Here’s why you need to bring a rubber band to every class you teach, every time.

A student discussion leader in every class period

Recently we’ve been having a student play the role of discussion leader in class. That is, each class period we get a student to volunteer to lead the discussion next time. This student takes special effort to be prepared, and I’ve seen three positive results:

– At least one student has thought hard about the readings, and that alone can take the group discussion to a higher level.

– With student-led discussion, I talk less and students talk more. I think they learn more, and I’m always there to bring up points, answer questions, and guide the discussion as needed.

– The other students in the class—those who are not the discussion leader today—know they’ll have to do it themselves later on, so they have more of a sense of ownership and active participation, compared to the traditional instructor-led session.

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about right now. What I want to do is share something I learned from Ben Levine, our discussion leader today (actually the same class where we had the Reinhart and Rogoff questions that I just blogged).

The rubber band

What happened was this.

As usual, I arrived about five minutes early and I kicked off an informal conversation about statistics as the students trickled into the room. The discussion continued as class began, and I opened up the Jitt responses. At this point Ben raised his hand and reminded me that he, not I, was the discussion leader! So he came up to the front of the room and the discussion continued for a moment.

At this point Ben recognized that the conversation was going all over the place. We were talking about important topics, highly relevant to the course as a whole, but we’d diverged from that week’s topic. So he stopped and said: OK, let’s get back on topic. Let’s first discuss today’s topic, then we can return to the conversation we’ve been having, keeping in mind how it relates to our main subject.

This was really helpful, and I realized I should be doing it all the time in my own. We have great discussions in all my classes, but often we lose the thread. And if the conversation isn’t tied to the main flow of course material, it can be forgotten. Ideas are much more helpful when connected to other ideas we’ve been thinking about.

What Ben did was use a rubber band. Not a physical rubber band; a conceptual rubber band, tied on one end to the day’s scheduled syllabus material and tied on the other end to the class discussion. Digressions are fine, but you have to keep that connection, you have to keep springing back to the main points of the class.

This was great, and I’m gonna try doing this every time I teach. I actually already knew about this when delivering a lecture: when I give a talk, I like to pause from time to time and explain how all the pieces fit together, so the audience can see the details within the context of the larger structure. But, until now, I hadn’t thought of this as a way of keeping class discussions relevant.

Also, as with many risk-limiting tricks, I suspect that the stability attained by the rubber-band technique might well allow discussion to flow even more freely: as a student, you can feel more comfortable moving to a digression, if you are secure in the knowledge that the discussion leader will connect this to the key ideas you’re trying to learn that day.