Cheap tricks for starting discussions in lectures

It is the beast all new lecturers fear, the crowd: a many eyed, many headed beast. A beast which will typically stare at you, unresponsive, as you stumble through your material.

The difficulty is that a crowd’s size reinforces passive behaviour. Why would any single student answer your question, ask their own question or join in a show of hands? No reason, especially when nobody else is.

A small group is something you can work with. Make eye contact. Get a response to a question. Sense a mood. But beyond a certain size the group you are teaching becomes a crowd. For me, a dozen people is a large group, but then at around 30 people the change happens. They’re all still individuals, of course they are, but it you can’t relate to them in the same way.

They won’t relate to you in the same way, and some inertial force takes over which makes getting a reaction incredibly difficult. Maybe I need more reassurance than most, but I like to hear from my student. I like to check they are with me during the lecture, and to engage them in what I’m talking about, even if only with a simple show of hands.

So, over the years, I’ve adopted a series of techniques which help me work with a large lecture group — which can mean a crowd of up to several hundred. As you’d expect from someone who lecturer in a psychology department, most of these tricks have some theory about human behaviour behind them, which I’ll try and explain along the way.

1. Discuss in pairs

I’ve heard discussing a question in pairs described as the “washing hands” of group interaction, something so fundamental that you should adopt it as a basic habit before trying to have any kind of group discussion. Allowing your students to discuss something before speaking out in front of the whole class breaks down the two fundamental reasons students don’t speak in class. The first is social comfort — nobody liked to stand out in social situation in which they don’t understand, where they don’t know the people. Sometimes we lecturers forget that not everybody finds lecture classes as familiar as we do, not everyone enjoys the same comfort and authority that we do with 100 relative strangers. By discussing an issue in pairs first, each student learns a little about their neighbour, which is essential for social comfort. What they also do is gauge how much they understand. Even if you’ve asked a question with an obvious answer, only the most comfortable confident will provide the answer. For most people, even though they’ll also know the answer and think it is obvious they’ll want to check in a way with less potential for embarrassment that this is what other people think too. Discussing in pairs allows this double-checking.

2. Hand signals for remaining time needed

I learned this from Alec Patton of High Tech High. Once you’ve given your class discussion time, you need to actively manage this. Usually I declare in advance how long they’ve got to discuss something, or I try and guess by watching if people are still discussing the issue, or if they’ve moved on to discussing what they did last night. Alec’s technique works by creating a simple feedback mechanism: you interrupt the discussion and ask everyone to show using their hand how their discussion is going: a number of fingers for how many more minutes they need to finish the discussion, a closed fist for if they’re done. It’s easy enough that you can get a clear response from everyone, rather than having to rely on catching mumbled answers or the shouts of a helpful minority.

3. No straight questions

A naive thought is that if you want students to speak out in class you should ask them an easy question. This is wrong. If you ask a question with a right answer then the fear of getting it wrong will, for many, loom larger than the pleasure in getting it right. An easy question will only magnify the anxiety about getting the question wrong. Even a student who is 99% confident they know the answer may be prevented from volunteering it if they weigh the potential embarrassment as 1000 times more serious than any benefit they may feel from getting it right (and let’s face it, speaking out in class has never been universally respected by students anyway).

In my classes I make point of principle never to ask a question with a single straight answer. This means “How could you criticise this experiment?” rather than “What is the flaw in this experiment?”, it means “What other theories might be relevant here?”, rather than “Tell me what cognitive dissonance theory predicts”, and so on.

Sure you can get my questions wrong, but they never come with a simple right answer. This diminishes the fear that there is a simple answer you’re not getting, and means that as long as you can think of a reason why your answer might be right, it is worth sharing. It also makes it more fun for me to teach because instead of questions resulting in me moving on, or being disappointed, I actually get to find out what my students are thinking.

