MALLIKA MAKKAR/THE VARSITY

A group of students in a lecture hall can be a willing audience or a captive one, but that depends on who’s talking.

If you’ve enrolled in a course, then you are there to learn from an instructor who has multiple degrees and can claim some authority on the subject. They are lecturing because they have proven themselves worthy of speaking at length in an academic setting. So, why is it that the centre stage — and the audience’s attention — gets handed off to students so frequently?

Class discussion is often used to generate dialogue, the dynamic interchange of ideas that is purportedly necessary to creating meaning. It is an arguably legitimate educational end, but discussion is not the only way to find meaning in academia. In many cases, class discussion is a hindrance to collective edification. Long-winded diatribes and redundancies tend to result from this common arrangement, leaving students stranded and annoyed. The few who speak up are perhaps the only beneficiaries.

The technique of class-wide discourse originates in the theory of active learning. This approach has its roots in the 1990s’ social constructivism — which in turn is based on the ancient Socratic method. According to its proponents, posing questions to lead pupils to a conclusion surpasses spoon-feeding them data. In order to know, the theory goes, you’ve mostly got to get there yourself.

This philosophy seems vital to U of T’s pedagogy, where class discussion is often the go-to strategy, especially in seminars and tutorials. For many courses, engaging in discussion is mandatory and can account for a significant portion of the your final grade. U of T’s administrative policy actively invites faculty to consider marking for oral participation, indicating that some students may excel at verbal contributions rather than written work. I have spoken with classmates who say they struggle to express themselves on tests and papers, but, given the chance to speak, can articulate their ideas more effectively.

One could contend that including both oral and written components in student evaluations simply reflects a fair grading scheme. Yet, there remain complications that cannot justify entire seminars built on the  alleged benefits of active learning.

Almost inevitably, a few students tend to dominate class conversation, leaving the rest to listen politely to conjecture rather than the rational insight of instructors informed by years of study. It doesn’t seem reasonable to penalize students who don’t want to jump into the discussion because they are socially anxious, or perhaps self-conscious about using a foreign language. Accommodations are given to students with conditions that make reading and writing difficult, so withholding a dedicated forum for those who need text-based or small group conversation is ultimately indefensible.

The data is sparse, but one study in the Journal of Literary Research suggests that older students may engage with material by writing, reading, and listening more predictably than through class discussions. If these findings are indicative of post-secondary settings in general, then using class discussion as a crutch to inspire dialogue is unwarranted and irresponsible. Socratic questioning, after all, is an archaic didactic tool; at the very least, academic institutions ought to question its suitability in modern classrooms.

Ultimately, we are not attending class to hear the mere opinions of fellow students. Asking rhetorical questions during lectures engages a learner without the unnecessary feather fluffing and rambling distractions of many students. Independent study groups can always be formed if the student requires verbal interaction to get the most out of their education.

Dialogue does not have to be a mass endeavour, and it does not even have to be verbal. Taking advantage of the discussion board feature of Blackboard allows speech-averse students to take part in the conversation and frees up lecture time in order to learn from the experts. Class discussions are meant to provide a fair opportunity for everyone to contribute, but better methods of engagement should be considered.

Malone Mullin is a third-year philosophy specialist. 

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