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by Russ Wittrup

It was about midpoint of the last fall semester and one of my classes had just finished. Many of my students were exiting the room still discussing a topic that we had briefly debated toward the end of the period. As I left, I was stopped in the hallway by the instructor who next taught in the room.

He commented that it seemed my students, “really talked to one another”, and wanted to know what I did to create that dynamic. “I’ve tried to use group activities in my class but they just don’t seem to work”, he went on to say. “They just don’t seem to want to have conversations”. My initial response was actually a question back to him, “When, in your typical semester, do you first begin having your students doing interactive things?” I learned that he didn’t really try any engaged strategies until the third or fourth week of class, and in some cases, it was even later. “Well”, I said, “you might be waiting too long”.

Research conducted in the discipline of Communication Studies shows that the social norms for interaction patterns between members of a newly formed group get established in the very early stages of development. Once set, these norms become quite difficult to change. (Anderson. C.M., Riddle, B.L., & Martin, M.M., 1999) A simple translation and application of this point of research suggests that if you desire to have an interactive climate in your classroom then you need to begin establishing that norm from the very first day of class. My colleague, described above, had more than likely set the norm that “I” talk and “you listen”, and his frustration was seemingly a resistance from his students about the sudden change in expected classroom procedure.

I realize that on that first class day we often need every available minute to cover our syllabus and general course orientation, and that pragmatically, it might not be possible to do even more. A few years ago however I decided to try a new approach for my “course objectives” part of the syllabus lecture. I stopped and asked students to greet at least two others sitting near them. After some brief initial chit-chat, I then asked each group to answer this question: What do you think is something important that you will be learning in this class?

Within just a few minutes, each group had something to say and I asked them to share answers. There was some repetition in what had been decided, but there were also some quite insightful deductions. Between the eight or ten groups, a majority of my course objectives had been identified. I also realized that the interactive approach took no longer to complete than had I “covered” all those same topics myself.

More importantly perhaps is that the question had engaged them in a brief moment of metacognition; discovering on their own the value of what they would be learning. As I continued through the remainder of my syllabus overview I sensed a noticeable increase in attentiveness from most all students for the remainder of the period. I left class that day feeling that the start of a positive attitude toward subject matter had been created. I haven’t changed my procedures for the first day of class since then.

If you seek to create a climate in your classroom that utilizes interactive approaches toward learning, consider planning something such as what I have described on your opening day for courses this summer. Then continue to make interactive experiences something that happens with frequency in your initial class sessions. I’m quite confident that you will experience a significant positive change and that soon, you’ll also notice that your students will, “really be talking to one another”.

Reference:

Anderson, C.M., Riddle, B.L. & Martin, M.M. (1999). Socialization processes in groups. In L.R. Frey (Ed.), Handbook of group communication theory and research (pp. 139-163). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.