I tried combining written and oral discussion in today’s seminar, with mixed success. I assumed everyone had read the texts I’d asked them to (Turing, Weizenbaum, a few photocopied pages of Turkle) and started off by asking everyone to log into MoveableType and write uncritically for five minutes – associations, questions, etc about what they’d read. Then I asked them to read each other’s posts (bad idea, probably, after saying “write uncritically” – I should have let them keep their first drafts private), and comment. Then, in groups of three, start by discussing what they’d written and read and together find a statement or question with which to start a debate. All that took 45 minutes, so we had a break, then plenary discussion afterwards (a total of eleven students, it’s not a large class), where each group lead the discussion for about ten minutes each. Finally I asked them to go back and edit/rewrite their initial blog posts.


  • There wasn’t enough time for the writing. And I think I need to be a lot more specific in the tasks I give for writing. Writing in a blog is pretty daunting, I think, when you’re not used to it.
  • I also need to be more specific about why they’re writing. (Practice, discussion, formulate ideas clearly, work towards their own term papers)
  • I want students to use their blogs as a discussion space. That means not just writing but reading and linking. I need to calculate spending time on this, allowing them to link, quote, think, answer.
  • There aren’t enough computers, so a few students wrote on paper. I made sure the three students who didn’t speak in the plenary discussion got their own computers for the final writing, but perhaps I should send some students next door to the computer lab and fetch them back after ten or fifteen minutes. That’s more disruptive though. Commenting on each others posts could be done in pairs.

Good things:

  • Having a small group lead the plenary discussion was a good idea. Next time I’ll just ask one group to lead each session’s discussion, the other groups can be given some other task.
  • I want to continue working on the write, discuss, rewrite approach. It didn’t quite work this time, but I think it could work, and it’s an important technique to learn, a good cycle for thinking.
  • I trusted the students a lot more this week. I liked my calm. Mind you, those American drugs I was on might have had a bit to do with that, they sure don’t sell cold medication like that over the counter in Norway. The students are wonderful, though, they have plenty to say, lots of knowledge, experience, ideas. They don’t need me as a nursemaid, just as an organiser.
  • I’m pleased that instead of refusing students who’ve not done the preparation entry to classroom or punishing them somehow, as has been suggested to me, I set up activities that plain aren’t fun if you’ve not prepared. Also, small groups make it so embarrassing if you’ve read nothing. And I don’t have to do or say a thing about whether they’ve read or not.

Right at the end I wrote up the four different techniques we’d used today on the board: reading (before class), writing, discussing in small groups and discussion in plenary. I asked them to think about with which of these methods they felt they’d learnt most, and to rank the top three. Each student did so and I wrote down marks to show the votes. The scores came out like this, the numbers being the number of students who ranked each activity as best, second best, etc:

best second third activity
4   2 reading
1 2 writing
3 1 4 small groups
1 7 1 plenary discussion

I was quite surprised at how strongly the students felt that they’d learned from the plenary discussion, because I tend to worry about the students who don’t speak in plenary and to worry when the discussion goes a different direction to what I’d expected. My methodology stinks here, of course: the writing got short shift and I didn’t find ways of using it properly, students voted for “reading” because as they said without having read the texts beforehand they’d have had nothing to discuss, and most importantly, I asked “from which activity did you learn most” which is almost meaningless: learn what? Still, for something I came up with on the spur of the moment this quick evaluation worked pretty well, and was a very efficient way of getting feedback from the class about what worked today, anyway.

4 thoughts on “organising discussions

  1. John Gordon

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ll be curious as to how this develops during the rest of the semester. I suspect that the writing will become more valuable as they get used to it.

  2. Francois Lachance


    The results are perhaps indicative of the mindset that informs one’s approach to reading or writing. Within a course structure, reading is in a sense aquisition of the novel. Whereas writing is often a report on the known. An interesting exercise would be to have students blog about a reading in terms of what it confirms — what they knew before they read. This is sometimes a lot easier to accomplish when dealing with two or more texts: one can then set a exercise in a comparative mode (what is common between members of a set of texts. Exploratory writing of course can be enhanced by exercises that guide the writer away from the sentence and paragraph as the main units of sense (i.e. exercises that ask for the generation of lists of keywords followed by exercises that seek links between keywords in a list … mindmapping in manageable time scales). Sometimes it is easier to tap into the exploratory nature of writing by setting very formalist exercises: creativity emerges under constraint.

    Good luck with the further adventures.

  3. Silje

    Have to say that I like the way you teach! I have done a lot more these first two weeks of this semester, than I have ever done in the beginning of any semester. 🙂
    And I wrote a little bit about it in my own Blogg.

  4. Jill

    Really? That is SO COOL to hear, Silje! Sometimes it feels as though not lecturing traditionally is sort of cheating, and it’s really good to hear that it can work 🙂

    I just have to put in a link to your blog post, too 🙂

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