An Experiment with Student Facilitation

This spring I experimented with student facilitation for the first time in my English 255 course, “Re-figuring the Global.” Although I have always asked my students to present on their blog responses, this semester I decided to go one step further by making them actively responsible for stimulating and shaping class discussion. Naturally, I had some anxieties about executing this in class and how students might respond to the added pressure, but I am glad I took the risk. My students went above and beyond any expectations I had for this experiment- the different approaches they took to facilitating class conversation were incredibly generative and energizing, especially for a class that met at 7:45am.

I also found that more students participated this semester than in previous years. Although this could have just been because I had an amazing group, I also think it’s because they were more comfortable dialoguing with each other than with me constantly leading the discussion. I have learned so much from listening to their conversations, which allowed me to see texts I have read three or four times over in radically different and inspiring ways. I have also learned a lot about myself as a teacher from this semester– about when to stand back and let students grapple with uncomfortable classroom silences and when to intervene to provide necessary information about historical and political contexts that can enrich our engagements with the text.

Because of the success of this experiment, I decided to share some basic logistics and tips for anyone who wants to implement something like student facilitation in their classes.

I gave my students relatively few guidelines for the facilitation since I wanted them to have the freedom to approach this process in whatever imaginative ways they could come up with. However, I also know from past experience that it is important to clearly outline the goals of any in-class activity as well as to offer a structure for how these will be executed and approached in the classroom. So, here is what I did:

  • At the beginning of the semester I asked students to review the syllabus and sign up for two dates on which they would be responsible for both writing a blackboard response to the reading and facilitating in-class discussion on the assigned text(s).
  • Before student facilitations began, I spent a class modeling what facilitating class discussion looks like as well as reviewing the motives and goals behind this exercise.
  • I structured my classes so that we would begin with two or three students facilitating the discussion because I always want students’ interests and questions to take the lead in shaping our engagement with the texts.
  • In terms of goals, I told my students that there were two main purposes to these facilitations: (1) To contextualize the readings (by researching relevant background and historical information and/or placing the readings in conversation with other texts, ongoing discussion topics, etc.) and (2) To stimulate class discussion by inviting as many students as possible to share their thoughts and responses to the reading.
  • With regard to timing, I explained that students would be required to facilitate for ten minutes and that I would use a timer in class to signal when they should begin wrapping things up.
  • The only restriction I emphasized strongly was that students can not read directly from the blackboard responses they posted online (even though they could summarize the main ideas as a way of opening up their facilitation).

Overall, my students did an amazing job with these relatively bare guidelines. I think that allowing students to pick their preferred facilitation dates was really helpful because it led some of the more confident students to kick off the semester, which enabled those who were shyer or more reluctant to facilitate to follow the patterns that others have already set. One of the most successful elements of this experiment was how it encouraged students to frequently turn to passages from the text during class conversation, rather than simply discussing ideas abstracted from a close analysis of the reading. It also led more students to take the initiative in researching authors’ background and the historical contexts of the readings, which has never really happened in my previous classes. Finally, I found that student facilitations created a dynamic synergy between the online blackboard forum and the classroom conversation because facilitators frequently invoked other students’ comments to their responses as a way of stimulating discussion.

Despite the success of this experiment, however, there are a few tweaks I plan to make and other questions I need to think through before implementing student facilitation again:

  • First, I need to do a better job of explaining the relationship between the blackboard response and the in-class facilitation. Although there should be a clear link between these two components, I also want to encourage students to use their facilitations as a way of extending and complicating the ideas and questions they raised in their responses.
  • No matter how democratic and student-centered I want the class to be, I still need to assume a more active guiding role, especially when it comes to offering necessary grounding for texts like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (date) and Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda (1998), which are informed by particular historical and political contexts that students might be unfamiliar with.
  • Instead of a circle-shaped seminar, I want to consider a U-shaped one that allows all students to see the blackboard when I use it to collect and elaborate on key terms and ideas from the reading.
  • Lastly, as in all classes, certain student voices tend to dominate the conversation. Even though facilitation led to more student participation, I need to think further about how to I can get the entire class actively involved in class discussion.

All in all, I have learned a lot from this experiment and I feel that it has brought me one step closer to the kind of student-centered environment I want to create in my classes. But I would love to hear suggestions about how others have approached student facilitation or similar classroom experiments, so please comment below with ideas or questions!

For further reference, you can check out my “Refiguring the Global” syllabus and the handout I created on blogging and facilitation guidelines.

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