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?