Reviving the Third Year ‘Seminar’: Using Discussion Groups to Foster Engagement and Interaction in a Large Class

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Janelle Jones, Department of Psychology

Timeframe: January 2012 to April 2012

Funding: $3,000

Poster presentation: View Janelle’s poster (PDF) presented at the 2012 Symposium on Teaching and Learning.

From the poster: One student’s response to “How have the discussion groups helped your learning?” was “I really enjoy the discussion that occurs in my group - not only does meeting every week encourage me to finish all of the weekly readings PRIOR to class, the group offers different insights and allows us to bounce ideas around” Read more student responses on the poster including, how students responded to “How have the discussion groups hindered your learning?” Read more >>

Description: How can we gain the benefits of well-structured small-group discussions in large classes?  This question is especially relevant for third year topics courses in psychology.  In the distant past, third year topics courses had fewer students and were discussion intensive, much like seminars.  They were often students’ first opportunity to substantially engage in the exchange of ideas and to debate the strengths and weaknesses of their discipline’s methods of scientific inquiry.  Presently, many third year topics courses in psychology have enrolments of 100+ students, which make substantive discussion increasingly rare. As a consequence, the opportunity for the in-depth, interactive, in-class discussions that can foster engagement with the material and collaborative interaction with others has been reduced. This project aims to revive aspects of engagement and interaction in third year topics courses by incorporating elements of the traditional seminar, namely that of small structured discussion groups, to a large class.

The way structured small groups discussion will be facilitated is through a weekly “Question of the Week”.  The questions will be an integrative, critical and/or application question that can be answered using the weekly readings (i.e., empirical journal articles and review papers) and generative responses from students.  Students will be introduced to the weekly topic by the instructor using an interactive lecture with multimedia (i.e. newspapers, short documentaries) that includes a brief summary of key information from the weekly reading, which ensures all students have the same level of knowledge in their discussions.  After the introductory lecture, students will gather into their assigned discussion groups to discuss and answer the “Question of the Week” including related sub-questions.  Several groups will be monitored by the instructor and the teaching assistants and all students will be encouraged to express their opinions and thoughts during dicussions.  Each week, several groups will be selected randomly to present one of their responses to the class (~5 minutes).  At the end of the weekly meeting, the instructor will ‘reflect back’, constructing an answer to the “Question of the Week” using the group responses and filling in the blanks where necessary.

Questions addressed:

  • How can we gain the benefits of well-structured small-group discussions in large classes? 
  • Is participation in discussion groups associated with 1) higher levels of course interest and engagement, and 2) course satisfaction, over time?

Knowledge sharing:

Jones, J. (2012, May). Can structured discussion groups foster interest, engagement, and satisfaction in a large class? Poster session presented at the Symposium on Teaching and Learning: Leading Change @SFU, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC.  

Jones, J. (2014). Discussion group effectiveness is related to critical thinking through interest and engagement. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 13(1), 12-24. doi: 10.2304/plat.2014.13.1.12