Student-led Discussions Foster Compassion

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Anna Tomi, Scandinavian

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2022

When teaching Reading and Composition, I often encounter a wonderful group of students enthusiastic to display their knowledge and engage with the instructor. But when it’s time for the students to talk to each other, they withdraw into silence. This is no surprise, as our society encourages students to see success as an individual effort, while considering each other as competition. But critical thinking and analytical reading—the main learning goals of a Reading & Composition class—are creative skills, best developed through collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. So how can an instructor bring about a change in how students view each other, if only within the walls of one classroom?

To this end, I’ve implemented a group project assignment, which allows students to both exercise the course’s most important learning goal (analytical thinking) while simultaneously developing a conducive group dynamic. For this assignment, a group of students leads the discussion on a reading material for one class. The goal of the exercise is not for them to present on their own ideas to the class, but to foster an analytical discussion by asking questions and drawing out interesting observations from their peers. Leading a discussion is not easy, which is why I have broken the process down into several smaller steps, working closely with each presenting group for several weeks. Before the discussion leading, the presenting group meets with me twice. About two weeks before their allotted time, we meet briefly, and I give them tips about how to lead a discussion (for example, ask only one question at a time; start from simple questions and proceed towards more complex ones). We take time to reflect on what makes a good class discussion, and what they can do to foster it (for example, give students time to think before moving on; have students break into smaller groups to discuss). After they have read the material, we meet up again to discuss their ideas, about a week before the discussion leading. The pedagogical value of this preparation process is wide ranging; not only do my students have ample time to get excited and polish their ideas, but it also invites them to reflect on pedagogical questions. When making decisions about using small group discussion or how to frame their questions, they start viewing classroom dynamics from each other’s perspective.

Getting to lead the discussion enables the students to feel that they are important contributors to the class. When everyone takes turns as the instructor, I find that the students come to think of each other (and even the instructor!) compassionately. They recognize through this exercise that one cannot lead a good discussion if the audience is passive; it is, by definition, a collaborative effort. This exercise most importantly impacts how active students are when someone else is leading the discussion. When everyone takes turns in the vulnerable position of relying on the participation of others, they will feel more invested in showing up as active participants throughout the course. The exercise helps them realize that critical thinking is a collaborative process of inquiry. 

In assessing the effectiveness of this exercise, I make comparisons between class discussions in the early semester, before student-led discussions, and later, after the student-led discussion format has been implemented. I always see a stark difference. One semester, I did not use this format, because I taught a bigger class and there simply was no time. Despite my best efforts to foster a supportive and compassionate atmosphere, the class discussions never got to the level they typically do when I have used this exercise. Student evaluations also reflect the positive impact this exercise has; in their feedback, they are generally positive about the atmosphere, as well as reflective about what contributes to a compassionate and generous environment.