Moving from the Socratic method to in-class group brainstorming

In contrast to my writing so far on this blog, I teach one introduction to business class in which I don’s use any technology. I mean not any, unless you count a white board and pens as technology. It is a traditional Harvard-style case discussion class — three years ago I was tutored by two Harvard-trained professors in the method. I had never taught that way before, so it was quite a shock to me. No slides, no lecture, no pre-defined exercises…just discussion and the Socratic method. Yes, the teaching notes that I had written (along with my “board plan”) provided guide posts both for where I hoped the discussion would go and for the learning points that I wanted to discuss. But it is definitely a free-wheeling type of experience, one in which I really had to trust that my students would get us to the right place by the end of the class. I love the experience.

This last year I taught the class alone for the first time. I continued to teach case-based, but I made two slight changes. Both changes were in response to my observation about class participation. I have had between 52-68 students in any one section of this course. In any 3 hour session, each student can easily have 2 opportunities to make a significant contribution to the class. That’s in theory. In actuality, maybe 10% of the students barely ever say anything, no matter how much I coax them. Participation used to count 35% of the final grade, so a score of 25-50% on that portion would seriously hurt their final grade in the course. I don’t like this because I know these students have something to contribute, have something to teach the rest of us.

In response, this last year I cut participation down to 20% of their grade and added a blogging component (worth 20%) to their grade. This provided students with a different way of teaching and sharing with the rest of the class. While some students continued to have difficulty contributing during class, basically everyone seemed to do a good job with the blogs (which somewhat mitigated some low participation scores).

Those changes still doesn’t seem to be enough. I am still going to teach cases. I still think that students grow from the give-and-take that this method provides. I think the ability to speak clearly, to use evidence, and to defend one’s position extemporaneously are invaluable skills. Some students begin the term with so little confidence speaking to a room full of people (even though the group consists of their peers) that their voices shake with fear and nerves; many of these same students end the year with a vastly increased sense of value and confidence. I don’t want to take that away.

What I am thinking of doing is adding some group-based activities and discussions to the class. This might help those who need to try out their ideas in a smaller group. It also might allow more people to gain a better connection to the material since they wouldn’t have to wait for me to call on them — they could have their discussions and make their points within the small groups. I have always worried when there is group work and one transcriber who is responsible for putting the notes (that are supposed to reflect the group’s work) into the document. All too often, it ends up being that one person’s ideas. With some new software that is out there, I’m thinking of having small groups of students work together around a co-edited document, talking among themselves, working through ideas that appear, and preparing themselves to defend their proposal to the rest of class.

The Web sites and tools that I’m thinking about are the following:

Each feels slightly different and provides a different experience for the student. Have any of you had any experience with these in-class activities? If so, let me know in the comments.

Tomorrow I plan on writing about my explorations related to these three tools.

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