A few ways to jump start a class discussion

Are you running out of steam? Do you find your students are exhausted and sick? Often the middle of the semester needs a pick-me-up. Here are a few ideas to jump start a class discussion. The ideas will work for any subject, but my examples will be introductory biology.

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A. In my class yesterday, we tackled the concept “species”, which is actually pretty complicated. In fact, biologists aren’t in agreement about what a species is. In addition to that hairy concept, we considered what constitutes an invasive species. How does an organism become invasive?

To jump start this discussion, I had each student do a little investigation about an invasive species over the weekend. Each had to prepare answers to a few questions about their choice of invasive and come to class prepared to share with the class.

Then, in class, I formed small groups so they could compare the circumstances of each of their chosen invasives. In addition, I handed out a list of specific questions linking the ideas from the paper they read for class (about so-called native invaders like the white-tailed deer) and their chosen invasive.

After about 15 minutes of group discussions, the groups went ’round and reported on their insights and conclusions.  The discussions were quite lively!

B. When addressing a content-heavy biological topic like cell signaling, I have had students use the library’s databases to find a scientific study of a disease involving a component of a cell signaling pathway, guided by a list of possible components (to keep them somewhat focused). Then, in class, small groups work on a concept map or flow chart exploring cell signaling pathways and they insert their diseases into the diagrams. We then discuss ways to integrate the information to arrive at a deeper understanding of the regulation of cell signaling pathways.

C. Again, let’s say you have a content-heavy class session ahead. You can hold a brief, 15 minutes, Jeopardy-style game about terms or concepts at the beginning of class. You can then either pair the activity with a different group-based activity, or can segue into a Q/A that integrates the ideas and concepts together. I’ve even had success with a quick small-group crossword puzzle competition.

These short activities are great ways to review concepts or terms in any subject, and they get students talking and ready to participate for the rest of the class session. I’m sure you have tons of great ideas you’d like to share! What things have you tried?

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2 thoughts on “A few ways to jump start a class discussion

  1. For the AP Bio class I am currently student-teaching, we have used concept maps to describe the relationship of the theory of natural selection to many related concepts such as homology, embryology, fossil records, uniformitarianism, and population effects. The students developed historical connections of Darwin, Linnaeus, and Malthus’s contributions to evolutionary theory in this activity as well.

    Natural selection as an evolutionary influence seemed to be a very difficult concept for the students to grasp; so, my mentor teacher and I thought it best for them to develop a comprehensive view of natural selection to determine connections and succeeding significances that ultimately determine its influence on the evolution of a species. The students had to pre-read in order to expose themselves to these terms; however, they had yet to develop connections between them. Thus, we wanted to utilize this activity to allow them to form their own perceptions of the connections between the terms. This activity not only emphasized that natural selection has many influences across evolutionary and phylogenetic principles, but it is also a concept that expands what we know and are able to learn regarding evolution. Furthermore, students were able to see that there was no one right way to draw their concept map. As they conducted a gallery walk of each group’s work, they compared and contrasted maps, argued connections, and continued to discuss possibilities.

    I think it is an extremely useful tool for assessment, critical thinking, analysis, and group discussion.

    • Terrific ideas, Lia! I have used concept mapping very effectively. I love the idea of the “gallery walk” to compare! I’d love to try that.

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