Redefining Student Expectations to Foster Good Discussions

In the first part of this post, we looked at some of the findings in Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom that spoke to some of the barriers to meaningful student engagment in class discussions. In particular, what Howard calls “civil attention” plays a large role in students’ resistance to participation; so long as they are able to look like they’re paying attention without putting in more effort than that, students will likely take the opportunity to remain passive. As a result, if we try to start a discussion, we encounter long periods of silence, if not a sullen resistance to our efforts. “Civil attention,” according to Howard, is the product of how students see the class experience as a passive and “unfocused” environment, as opposed to a “focused” situation where contributions from everyone are the expected norm. The key question, then, is how we can get our students to treat class as a focused environment, and see engaged discussion as the norm, not some unpleasant exception.

In order to get our students to perceive things differently, it helps to understand the default definition of the classroom and its expectations students tend to have. According to Howard’s synthesis of the research in this area, there are several important assumptions that students bring with them into our courses:

  • Students expect us to be the sole “expert”: This expectation, tacitly reinforced through much of their academic career, can act as a powerful brake on student participation. Whether from deference, anxiety, or uncertainty about how to step onto our “turf,” students’ perceptions of us as “expert” and them as “novices” implicitly creates a climate unfavorable to discussions.
  • “Talkers,” much more than “non-talkers,” believe they have something to contribute to the class: Whether it’s asking questions to clarify a point, or adding comments to a nascent discussion, students who feel like they have something meaningful to offer are far more likely to talk than those who do not. The key, then, is to create a space where all of our students believe they have contributions to make.
  • Even if we see the class as small, students are likely to see it as too big for them to be comfortable about participating: we might think 15-20 students is a nice and small group, but many of our students will see it as too many people to participate safely.
  • Female students can be more likely to believe that their ideas aren’t well-formulated enough, or that they don’t know enough, to participate. This message is conveyed all too often in a classroom setting, especially when we factor in research that shows instructors call on male students far more often than female students and male students are far more likely to interrupt or talk over female students without instructors interceding. It is worth asking ourselves if we fall into these patterns of gender bias and if that might be impacting our classroom environment.
  • Students who feel unprepared are reluctant to participate: This seems like an obvious point, but it’s worth considering nonetheless. If students aren’t prepared for class, discussions will go nowhere, not least because the students who don’t feel prepared certainly don’t possess the confidence  to participate in any meaningful way. If we can find ways to ensure our students are doing the necessary preparation, we’re increasing the odds of successful discussions as well.

Given this set of student perceptions and expectations, then, how are we supposed to go about changing our students’ mindset about the class environment and their approach to participation? Howard advocates for what he calls “redefining the classroom,” beginning the first day of class:

Sharing the learning objectives for the course and the strategies you as the instructor have adopted to help students achieve them can help students redefine the classroom and their role in it.

One way we can do this is to have “a discussion about discussion.” We can open a conversation with our students about what discussion means to us, and what it means to them (in particular, from their previous class experiences). This is an opportunity to let our students know how important discussion is to their learning, and what strategies they can use to be prepared to engage with the material and one another. It’s also an opportunity, though, to learn from our students what might stand in the way of their engagement. If there is anxiety about “saying the wrong thing,” for example, this is where we can remind students about collegiality and respect as basic expectations, as well as how sufficient preparation can mitigate that anxiety.

Another strategy to enhance discussions is to consider–and if necessary, revise–the physical environment of the classroom. A room organized into rows that all face the whiteboard at the front communicates the type of hierarchical, instructor-centered tone that makes discussion difficult. Arranging tables and chairs into a circle, a horseshoe, or some other arrangement where everybody can easily see everyone else is a simple step that fosters a much more inviting climate for student participation. Even if we find ourselves in a room where the furniture is fixed in place, there are still things we can do to mitigate this difficult arrangement. We can walk around the room, up the sides and across the back, to de-center ourselves and work against the assumptions created by the space’s architecture. We can also ask our students to get up and move around, perhaps form multiple groups during a class period, to minimize the effects of the fixed furniture. The overall goal, though, should be to bring our students into the learning space as active participants rather than passive spectators.

Howard’s emphasis on understanding student perceptions of the class environment, as well as the need to change that environment in order to create new norms, is an important insight about fostering class discussions that go beyond monologues or simply one or two people talking. If you’re struggling to generate meaningful, regular student discussions or have encountered students reluctant to participate in class at all, an examination of their assumptions along these lines might be in order. As always CETL is happy to help, with further resources and strategies to help promote student engagement. Feel free to contact us via this blog or by email and we can get started.

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Normally, I post cute animal videos and the like in this space, but this week I want to share a talk that’s been on my mind over the last couple of days. It powerfully moved me when I was an undergraduate seeing it for the first time, and it moves me even more today.

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