Class discussions present teachers with a number of different challenges, including the often limited number who participate, those who make comments but do so without having done the reading, and the many students who, as Emily Gravett notes, treat class discussions as “down time.” (p. 75) They relax in their seats, discretely (or not) check their phones, and almost never take notes unless the teacher says something they consider important.
Good discussions are education down times. They provide opportunities for students to better understand content by having to speak about it. They provide teachers with feedback indicating levels of understanding (and misunderstanding). They can be part of what transforms a group of students into a learning community. And perhaps most important, they give students the chance to learn from each other. But that doesn’t happen if students aren’t listening to each other.
Although Gravett used a number of different approaches to create an environment in which students valued each other’s contributions—she included a statement to that effect on her syllabus, co-created a list of discussion norms with students, and provided advice on responding to the comments of peers—“none of these strategies seemed to increase the extent to which students were actually documenting what others said, as if those were valuable comments worth remembering or reviewing later.” (p. 76) In other words, students were not taking notes on what anybody other than the teacher said.
Gravett’s solution was an online weekly reflections assignment, worth 10 percent of the course grade. In their reflections, students responded to three questions similar to those suggested by Stephen Brookfield in his Critical Incident Questionnaire: What was the most important thing you learned from discussion this week? What was the most surprising or unsettling idea you heard in discussion this week and why? What was the contribution from a peer that most inspired or impressed you and why? (p. 77) Students earned full credit for “thoughtful, specific, and timely reflections.” (p. 76)
To reinforce the assignment and integrate it into the rest of the course, Gravett encouraged students to write down students’ comments whenever she heard notable ones. “Tyrone makes a really interesting point. It’s one that you might consider writing down.” She also shared content from the reflection papers in class, naming whose comment or insight she was sharing. And she included questions on quizzes and exams based on information exchanged during class discussions.
The assignment was a success, documented by a variety of student comments included in the article and by some quantitative data collected via a survey. In discussions in other courses 90 percent of the students reported that they took notes when the instructor said something they considered noteworthy. Only 25 percent reported they did that when a student said something they considered noteworthy. In Gravett’s course, 95 percent of the students were noting in writing what other students said.
Is this assignment viable in a large course? Probably not in this form, but certainly with modifications. It need not be a weekly assignment—even doing an assignment like this once or twice might encourage students to start listening to each other a bit more intently. A randomly identified percentage of students could be assigned a reflection paper after each class discussion. Students could only respond to the question that asked about the comment of a peer.
It’s definitely an assignment that encourages more intense levels of listening during discussions. Gravett reports some other benefits as well. Students shared these reflection papers online and they started reading and responding to each other’s papers, thereby extending the discussion that had occurred in class. Writing assignments like these, even though they are low-stakes, cannot be completed without a review of the notes taken during the discussion. That means more contact with content and an in-your-face encounter with the quality of your notes.
For Gravett, the assignment meant more “just-in-time-teaching” was possible. She found out what students learned during the discussion. Sometimes that resulted in adjusting plans for the coming week. The assignment also gave Gravett some unexpected insights into the lives of her students, and, as a result, she felt as though she got to know her students better.
Gravett, E. O. (2018). Note-taking during discussion: Using a weekly reflection assignment to motivate students to learn from their peers. College Teaching, 66
And a few extra thoughts on note-taking during discussion. There are other ways instructors can encourage students to reflect and record the points made during discussions:
- Time out! Stop the discussion midstream or during a lull. Then use prompts like: Write down something you’ve heard in the discussion that you don’t want to forget. What are the two or three keys ideas that have emerged in the discussion so far? What did someone say that you’d like to us to talk a bit more about? Where does the discussion need to go next? Give students a minute to reflect and then a minute to write down what they’re thinking (a bit more time, if everyone’s still writing). Ask for volunteers to read what they’ve written; if possible, let what they have written stand without teacher correction or elaboration.
- Frame the discussion around a question. Show it on a slide or the board. Before the discussion starts, encourage everyone to write the question in their notes. Close the discussion by having students write an answer to the question. Have several students share and ask the rest of the class how those answers are similar or different from what they’ve written.
- Leave time for a summary. When the discussion ends have students jot down words, phrases, and sentences that summarize the main points of the discussion. After they’ve had time to write, have partners share with each other what they’ve written. How many of the main points are the same? How many are different?
- And don’t forget Gravett’s great strategy. If something from the discussion shows up on a quiz or exam and it is pointed out to students, during the next discussion more pencils, pens, and keypads will be in use.