Dordt College News

What students want profs to know

August 17, 2011

The advanced courses in most majors are the most likely to be small classes—the kind that students say allows them to learn the most.

A panel of four students took the hot seats in April for a conversation about what it takes to have good classroom discussions.

Seniors Jessica Drenton and Sarah Seymour, junior Gary Huitsing, and sophomore Alex Updike gave their suggestions about what they believe their professors should know for leading good discussions. At the top of the list was class size.

“It needs to be small,” says Huitsing. “Most kids aren’t going to talk in big classes—they’re afraid they’ll be shot down by someone they don’t know.”

“The prof needs to be personable, part of the conversation and not overriding it and always pointing out how you’re wrong. That makes students feel dumb,” says Updike.

Seymour, who says she’s rarely hesitant to speak up, says, “Make sure students do the reading—give them an incentive if need be, because you can’t have a good discussion without it.” She notes that she’s very busy and if she doesn’t know she absolutely needs to have something read, she may not get to it until she finds time to fit it into her schedule. She also encourages breaking into small groups to start discussions.

“While all of us like hearing you talk for 45 minutes, talking in small groups helps us process what we’re hearing,” she said with a smile at the table of professors.

Drenton suggested that providing discussion questions helps students be better participants in class discussions.

Throughout the hour of conversation, the students threw out a variety of other factors they believe contribute to good discussions: clustering students closely together in a classroom, holding debates, being strategic about forming small groups, calling students by name, walking around the classroom.

“Students want to see the professor having a good time teaching—it makes them feel that what they’re learning is important and worthwhile,” says Huitsing.

“Whatever tone gets set early in the semester will stick,” says Updike. He believes that students form impressions that are hard to change.

Drenton notes that discussion seems to happen more naturally in some majors than others. And all of the students say that discussion is easier in courses in their majors.

How well discussions go is not all on the professors’ shoulders. Seymour admits, “If you’re in class with people who don’t care, it’s easy to adopt the attitude that it’s not worth putting extra effort into the discussion.” She adds, “Students who dominate or just continue to argue to push their agendas—students who often know a lot and know they know a lot—make others feel that it isn’t worth trying to participate in class.” She’s quick to point out that that doesn’t mean they won’t discuss issues—instead, those conversations will happen during practice or in the residence halls or coffee shop, without the professor.

So what did professors learn?

“The take-away message for me was to set the tone early in the semester regarding your expectations for class discussion and participation,” says Psychology Professor Natalie Sandbulte.

Although they found the conversation worthwhile, many of the suggestions were not new to seasoned professors—and some of them, like having small classes, are out of their control. So is avoiding 8 a.m. class “No matter what you do, you won’t get people to talk at 8 in the morning,” observes Huitsing.

Media Access: Download Word Version | High Resolution Image: 1