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[personal profile] apolliana
I have always hated discussion classes. At St. John's, I'd spend the day preparing for a seminar, not get to speak in it, and go home feeling miserable knowing that however much I loved the material and however much work I did, my grades would be terrible. Often I'd cry after classes for which I'd put in a lot of preparation. That didn't change in graduate school. Classes in which I cared about the material and spent the day preparing were especially bad. (It's easier to not care what you say or how the class goes when you don't care about the material.) And especially when the professor yelled. More weeping, followed by a migraine.

Discussion-based learning is only useful to an individual student if she gets to guide the discussion; and the difference between the places I wanted to go and the places the rest of the group did was always huge, so I reasoned that the majority ought to get their preference. (Perhaps I'm an innate utilitarian.) I still think like this. But this isn't to say discussion isn't valuable and something I need. Discussion with a single person at a time is.

Group discussion contexts often stifle my inner dialogue. Being surrounded by peers is not a good situation for opening up one's mind. There's too much going on to follow a line of thought. Thinking is something one does in private, in a pleasant place, when distractions are tuned out and one is relaxed. Feeling safe is of the utmost importance to this. Otherwise all kinds of defenses take over and make thinking difficult. Part of the problem, then, is that group environments are threatening (intrinsically, not just sometimes), and part of the problem is that they're too busy.

When I think about classes I've enjoyed being in, there are only a few. If groups, they were tiny (<5) and did not exhibit significant power structures; we were engaged in a task together, and it was pretty clear what to DO in the actual class. That is, one could prepare things one would like to talk about and actually talk about them. (That's happened twice the entire time I've been in school. And when I think about it now, the preparation I did for them was much like preparing to lead a discussion section these days, even though I wasn't the leader. Knowing how to prepare is important.) Another type was a lecture with a lot of individual feedback: the professor often asked students to write responses to questions and problems. These weren't graded; I don't know whether he ever looked at them. But I loved those classes so much I went to them when I wasn't even enrolled.

In the future, then, as a leader of classes, I might want:
1. to have students write their own responses to questions more often
2. to make it so that students know how to prepare for discussion classes
3. break large groups into smaller groups, and give people roles within the groups, so they're not distracted by floundering in social chaos.

2. is hard. In my first seminar at St. John's one of the tutors asked me, in particular, to come up with possible seminar questions before class. He never asked my questions, and I never knew if I was supposed to ask them (I assumed I was just being evaluated based on them). It helped neither my performance nor my grade, and I felt awful for being singled out as in need of remedial something or other. So, whatever I do--NOT that.

Many professors do things like that, for instance having students post something either to them or to an online discussion board before class. But I've always hated the publicity of this and found it stifling. (When posted to a professor, they'd often tell me how much my questions stunk.) So perhaps just requiring them to write something and not evaluating it or showing it to others would be better. Another possibility is to have a discussion board but have all contributions be anonymous. If that could be done, it might have interesting results.
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