Engaging students in tutorial discussions: two strategies to try

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As part of teaching in higher education, we often ask students to read various texts such as academic journals and theory. In tutorials, we then endeavour to engage them in critical discussions of these texts where we deliberate on theoretical concepts and research in an attempt to foster deep, conceptual understanding. However, it can be a challenge to engage all our students in collaborative discussions. Sometimes the whole class seems quiet and no-one is seemingly eager to engage. At other times, teachers fall victim of the “Fisheye Syndrome“, thinking that all students have been highly engaged in a discussion only to realise later (upon some critical reflection) that only a handful of students were actually participating.

In this article, I will briefly describe two activities I use to engage all my learners in collaborative discussions on readings. These activities are commonly-used strategies in schools, and in particular in the field of second language learning. Importantly, they are designed to engage not just the “most motivated” or outspoken students, but also those who are usually quiet.

Both of these activities draw on the concept of “think-pair-share”. Think-pair-share is a well-known concept in teaching, and is based on the principle that all students should be given time to “think” individually about a concept, before discussing it in pairs and then sharing it with the class. None of the strategies described here are my own inventions, but they are revised versions of commonly-used teaching strategies in schools. As an added bonus, each of these activities work equally well on Zoom as they do in the classroom.

Ranking of key ideas and concepts

In this discussion strategy, students are given some time (about 10 minutes or so) to refresh their memory of a reading and write down the two most important ideas in the text. This is a crucial part of the activity. I never go straight into “pair” because the individual-thinking time allows all learners to prepare for the forthcoming group discussions and encourages participation, and preparation is crucial to ensure equal participation. Students will gradually move from individual thinking to engaging in discussions and justification of key concepts, before reaching a whole-class discussion.

  1. Give students time (10 minutes or so) to go over the reading again and write down the two most important points.
  2. Place students in pairs and ask them to explain their two points to each other, before they agree on the two most important points. Emphasise that they must reach consensus and agree on the two most important points.
  3. Pair one pair with another and repeat step 2. Each pair must describe and justify their points, before this larger group of four agrees on the two most important points.
  4. Whole-class discussion of key concepts and ideas.

Two truths and a lie

Towards the end of this activity, students will read out “two truths and one lie” to peers in groups of four. The other three students need to consider which of the three statements is a lie. Preparation is crucial (as always), because you want your students to create “good lies” that are not immediately obvious. In doing so, students will engage with key ideas on a deeper level that encourages deeper learning.

  1. Give students ample time to consider the key concepts of the text and time to design their three statements (about the text, not about themselves). Emphasise that they should form a “good lie” that will not be obvious to the other group members.
  2. Place students in groups of four. One student starts by reading out their “two truths and a lie” in random order (I often find that it is useful if students write it down for their peers).
  3. The other students, one by one, must state which statement they think is the lie and why, before the group reaches consensus. This is then confirmed (or not) and explained by the first student.
  4. The next student reads out their “two truths and a lie” and the process repeats itself.
  5. Whole-class discussion about key concepts discussed in groups.

If you want more ideas for how to engage students in tutorial or have some feedback on above mentioned strategies, then don’t hesitate to contact me via email on janica.nordstrom@sydney.edu.au.

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