Last term I instituted a new scheme in my intermediate level courses: require short presentations on pre-assigned discussion questions from every student and recycle those questions as essay fodder for the tests and exams. It’s done a fair bit of what I want: ensure that even in a class of eighty, students were speaking every day without my resorting to picking faces out of the crowd. It also led to a lively culture on the discussion boards in our course software as part of the mark was not only for oral presentation, but for posting a polished version of that classroom comment and then responding to others.
I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from students who’ve appreciated this system, particularly that the questions are provided ahead of time so they can prepare for class with that opening theme in mind as well as know that can guide them in test preparation. I’m sure that there are others who’re not quite so happy, of course. I hope none of them are as disenchanted as this group of students at Utah Valley University but I do have tenure and a supportive administration behind me. (Of course, I accommodate students who can’t do oral presentations, say, for the student who has a nasty sore throat on the day – they can provide me a short paragraph, suitable to project via PowerPoint and I’ll share that in class with an invitation for the entire class to respond. But there were only 3 students who needed that accommodation in last term’s survey of eighty!)
I’m finding that the most difficult part of this is designing the best question that I can for each class session. I’m writing questions with the day’s reading in mind. Sometimes the text offers a great opening for interpretation and debate. Other times the ‘angle’ isn’t so obvious and I waffle for hours, reworking the question until I find something with which I’m happy. Because I’ve committed myself to not only using the questions in the class session, but also in the tests, they also have to be open for a broader, thematic analysis when it comes time for the quiz, midterm or semester final exam. So spending time on the questions pays off. That’s how I spent a great deal of time in the week leading up to course launch: tweaking with the discussion question list. Now it’s set in stone and I have a bunch of class sessions already full subscribed with students who’re excited to prepare for their turn.
They’re not magic tools but pre-circulated discussion questions with students presentations are definitely staying in my survey repetoire!