Erika Romero

PhD Candidate and Education Blogger

What Class Discussion Designs Work Well in the Literature Classroom?

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Finding multiple, engaging, class discussion designs to use in a literature classroom can be a struggle for any discussion-heavy course. With weeks of discussions to lead each semester, keeping students invested in participating in the same types of discussion can be difficult, even if the material under discussion is quite different. I tend to rely pretty heavily on a few of the discussion designs described in today’s post, but I’ve also included a couple that many of my students often haven’t experienced before my course. I’ve had a lot of success with all of these class discussion designs, though I’m always looking for new ideas. 

Think Pair Share

This activity tends to be pretty well-known in education circles, but, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s a quick description: You give students a task to complete individually for a few minutes. Then, they pair up with a partner (or in a small group) and discuss their responses to the task/prompt you gave them for a few more minutes. Finally, they share their answers with the class as a whole, usually via a whole-class discussion led by the instructor. 

I use this structure all the time in my writing and literature courses. Giving students time to “think” and “pair” helps them have discussion points that they are ready to make by the time you open up the discussion to the whole class. It’s a great way for them to gain confidence in their understanding of the class material, since they have time to think about the reading on their own and double-check with a few peers before you ask them to speak in front of the whole class and yourself.

Note: You might also prefer using just “Think Share” or “Pair Share” designs, if you’re short on time. 

This written material can be turned in for participation credit, while Think Pair Shares might not require or involve writing down any information. Click To Tweet

Free Write to Class Discussion

This is pretty similar to a “Think Share,” but it specifically asks students to write down certain information before taking part in a whole-class discussion. This written material can be turned in for participation credit, while Think Pair Shares might not require or involve writing down any information. Students writing for a few minutes before a class discussion can have many forms and purposes. For example, it can be a fully free write prompt where you ask students to just write down their thoughts on the day’s reading. Or, you can give them a specific writing prompt or three so they have some direction in regard to what you want them to discuss in detail later on in the class period. 

Note: My free writes definitely aren’t always sentence-based. I’ve had students draw concept maps or other visual types of notes in preparation for our discussion. In these cases, I ask if any student wants to show their creation to the class via the doc-cam or just by standing up and showing it around. 

Class Discussion Designs that Work Well in the Literature Classroom (Infographic)

Small Group Presentations

This is a great format once students have spent a few weeks getting to know one another and the class material. I split students up into groups of 4-5 and have them complete an activity I’ve designed. They usually have about 20 or so minutes to complete the task. Then, each group must come up to the front of the class and present their response to their peers. With any time left, we come together as a large group and discuss the connections they noticed between the presentations and consider what topics haven’t yet been discussed.

Note: The task I give each group tends to include at least 2-4 elements, so that group members can more easily divide the labor of speaking when presenting their answers.

Note 2: If you’re interested in including a more developed version of this activity, I have a whole post about the major group project I assign in my literature courses.

Class Survey Debates

When students lead their group literary analysis activities in my ENG 170 and ENG 125 courses, they often use the digital tool of Kahoot as a starting point. In my ENG 128 class this semester, I used this tool for the first time, but in a different manner than my students usually use. I think using the survey feature of Kahoot (or another digital tool) can lead to great debates among students. You can project a statement or question and provide up to four answers for students to choose from. Then, you can spend time having students debate their answers by providing support for their answer via the class material. 

For example, ENG 128 is entitled “Gender in the Humanities,” and involves the reading and analysis of literary texts in relation to concepts like gender norms, roles, stereotypes, etc. I’ve designed my section to focus on fantasy and science fiction YA novels, with one realism text used as a juxtaposition to the other four. This week and next, we are reading The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag. So, one statement I’ve composed for next week’s debate/discussion is, “The regulations around shapeshifting and witchery are most heavily reinforced by…” The possible answers are “the female adults” “the male adults” “the female children” and “the male children.” Students will have to lock in their answer in the Kahoot survey. Once the results are in, we will then spend time having a debate in which students use textual evidence to support their answer. Then, we’ll move on to the next statement/question. Since students will know how many people agree with them via the projected survey results, I’m hoping that students will organically join in with one another once the debates begin.

When that group of students picked this design and led their classmates through it, however, it was one of the best discussions our class had ever had. Click To Tweet

Fish Bowl

This discussion design was introduced to me last semester, during one of the group discussion leading activities. Basically, the students are divided into small groups and are given a list of questions to answer. The number of questions correspond with the number of students per group (or not, but this way makes it easier). The groups have time to answer all the questions. Then, each student from each group is assigned to represent the group for one particular question. They sit at the front or center of the room and discuss their group’s answer to their question with the other group representatives. Students rotate sitting in the “fish bowl” as each question is discussed.

I tend to be uncomfortable with requiring students to speak in class. I’m well aware of how nerve-wracking that experience can be as a student. When that group of students picked this design and led their classmates through it, however, it was one of the best discussions our class had ever had. Since students have the support of their group when originally answering the questions, this design can minimize the anxiety of speaking aloud. I plan on trying this activity in ENG 128 in a few weeks. I’m curious to see how it’ll go.

Final Thoughts

These are just a few basic class discussion designs that tend to work well in my college literature courses. There are definitely plenty more approaches to take, but I’ve been thinking about these in particular since I sent out a survey asking what college instructors (especially graduate student instructors) want to see more of on my blog. [The survey is still live, if you’re a grad student and have a few minutes to fill it out. Adjuncts and other college instructors are welcome to fill it out, as well. Every response will help.] So far, I’ve definitely seen a common wish for more activity ideas to use in the classroom. I hope this post proved helpful in this regard. There was also a pattern in regard to the common concern of how to give good-but-quick feedback. For this latter interest, I actually just wrote a post about how to make grading easier, and I have an older one about types of feedback I use in my courses. I look forward to creating more content with my readers’ concerns and interests in mind.

>>If you’d like to join your fellow college instructors in receiving notifications of my new blog posts going live, you can join the mailing list here. You’ll receive access to my blog-related PDFs, as well, which are all located in my resource library.<<

What’s your favorite class discussion design? Share your design choices in the comments section below!

Class Discussion Designs that Work Well in the Literature Classroom
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2 Comments

  1. These are great! I do a different version of fishbowl, but I think yours is better. The version I use is terrifying to some students.

    I don’t know if I am willing g to say that one discussion models is my favorite, but I use them to fit certain purposes.

    I developed my own discussion model that is an upgrade of Think-Pair-Share (TPS). It’s TPS with movement, and takes place over a series of days, so students can hear multiple perspectives and keep track of how their understanding about a topic or book is growing or shifting (you know, like in college). It’s very simple to deploy and for students to understand what to do. AND it even works great for students who aren’t all that keen on talking in class.

    I was invited on the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast to talk about it. You can find the post and episode here: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/ongoing-conversations/

    • Erika Romero

      February 22, 2019 at 3:26 PM

      Thanks for sharing your resource! I think your conversation tracker approach to class discussions is a fantastic idea for freshman students in particular, who are in the early stages of finding college friends. Many of my gen ed upperclass students don’t tend to know each other either, but my ENG 170 students often register for their classes with a friend or two (it’s the first course in a series for ed majors). I tend to alternate between having students group up with the classmates next to them and counting off the number of group members needed for an activity. With the first approach, discussion tends to start more smoothly. In the latter, discussions might start off a bit awkwardly, but it allows for a perspective diversification that I believe should be a priority in discussion-heavy literature courses.

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