to talk through a problem or issue.

In addition to multiple-choice questions, most of the major response software programs (like Top Hat and Poll Everywhere), will make word clouds out of short answers that students submit. If you want students to think about, characterize and interpret evidence, you can ask students to summarize or interpret a document in, say, approximately ten words. Since this isn’t something that is going to have only one good answer, you can give students time to talk to their neighbors about what they are seeing and thinking. This works especially well with art. For example, I did a lesson during the week on the Great Depression and the New Deal on the culture of the Popular Front. I showed two classics of the genre: first we listened to Paul Robeson’s “Ballad for Americans,” and then I read the text that accompanied Martha Graham’s “American Document.” The students then had some time to discuss and characterize the work, helping them to see how Popular Front culture offered a pluralistic account of American identity. (A couple of weeks later, I show video of Paul Robeson and the Peekskill Riots of 1949 to demonstrate how the culture of the Popular Front was a victim of the climate of McCarthyism.) Having the students talk to each other and characterize the art in their own words help the content be memorable.

Of course, multiple-choice questions can also give students a chance to discuss complex issues with each other. All that needs to be done is to ask students whether they agree with an argument—or, to add a level of cognitive complexity or to have students avoid the feeling of putting themselves on the spot—what someone else what would have thought about it. This works best when there are moral stakes to how we understand history. For example, in discussing affluence and exclusion in the 1950s, I had students read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s well-known essay “The Case for Reparations.” (It fits the 1950s because housing and mortgage discrimination during the 1950s and early 1960s is key to the argument.) I asked students whether they thought their parents would agree with Coates’s argument, and gave them some time to discuss it with the people around them. (During these conversations, my TA and I circulate to try to bring together shyer groups—not always with complete success.) After that, I asked them whether they themselves agreed. The questions were simple (and of course could even be done without any response software), but they provide opportunities for the students to discuss thing with each other. The response software makes it possible to get a sense of the opinion of the class as a whole and thus helps the transition to a large-group discussion. Even though it’s usually the same relatively small group of students who are willing to talk to the whole class, I know that at least the others have had a chance to participate and have the learning gains associated with talking through a complex problem. Given that they start with small group discussion, these kinds of activities should scale up regardless of the size of the class.

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