There is no “right way” to learn. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so no two people will learn the same way. That being said, some methods of teaching are generally more effective than others. In college, there are two primary class dynamics: lectures and discussions. Though there is some disagreement about which is preferable, the student consensus seems to be that discussions are better for fully engaging with the material.
Discussion-based classes encourage students to get to know their professors, which allows them to connect with the subject matter in a more intimate way. In a lecture hall, it is easy to get lost in the sea of faces. It is not uncommon for a student to attend a class all semester and leave after the final without ever personally interacting with the professor. This scenario never occurs in a smaller, discussion-based class. Additionally, “lectures fail to provide instructors with feedback about the extent of student learning.” Professors have no way of knowing whether their class is actively learning or simply letting the information go in one ear and out the other. Forcing students to participate in class gets them to read the material, speak up, and actively engage, which in turn allows the professor to get to know students beyond the work they hand in.
In a perfect world, every student would do the readings, ask intelligent questions, and contribute to the dialogue, all of their own volition. However, the reality is that this is not always the case. Small discussions are an effective way to ensure that students come to class prepared and ready to engage with the material.
One of the most profound failures of lecture classes is they do not effectively maintain the focus of the students. It can be incredibly difficult to sit still and listen to the same voice speak for an hour without thinking of more interesting subjects, like dinner plans or the tennis shoes the girl sitting in front of you is online-shopping for. “In lectures, students are often passive because there is no mechanism to ensure that they are intellectually engaged with the material.” Taking notes and looking at lecture slides never hurts, but this style of teaching is not the most exciting way to learn. A simple way to get the attention of a group of people is to alternate speakers. A new voice now and then adds enough variety to keep the class focused, and the prospect of having to participate, though intimidating for more reserved students, keeps everyone engaged.
The overarching goal of any class is to get students to understand the subject. In a lecture-based class, it can be difficult for professors to gauge whether students comprehend the content, making it possible for students to pretend they know more than they do. This means that many students can get away with skipping readings, cutting class, and generally not paying attention. Discussions, on the other hand, promote active learning. When students know that they will be asked to participate in class they will do the readings consistently, thoroughly, and thoughtfully. They will be more likely to speak up in class, and when they do it will generate purposeful discussion amongst classmates that will extend beyond the classroom. It is these conversations—the exchange of ideas, opinions, and knowledge—that create a productive and inclusive community. Without in-class discussions, much of the meaningful dialogue that occurs on college campuses would never begin.
Of course, some students are shy, and the thought of having to voice their ideas to a group of people terrifies them. Some simply learn better by listening to others, and do not feel that it is helpful for them to contribute to the discussion. It is perfectly reasonable to feel this way; however, it is still important to learn to make one’s voice heard. Everyone has something to contribute, and learning to make those contributions is an important part of developing confidence.
I strongly believe that discussions have a more positive impact than lectures on student learning, but it is important to note that this is only the case if discussions are conducted correctly. A common misconception amongst professors is that participation will improve if it is a bigger portion of the grade. Contrary to this belief, when students feel like their GPA depends on something as subjective as participation, they tend to panic and end up forcing themselves to participate. This results in meaningless and poorly-considered commentary that does little to develop the group’s understanding of a topic. As a result, the quality of in-class discussions is undermined because it takes away from the flow of a natural dialogue.
A better way to conduct discussions is to simply have a back-and-forth exchange of questions and perspectives. Professors can call on students periodically to ensure that they are not left out of the conversation. When teachers focus their classes on productive dialogue rather than making participation revolve around grades, students can absorb the material naturally while maintaining their interest in the subject. Learning should be about developing worldviews and gaining applicable knowledge, and discussion-based classes represent the most productive way of achieving this goal.