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Guest Post: Class Discussion–From Blank Stares to True Engagement in Your OM Class

February 14, 2016

jay howardOur Guest Post comes from Dr. Jay R. Howard, who is the dean at Butler University. His most recent book is Discussion in the College: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online (Josey-Bass, 2015). 


Thirty years of research have demonstrated that when students are engaged in the classroom, they learn more. Classroom discussion is likely the most commonly used strategy for actively engaging students. Yet there’s always the possibility that our invitation for students to engage will be met with silence.

Sociologists have long contended that our behavior is guided by norms. Professors believe that one classroom norm is that students are expected to pay attention. But in most college classrooms students are not required to pay attention. The real norm is paying civil attention—or creating the appearance of paying attention. Students do this in a variety of ways. They write in their notebooks, nod their heads, make fleeting eye contact, and chuckle when the professor attempts to be funny. Why can students get away with only paying civil attention? The answer is that we as faculty let them.

We believe they should be self-motivated to complete assignments and prepare for class. Therefore, we don’t embarrass students into preparing for and participating in discussion. The result is that students can safely slide by, paying only civil attention in most college classrooms.

How do we get students to move beyond civil attention to true engagement in our OM classes? Perhaps the most effective strategy is allowing students to formulate their thoughts prior to being called on to verbally participate. The think-pair-share classroom assessment technique is one example: Ask students to take one minute and write a response to a question. Then ask students to share their thoughts. Another strategy is to structure your course so it requires students to come to class having read an assignment and prepared a short response paper or answer an on-line JIT quiz. In these ways, faculty can create new classroom norms, replacing the norm of civil attention with the expectation that all students come prepared to participate in classroom discussion.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Terry Boardman permalink
    February 14, 2016 12:25 am

    Your comment need only go so far as “have your students be required to come to class” period. Many professors I know do not require attendance and administration does not care. Therein lies the biggest problem..

  2. Jay Howard permalink
    February 15, 2016 1:29 pm

    Terry, I agree that class attendance is important. I did an 11 semester study of my introductory students and found the two biggest predictors of success were (1) class attendance and (2) reading the assignments. So the trick is getting students to not only come to class, but to come prepared. Reading check papers, Just-In-Time quizzes, providing discussion questions to accompany readings, are all strategies which can facilitate a productive, informed discussion once we get students to attend. Thanks for the comment.

  3. February 15, 2016 5:05 pm

    I was one of those kids who never said a word–though I think I was paying close attention most of the time. Call on them directly, and/or give a class participation grade. Those worked with me anyway.

  4. Jay Howard permalink
    February 15, 2016 5:19 pm

    Dick, Because most professors don’t directly question students who are not verbally or non-verbally signaling a willingness to speak, calling on them can be perceived as a hostile act by students. So one challenge is how to establish a classroom environment wherein you can call on students without appearing hostile toward them. I’m guessing you have figured out a way to do so that works for you and your students. I also endorse the idea of grading participation.

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