The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

Class Discussions – Ideas for Use and Study

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Written by Jennifer Friberg, Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL and Associate Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at Illinois State University

At EuroSoTL in June, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop session titled “Construction as a tool for reflection – A LEGO workshop,” developed by Dr. Staffan Andersson and Dr. J. Andersson Chronholm of Uppsala University in Sweden. The workshop allowed attendees to use LEGO Serious Play in exploring and discussing issues related to SoTL. I can certainly say we did discuss issues that are important in the SoTL world. But in doing so, we had FUN meaningfully engaging with each other as we told our SoTL stories (stay tuned – Dr. Andersson has agreed to write a blog on the experience with photos of our LEGO work in an upcoming SoTL Advocate blog!). On my plane ride home from the conference, I pondered the LEGO workshop, wondering how I could similarly engage my students in thinking about important disciplinary issues in unexpected ways.

Discussion bookBack in my office, I recalled a book I had purchased recently by Stephen Brooksfield and Stephen Preskill titled The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking – and sat down to read. Different from more familiar teaching/learning handbooks and resources, this book focuses exclusively on engaging in discussions across a variety of contexts for a wide range of purposes – a topic with an appeal to both public and private sector stakeholders: managers, employees, volunteers, teachers, and students. Looking at the techniques explained in the book, I noted some overlap (e.g., Think-Pair-Share or Critical Debate) with popular teaching/learning books such as Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2005); however, plenty of “new to me” ideas also were set forth by the authors.

In terms of organization, Brookfield and Preskill’s book includes ideas to accomplish the following:

  • Get discussion going with new groups
  • Promote good questioning
  • Foster active listening
  • Hold discussions without speaking
  • Get people out of their comfort zone
  • Engage in a text-based discussion
  • Democratize participation
  • Transition from small to large groups
  • Building group cohesion
  • Making group decisions

Each technique is presented in a formulaic manner within its own chapter in the book. Each chapter contains the following sections:

  • Purpose of technique
  • How it works
  • Where and when it works well
  • What users appreciate
  • What to watch out for
  • Questions that fit the technique

While I found several techniques that look promising for use with my classes and students this term (particularly a technique termed “single word sum-ups” to help my students speak briefly, concicely, and find themes across classmates), I was struck by the lack of any real evidence presented to accompany these. Great ideas? The book has many. Evidence to suggest that the techniques explained are effective? That was most definitely lacking.

What does that mean for us as SoTL enthusiasts? Well, thinking specifically of McKinney’s (2007) teaching continuum, this book could appeal to good teachers who apply these techniques with thought and care, scholarly teachers who seek evidence elsewhere to support the use of these strategies prior to applying them, and scholars of teaching and learning who take the opportunity to engage in classroom-based SoTL to systematically study the effectiveness of the techniques they choose to apply. From a teaching and learning standpoint, it is the case that this book offers potential benefit to many (students, teachers, scholars). So perhaps it truly does offer something for everyone. However, I DO hope that some instructors are tempted to study the outcomes of using any techniques they try! Such a study might be the perfect opportunity for a student or faculty member looking to engage in their first (or 50th!) SoTL experience.


Blog references:

Anderson, S. & Anderson Chronholm, J. (2017, June). Construction as a tool for reflection: A LEGO workshop. Presentation at EuroSoTL in Lund, Sweden.

Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. & Preskill, S. (2016). The discussion book: 50 great ways to get people talking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McKinney, K. (2007). Enhancing learning through the scholarship of teaching and learning: The challenges and joys of juggling. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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