Classroom Discussion

groups.jpgRules for the Road


  1. When the conversation deteriorates into a back and forth between two people, anyone can call for a “timeout” to talk about process instead of content.
  2. Acknowledge opinions: “in my opinion…” or “I think it’s this way because….”
  3. Depending on the conversation, you don’t have to quote your source precisely, i.e. “Today’s New York Times has an article on page 3 that says…” but, I want you to be able to tell us where you’re getting your information or idea. For example, if I heard about the possibility of a Mendocino county sales tax on the morning news on the radio while driving to class, I should be able to say so if someone asks. I should be able to report which station. If I can’t remember the specifics, my job then becomes to find the specifics and bring them in for our next class meeting.
  4. You don’t need to raise your hand and be called on, but, I may impose that kind of order when necessary.
  5. Sometimes I may run the discussions a bit like they do in congress. I’ll set the clock. If we have twenty minutes to debate a topic, each person will have approximately a minute of that twenty minutes. I’ll play the role of the clerk and tell you when you’ve exceeded your time. This is a very lose approximation. I’m not going to watch the clock or impose hard and fast limits on anyone, but I will intervene if things start to feel out of balance.
  6. You don’t have to speak, but I encourage everyone to offer at least one observation, even if it’s brief, during each group discussion.
  7. For those of you who are good at talking, think in terms of speaking for no more than a minute at any one time. We’re not delivering lectures to each other, but rather comments and observations.
  8. If you have an idea or a position that will take a longer time to present, ask the group if you can have extra time to do it, prepare us, and still think in terms of no more than a couple of minutes. That’s actually a long time.
  9. Stick with the topic at hand as best you can. If you’re introducing an idea that seems tangential, explain the connection.
  10. Please be thoughtful and respectful at all times. If you’re angry, focus you’re anger not the rest of us, but on the issue that makes you angry. Tell us why you’re angry as calmly as you can.

Our Purpose Here

  • To increase understanding. We want to expand awareness of the topics and issues at hand, and learn to bring our insights to the group without undermining others.
  • To always move toward mutual respect. We are working together to improve our ability to make sense of the world in which we live.
  • To examine our attitudes and opinions. The goal is to understand what is actually important to you, to sharpen your ability to communicate, and to develop greater effectiveness in your written and verbal communications.


Styles of Communication

  • Competitive:Tends towards a competitive style, knows what they want. They usually operate from a position of power, drawn from things like position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability.
  • Collaborative: Tending towards a style that attempts to meet the needs of all everyone involved. Can be highly assertive, but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone or every idea is important.
  • Compromising: People who prefer to compromise when seeking a solution. Everyone is expected to give up something, including the compromiser.
  • Accommodating: A willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of your own needs. The accommodator knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted.
  • Avoiding: Tends to evade the conflict. Often remains silent, delegating controversial decisions and accepting default decisions.

Classroom Contracts

(from Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University)

Every classroom has contracts in place, some explicit, some implicit. The explict contracts are usually found in the syllabus: what the course is about, what has to be read when, what and when papers or exams are due, what the grading scheme is. There are also many implicit contracts at work: who gets to speak, for how long, how do they get to speak, who sets the agenda, what kind of learning is expected, how is success measured.

Explicit Contracts

  • Weekly classroom topics
  • Reading assignments, when to read each piece
  • Writing assignments, dates due
  • Exams, dates
  • Rules about late papers, absences
  • Often, grading percentages

Implicit Contracts

  • Who talks in this classroom; when; how long; how do they get the floor?
  • Who sets the agenda, how shared is it?
  • Is this a place for competition or collaboration?
  • Is it safe to make mistakes, to fail?
  • What is success in this classroom? how is it measured? how is it achieved?
  • What are the boundaries between student and teacher? between student and student?
  • What levels of learning are featured: intellectual, emotional, experiential, ethical?
  • What styles of learning are emphasized: structured? open?
  • What is the big agenda? What is the story line of the course? What are the underlying questions?
  • What will be learned? Are students asked to learn facts, to think through problems?
  • Why is the professor doing what he/she is doing when he/she does it?

Listening Better