Inclusive Teaching in Seminar Courses

Seminars rely on students contributing to discussion to promote their own and their peers’ learning. How do you promote that?

For me, inclusive teaching means that all students feel they have an important contribution to make to the class and feel comfortable making that contribution. As an instructor, you need to create the environment where these conditions occur. Here’s how I accomplish that in my classrooms:

Tip #1: Set Guidelines for Discussion

At the beginning of the class, I emphasize to students that I want everyone to be part of the conversation because it’s best for all of our learning. Then I ask what guidelines we can set to promote an environment where everyone shares. You can also phrases this as “an environment where everyone feels safe sharing.” Most groups come up with guidelines like the ones below.

  • What is said here, stays here (or is only shared in general terms)
  • Challenge the idea and not the person
  • We assume that everyone is doing the best they can
  • Pay attention to how much you are contributing

Some other example guidelines are at these websites:

  • http://www.crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines
  • https://learninginnovation.duke.edu/blog/2018/01/guidelines-interaction-better-class-discussions/

I think it’s better to allow students to generate the guidelines rather than handing them out, because that gives the students ownership. Also, when students propose guidelines, I make sure we spend a minute talking through what it means and getting feedback from other students. That way, all students feel like they’ve had an opportunity to be a part of the discussion from the very beginning of the class.

Tip #2: Make the Discussion Personal

Often in discussions, we are expecting students to have an academic analysis of the readings. Some students are naturally good at this, or have better learned how to do this, but many students struggle, even as seniors. In my discussions I give all students the chance to be part of the discussion by starting out with questions like:

  • What questions do you have?
  • What experiences do you have with this topic?
  • What does this make you think of?
  • What surprised you?

Asking “what questions do you have?” first gives students the opportunity to admit that they didn’t understand a portion of the reading, or to ask about the relevance to other readings or to their lives. These questions show I don’t expect them to understand everything and that I want them to be inquisitive. Of course, the response to these questions is also important–I need to honor their vulnerability in admitting they have a question and take their question seriously.

The other three questions ask the students to apply the reading to themselves. It’s better for learning when students connect information to their past experiences. These questions are also revealing because sometimes students will have past coursework or just personal experience with a topic that I wasn’t aware of. Our discussion can then start at a different place than if I assumed everyone had no previous knowledge. It’s also a chance to acknowledge that a reading made them feel angry or sad. When I’m teaching about privilege and oppression, these are totally normal and expected reactions! In fact, working through those emotions is essential to getting to the larger point.

In sum, these questions also reinforce the idea that their thinking is the focus of the class. Even if I later ask what point the author wanted to make, that is first grounded in what the students were thinking and feeling.

A caution: I used to start discussions with “What did you think of the reading?” This question is too vague–where do you want them to start? Whether they liked the reading or not? Whether they accurately got the point? Whether they connected it with last week’s reading? I’ve had much more success with the questions above.

A final way to make the discussion personal is with an end-of-class reflection. In my senior seminar class on the Hunger Games, every other class ended with the prompt “What happened today?” Students had to write 100-200 words on whatever they wanted. Some students simply described the activities, whereas others talked about their reactions and learning. Whatever they wrote was fine, because the point was to emphasize that their perceptions of and thoughts about what happened were important.

Tip #3: Vary the Discussion Style

A final way to encourage student contributions is to give students alternative ways to contribute. Many seminar classrooms are the students sitting in a circle with the instructor asking questions and the students responding to those questions. Sometimes the students break into small groups and are expected to have a similar discussion on their own. The valued contributions are verbal, refer directly to the reading, and are in academic language. Not all students are comfortable with this format, and this format is alien to many first-generation college students. Even for students who excel in the traditional discussion format, an alternative format could spur them to think differently about a topic.

This blog will have a lot of examples, but some include the fishbowl discussion and the silent discussion. As instructors, we are often uncomfortable with these styles. How do you know students will stay on topic? What happens when we are not in control of the flow of conversation? But if you truly want to move toward more inclusive teaching and engaged learning, you need to put your students first–give them the opportunity to feel comfortable as you move them toward the norms of your discipline.

Conclusion

Once again, inclusive teaching means that all students feel they have an important contribution to make to the class and feel comfortable making that contribution. You can do this in a seminar classroom by making students’ contributions central to the class from the very beginning. And not only their formal, academic contributions, but many of the thoughts, questions, and emotions they have.

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