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Hands explaining and going through a discussion

Valuing Half-Formed Thoughts in Class Discussion

Thu Sep 10, 2015 at 07:30 AM

After setting ground rules for class discussions, remind students of the value of contributing a half-formed thought. We tend to allow people in power like professors or CEOs to think out-loud, but that those with less power like students and employees rarely get the chance to talk out their ideas.

Most of the time, I can hear a gasp of realization of this truth and a rustle of excitement as they begin to realize that it will be okay for them to try out their ill-formed questions and even half-baked notions in class. I then take it as my job to help students clarify their questions and thinking and, when appropriate, offer a mini-lecture regarding points of fact or get other students to build on one another’s ideas. 

Admittedly, this strategy produces messy conversations that sometimes don’t have clear conclusions. I warn my students about this and reassure them by saying that solving real problems requires experimentation, false starts, failures and risk. We use class discussions to figure out the subtleties of a problem and try out possible approaches. I say that each of us has chances to practice producing linear, fully-formed arguments in our essay writing. In class, however, we have a precious opportunity to think out-loud together, one that, if practiced now, will serve them well in group settings in the future.

In summary, I recommend these three strategies to encourage students to work through half-formed thoughts:

  • Help students clarify questions
  • Offer mini-lectures to redirect discussion
  • Remind students that solving problems requires experimentation, false starts, failures and risk

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About the Author

Floyd Cheung is an associate professor of English and American Studies Program Director at Smith College. He submitted this idea to a teaching tips collection organized by members of POD, a professional organization for educational developers.

Edited and designed by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Photo credits: Unsplash. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.View all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.