Tools for Discussion: An Interpersonal Growth Toolkit

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Allison Anoll at Vanderbilt University!

Classroom discussion is a common pedagogical tool, but many instructors and students alike find themselves lost with the lack of structure.  Equally problematic, standard approaches to grading participation that simply count how often students speak can (re)produce racial and gender disparities.

How can we, as instructors, lead effective discussions? How can we help students grow in their interpersonal skills while also ensuring classrooms are inclusive spaces?

In my small, seminar classes I use a tool for structuring and assessing participation I call the Interpersonal Growth Toolkit.This tool relies heavily on a framework developed by Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher, where he argues that classroom discussion skills need to be taught just like any other learning goal. The Interpersonal Growth Toolkit provides students with learning goals for classroom discussion, tools for achieving these goals, and regular sources of feedback from the instructor about progress.

Here’s how it works. I start by identifying skills I want students to learn and practice in the discussion setting. In my classes, that’s: 1) humility; 2) confidence; and 3) social science thinking. I provide students with a detailed list of tools for how they can practice each of these themes. For instance, to practice humility, students can,

  • Provide credit to classmates for ideas and inspiration by using their name in comments.
  • Ask the group for a moment of silence to slow the pace of discussion and allow you (and others) time to gather your thoughts.
  • Find a way to express appreciation for what is new, interesting, or challenging in the discussion. Be specific about what has helped you understand something new.
  • Make a comment or ask questions that encourages others to elaborate on their ideas.

I then ask my students to identify which of the three areas—humility, confidence, or social science thinking— they are weakest in as a discussion participant.  My students then develop an individualized growth plan by identifying 2-3 skills in their area of weakness they want to try out in class. They write these skills on an index card that I hand back to them at the beginning of each class for the first two weeks. At mid-term, they write a brief reflection on how they think they are doing in their area of growth and what they want to work on for the rest of the semester. In combination with my own notes, I prepare mid-term feedback for each student about their performance in the three areas and tools to try in the second half of the semester. Students receive a final grade for their participation based on their growth and performance in each of the three areas.

This approach increases the quality of classroom discussions immensely. Not only do students and the instructor have a clear sense of what people are supposed to be doing during discussion time, but students themselves can become advocates of inclusivity in the classroom. Students who lean towards dominating a discussion are asked to think about how they can use their skills to draw others in; students who are nervous speaking up are provided with skills for finding their space and ways into a discussion. Using this technique, I have seen students grow immensely over the course of a semester with quieter students getting bolder and more dominant students using their skills to build bridges between other’s ideas. In my seminar courses, it is the norm to hear from every student multiple times over the course of a discussion.

This approach and assessment are well-suited for relatively small classes (less than 20 students). In larger classes, it is more difficult to build a community of trust that fosters vulnerability and to find enough time for all the students to practice their skills. However, this tool is suitable for any level of instruction: I use it with freshman, seniors, and even new graduate students. Instructors should feel empowered to adapt the skills they want students to learn in the discussion as long as they also provide specific tools to complement these skills. Want students to practice intellectual curiosity as a core skill instead of humility? Develop a list of tools that students can practice in a discussion to build this skill. You can look at chapter 8 of Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher for more tools to consider.

To implement this assessment, remember to include a learning objective in your syllabus that highlights interpersonal growth as a key goal of the course.  I use, “By the end of the course, you will be able to:demonstrate growth in discussion techniques including close listening, speaking with evidence, challenging with respect, and summarizing others’ contributions.’’

Keeping track of student contributions and how they fit into each assessment category can be difficult to do on your own while also leading the discussion. When I use this tool, I hire an advanced undergraduate or graduate student to sit in class with me and keep track of student contributions. I use these notes to develop feedback and grades for my students.

You can find details about The Interpersonal Growth Tool Kit here. The document also includes a rubric. (In general, I’m a big fan of rubrics, but that’s a topic for another day.) Happy discussing!