4. Diminish responsibility

The famous “bystander apathy” effect is where someone in a public place obviously needs help, but nobody helps. One driver of the effect is diminished responsibility, whereby no individual feels like it is their job to help. In your lecture, if you ask a question, you have to overcome diminished responsibility where nobody feels like it is their job to answer your question (note that this combines with the social pressure to conform —nobody else is answering the question, so why should they stick out). It’s hard to overcome diminished responsibility. One way that is widely disliked by students is to pick specific individuals (this is what they tell you to do if you are in danger or otherwise need help in a public place — don’t shout “help”, point to a particular person and say “you need to help me”). This can work, especially if you have some rapport with your students (if I ever do this I give the students good warning that I will be picking on someone at random to answer, so they had all better be ready). Less severe is to try and merely narrow the focus, by identifying the kind of person you’d like to answer (“Now someone who doesn’t agree with this argument”, “Now someone in these three rows”, etc).

5. Positivity

When you have your answer, you have to confirm and extend the expectation that you will never belittle a student or dismiss their answer. Answering your questions has to be a positive experience (if you think that it is important that students are told they are wrong, you’re going to need a bigger stick to make their respond — like exam assessment — or a smaller group and more extended contact — like a weekly tutorial). There’s a subtle art to this, but it’s a worthwhile one to be able to take whatever someone says and weave it into a point that continues the direction of your lecture. In dramatic improvisation training, actors are taught to “Yes, and” rather than “No, but”. With a bit of practice you can learn to improvise off wrong — or at at least unexpected — answers to 99% of the time find something to say which you’d like to class to appreciate anyway.

To give flavour of this, if my question is “What is the capital of France”, this is bad:

Student: “London”
Me: “Wrong!”

This is better:

Student: “London”
Me: “Tell me why you think that”

But something like this is more fun for everyone:

Student: “London”
Me: “London is in fact the capital of England, which is absolutely right next to France, and — like France — an important western European nation which shares historical, economic and geographical ties with France”

Now my theory is that it doesn’t matter if the student knows you’re being generous in your enthusiasm for their answer. What matters is that nobody can think afterwards “Lecturer was displeased with the answer”.

6. Hand down, not hands up

This one really is a cheap trick. If you ask your students to put their hands up to indicate something then everyone who doesn’t put their hand up could either be answering in the negative, or just opting out of your question through laziness. You see this when you ask both options of a two choice issue (“Put your hand up if you came on Tuesday”, “Now put your hands up if you didn’t come on Tuesday”), and the total number of hands you see is less than the number of people in the room. In methodological terms, a show of hands has a response bias issue: the bias is towards not putting your hand up, which deprives you, the lecturer of information (and undermines your authority because people demonstrably aren’t following your instructions honestly).

I try and turn this situation on the head by asking everyone to put their hand up at the start. Now, with everyone with their hands in the air, I ask people to put their hands down if they can’t answer yes to my question. This changes the default choice to be participating in my poll, rather than ignoring it (apart from the really recalcitrant who won’t put their hands up in the first place, but they are unlikely to do this as they’ll stand out from the crowd. Conformity again).

7. A question document, and other technological fixes

This is a technological fix, which may not work for everyone. However good your rapport with a class, some people are just not going to want to speak out in front of everyone. One way of hearing what they have to say is to, before the class, create a Google Document with open edit permissions (meaning anyone who has the link can edit), then to visit shoutkey.com which is a link shortener which use common English words, so you end up with a link you can shout across the room, something like shoutkey.com/eagle (it works because links expire within 12 hours, so it never runs out of common English words). Then, in the lecture, I tell the class they can find the document via the shoutkey link. Before the end of the lecture I check the document and can answer any questions which anonymous students have left.

There a range of neat technological solutions which are becoming more and more plausible now that most places I lecture have wifi and most students I lecture have laptops or smartphones. Two which I haven’t used extensively but which seem to have lots of potential are getkahoot.com and socrative.com which are both simple ways for an audience with smartphones to provide answers to polls and the feedback the answers in the forms of percentages or graphs.

Like all the best digital technologies, these make the “real” experience more worthwhile, they don’t replace it with a “virtual” substitute.

There are many tricks, but these ones are mine

Now my lecturing experience is particular to me — and some of this advice may not travel. I know that students in different cultures may be more willing to shout out in a group. Because conformity and social comfort are such massive drivers of social behaviour, the history of a particular cohort of students can have a large effect on how they’ll respond in a lecture situation (so, for example, if they have been together for a year already half your job is already done).