Making the Most of Classroom Discussion


A recent article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle revealed that MSU has achieved the 189th spot on the U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top 200 colleges and universities in the United States.

This is a fantastic piece of news for our rapidly growing institution. The most interesting part of this article, however, is that the Chronicle makes a point of detailing that part of the reason for MSU’s high ranking is its ability to have fewer than 20 students in 42 percent of classes.

The fact that class size plays a large role in the structure of this list is questionable. A class-size factor is not utilized in the rival list published by Forbes. There is no doubt that small classes increase the opportunity for student-teacher discourse and interaction — an invaluable element of education. However, when misused, they also encourage intellectual stagnation in the form of over-emphasis on student-led discussion and the most dreadful form of educational torture: group projects.

So as not to incur the wrath of every professor on campus, I must first explain that there are many occasions in which class discussion and interaction have proven beneficial to the learning process. Question-answer sessions, with professors and students sharing relevant opinions regarding thought-provoking readings, constitute a healthy and enjoyable classroom experience.

Discussion is also necessary for classes in which student innovation and input is essential to the basis of the class itself — for example, art or literature, or education classes in which the development of teaching strategies is a fundamental goal.

The point is discussion should not be eliminated, but rather limited by the instructor. One professor this semester was prudent enough to point out, to my great appreciation, that rambling personal narratives are not legitimate evidence for backing a historical theory. This resulted in much more worthwhile discussions.

Discussions in which the teacher takes an active role in guiding subject matter and regulating information can be extremely beneficial. Here is an instance in which traditional methodology — the impartation of knowledge and guidance from a master teacher to his/her pupils — is the absolute best course of action. Teacher-guided discussion is rewarding and constructive.

Student-led discussions, whether in small groups or recitations, are generally unproductive and an unquestionable waste of tuition money. If there is one thing that most students may agree upon, it is that trying to have a full-fledged discussion in a large lecture class (over 40 students, let’s say) is useless and a waste of time. They might also agree that no one ever learns anything in recitation.

With an outstanding professor, both large lectures and small seminars are of a superb quality. Sources should avoid prizing one above the other and instead focus on the quality of the educators themselves — who, at MSU, certainly deserve a very high ranking.