Discussion Points & Protocols

Green cuted bushes (triangular shape)

This is the third and final installment in a series of posts on classroom discussion strategies. (Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2) An overview of select instructional methods would be incomplete if we didn’t consider student motivation, assessment and policy.

Let’s start with Quinn & You (2010); they utilize color-coded cards worth different amounts of points. While I find the points emphasis a bit problematic, there is merit in color-coded signaling and the active role students have in advancing discussion through this method. There are four colored cards and points: red, 4; orange 3; green 2; and blue 1. To determine who comments next, the current speaker selects someone based on the card color/point value which indicates readiness to contribute. A higher point value card/color signals more confidence.

To earn points, the commenter must respond to the current line of discussion, include something new and be of appropriate length (not too short or too long). If the comment doesn’t adhere to the rules, the student’s lowest point value card may be forfeited. This forces students to consider quality and not just quantity of contributions.

The authors note the “format has helped me allow students to react directly to one another on a more regular basis. While this is always my goal in a discussion, using this method made me realize that I too often interject myself into the process in order to make comments I felt I needed to made. This structure did not allow me this luxury, and to my surprise, as the comments continued to unfold, other students often brought forth the very ideas that I would have. Clearly, hearing these opinions expressed by their peers was more powerful than hearing them from me” (p.116).

Quinn and You suggest utilizing the technique early in the semester as a way of getting students used to participating regularly. Alternately, introducing it for the first time, later in the term, may add some excitement and reduce reticence. I am not convinced the strategy will work well, as described, in very large classes. But there are kernels of possibilities worth considering. The emphasis on students leading the flow shifts from the teacher-as-hub that characterizes many classroom discussions.

In contrast to Quinn & You, Guinee (2012) finds empty extrinsic rewards motivate student participation. “What interests me, here, is that the rewards are entirely empty. I am not offering cheese at the end of the maze, only the word cheese. Nonetheless, in my experience, these mock extrinsic rewards improve participation and the quality of class discussion. Perhaps it is just my formalized voicing of approval that the students appreciate, but, for whatever reason, I find this practice effective for stimulating classroom discussion even among the quieter students and for rewarding cognitive work in the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, the students think that bonus points are fun and some voluntarily compete for them, a process with affective benefits for the classroom” (p.83).

Guinee’s findings are consistent with my research and experience. Students don’t speak up because of points or grades. But students do respond when the classroom climate and culture supports oral contributions. One way to establish that kind of learning environment is by sharing control in setting the guidelines for discussion. Although the following strategy doesn’t mention student input, the method does lend itself to discussions about protocols: their role, purpose and practice.

Swain (2016) enumerates several strengths of incorporating well-defined protocols in classroom discussion.

  1. Protocols engage all students. They know in advance they must be prepared. If a student does not have anything to say, the group sits quietly during that student’s time to talk.
  2. Protocols have limits for talking, which reduces the time dominant talkers have in the conversation.
  3. Because everyone knows the rules in advance, calling “time” isn’t perceived as punitive or mean.
  4. Time limits force students to think carefully about what they are going to say… to make their points concisely.
  5. Each student has an opportunity to share.
  6. While the teacher poses different questions to advance learning, it is the students that remain in charge of the conversations.

I think teachers need to be especially careful about the “silent” option in #1. It’s a mistake to gloss over the quiet interval where a student chooses not to speak. I wonder how awkward it will feel for that student. How will the rest of the class feel?  Should the time be used for specific reflection? How that silent interval is perceived is a function of how the teacher frames it, or better yet, how the students frame it when the protocols are established.

Whether a teacher incorporates protocols, empty rewards, or signals, the key to engaging interactions that advance learning is students’ role in setting and administering the process. Shared control promotes shared responsibility for learning. The teacher isn’t dictating rules about participation. The teacher isn’t solely responsible for ensuring the discussions are successful.

References & recommended reading:

Guinee, W. 2012. Encouraging Classroom Participation with Empty Extrinsic Rewards. College Teaching, 60(2): 83.

Paff, L. 2015. Does Grading Encourage Participation? Evidence and Implications. College Teaching, 63(4): 135-145.

Quinn, R.J. & You, Z. 2010. Improving Classroom Discussion Using an Innovative Structure. College Teaching, 58(3): 116.

Swain, C. 2016. Enhancing Student Conversations Through the Use of Protocols. College Teaching. DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2016.1156631


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on June 28, 2016, in Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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