Monday, October 14, 2013

How to Succeed in a Discussion-Based Classroom

The second test of the trimester happened last Tuesday, and after grading them one thing became abundantly clear: some of the kids have caught on to trying to understand the material, while others are still clinging to trying to memorize the material.  The kids who are trying to understand the material are the ones who are more thorough in their preparation, more active in the discussions, and therefore are doing better on the tests.  Those who are still trying to memorize the material give up easily on their homework, passively take notes in class, and are not doing as well on the tests.

In terms of the homework, let's be clear: the exercises have been scaffolded so that the kids should be able to make the connections between what they already know and what the exercise is asking them to do.  It may take looking up a definition or finding a formula they've forgotten, but the work is within reach.  The kids who are trying to understand the material may not successfully complete all of the exercises, but on those that they get stuck, they write out the questions they have and therefore come prepared to discuss each of the exercises regardless.  The kids who are struggling still seem unwilling to work through an exercise if the path to a solution does not present itself within a few seconds of reading the problem.  During the discussions, these kids tend to mindlessly take notes, trying to copy everything being said and everything written on the board without putting thought  into what it is they are writing.  By contrast, the kids who are trying to understand the material are more deliberate in their note-taking, waiting until the end of the discussion about a particular exercise and writing down only the important, underlying ideas and processes.  When the tests come around, the kids who are used to struggling with the exercises and have focused on learning the ideas and processes are not thrown off by the fact that the exercises on the test are not essentially identical to those on the homework; instead, they have practice with being persistent and with using the knowledge they have in a "new" way.  Those who have been trying to memorize the material tend to quickly get defeated and resort to writing down any formulas and definitions they remember in the hopes of getting some partial credit points.

While I feel for the kids who are still stuck in memorization mode, their struggles have convinced me all the more that running a discussion-based classroom is the right thing to do.  In addition to learning "the basics", the kids who are putting in the effort to learn the material are also learning problem-solving and, more importantly, are learning how to learn.  In other words, they are learning what they should be learning...what they wouldn't be learning if all I was asking them to do was memorize the material for the test.  So the question is how to convince the memorization kids that they need to change, and then help them do it.  It's not an easy sell, since memorization has worked for them for years, and probably still works in a number of their other classes.  Hmmm...

1 comment:

  1. Jonothan,

    I am having the same problems in my English class - I expect them to take notes during discussions over literature, and it's amazing how many of them will let a salient point fly RIGHT past them, all the while attempting to write down as many WORDS as possible... and then be unable to produce analysis in a response. However, I have seen so much improvement in class involvement and students actually reading the material. You're not alone, and keep up the good fight!