The Dismal Discussion Class

By Tina Blue
April 27, 2002

          In another article on this website, "In Praise of Lectures," I explain why I consider lecturing a viable teaching method, even though it has been devalued by the educational establishment in the United States, where it is often referred to sarcastically as the "sage on the stage" style of teaching.

          In that same article, I also mention some of the reasons why so many students dislike discussion classes.  In this
article, I mean to elaborate on that subject.

          I was talking recently with a bright young college junior who is working on a double major in psychology and history.  The history major is a recent addition, so she has only a few history classes under her belt thus far.  This semester she is taking a course on World War II.  She loves the lectures and the readings, but she absolutely dreads the mandatory discussion section, where her grade depends entirely on her "contribution" to the discussion.

          Part of the problem is shyness.  Some people just aren't that comfortable speaking out in a group, even as others wallow in the opportunity to hold forth in public on any and all subjects.  I don't see why students' grades in an academic subject unrelated to performance or to public communication should depend on their ability--or inability--to put themselves on public display. 

          Shyness is often an inherent trait.  In fact, twenty percent of individuals from all mammalian species are genetically "shy"--i.e., they shrink from risk and are timid in social settings, especially when confronted by strangers.  This genetic trait is conserved by evolution because it has adaptive value.  A species consisting entirely of outgoing risk-takers might not do that well over time.

          Besides, it is often shy individuals who are particularly drawn to academic study and research, and it is often they who add most to the sum of knowledge in a given field.  The personality traits that cause a person to delight in public speaking are only rarely found in company with the traits that draw one toward isolated research and a life spent reading, thinking, and writing. 

          Unfortunately, in American schools we overvalue gregariousness and self-display, and drastically undervalue self-effacing intellectuality.

          The issue of fairness is also relevant to the performance of international students in American universities.  Many excellent students come here from cultures where students are supposed to keep quiet in class and to defer to their professors' opinions and superior knowledge.  After a lifetime of such training, it is very difficult, sometimes impossible, for a student to speak out in class. 

          Furthermore, international students sometimes find it hard to formulate their thoughts quickly enough in English, or they feel self-conscious because they fear their English is not good enough for speaking in class.  Many international students have told me that the only bad grades they get are in classes where a significant portion of their grade is determined by participation in class discussions.

          Of course, one reason why teachers rely on class discussion is to create a situation where students have to have read the day's assignment.  It is unfortunately true that many students just won't do the assigned readings unless they are required to hold forth on them in class.  But in practice, discussion classes seldom accomplish what they are meant to accomplish.  A couple of students might read at least part of the assignment and then monopolize the class, so that they can keep it focused on the few pages they have actually read.  Or they might have read the whole assignment, but still monopolize the class, just because they like to be the center of attention.

          Sometimes, especially if the teacher does not maintain fairly strict control, a clever, self-centered, or aggressive student will hijack the discussion and fly it in a direction that leads far away from the readings or even the subject of the class.  As an undergraduate, I often watched a certain type of student turn every class discussion into a therapy group, where they bored everyone silly with endless details of their own childhood or their family's dysfunction.

          The young history/psychology major I mentioned earlier told me that she never spoke up in her history discussion class because the students who did seemed so self-confident in their knowledge of the subject that she felt she could not add anything, and besides, she dreaded sounding like an idiot.

          Ironically, when she finally mentioned her concerns to her discussion teacher, he told her that the students who were doing all the talking in class were driving him crazy, because they knew nothing and often seemed not even to have read the assignments.  But of course they were "participating," so they were the ones earning the points in the discussion class, even though all they were doing was wasting everyone's time.

          That's a large part of the problem with discussion classes.  They so often are a waste of everyone's time.  Bright students know this and resent it terribly.  They don't want to listen to ignorance hold forth, and all too often that is what a discussion class amounts to.  Furthermore, truly intelligent, serious students--like my young friend--do not want to sound like fools, so they are not eager to babble on in public about subjects they don't feel they have mastered.  In fact, that is one of the sure signs of intellectual integrity: recognition of the limitations of your own knowledge and a willingness to learn from those who know more than you do.

          Yes, of course, discussion can be a very effective way of exploring a topic and understanding it at a deeper level.  But discussion works best when those who are discussing a topic already have some knowledge and understanding of that topic.  At the beginner-level, a discussion class is usually just an invitation to fill the room with hot air. 

          That's why so many undergraduate discussion classes are such dismal affairs.  Most of the students sit there like lumps, while one or two, or maybe three, blather mindlessly as if they were in a therapy group, or hold forth pedantically on topics they really don't understand.

          Beginners need to learn something first, to fill their minds with information and with context.  Eventually, they will have something to say--perhaps even something original and insightful.  But they should not be pressured to "discuss" a subject that they still feel uncomfortably ignorant in.

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