Don’t teach people what they can discover on their own.
There are portions of every training class where the intent is to relay a list of rules or to help the students better understand an underlying issue. The old method of getting this information across was through lecture. And, lecture, in terms of retention, is not always the best way to get the information to stick and be internalized by your students. By splitting your class into small groups and using discussion cards, you can actually increase retention, comprehension, and also make your class a lot more engaging and fun.
The type of discussion cards I use the most in the classes I design are Agree/Disagree/Undecided cards. These are cards with five to ten deliberately poorly worded and often misleading statements about the takeaways I want the students to have about the topic. The idea is to present each takeaway (or exact opposite of the takeaway) as a truism on the discussion card. The class is then divided into groups of five or six people with one member of the group reading the statement out loud to open the discussion. Then each member of the group says whether they agree or disagree with the statement and backs up his/her selection with their reasons why.
The goal is for the group to come to a consensus before moving on to the next statement. If the group can’t come to a consensus, they mark that statement as undecided and proceed through the list until the time limit is up. When the time is up, the instructor calls the class back together as a whole and asks each group to give their response. The teacher then explains the correct answer or their own opinion as he or she moves through each statement listed on the card.
As an example, when I teach on the topic of cultural literacy, three of the statements on the card are:
- Simply not saying yes is the same as saying no [Agree/Disagree/Undecided]
- What I do for a living and my happiness are highly linked [Agree/Disagree/Undecided]
- My family’s opinion of a future spouse/partner is more important than my own opinion [Agree/Disagree/Undecided]
Opening up these cultural differences for initial discussion in small groups without me, prior to coming back together to go over them as a whole, helps the class in terms of retention. This accessing of what someone already knows on the topic prior to it being further explained has also been shown to help with comprehension.
Open Ended Discussion Cards
Like the previous card type, the class is split into small groups to discuss the questions on the card first with the class coming back together after the time limit for the instructor to go over the information. Open ended cards simply ask for opinions, personal examples, or generated lists based on the topic. These are more what people are used to when doing class discussions.
For example, based on the manager training class, some of the questions on the card are:
- What are the top five traits of a good boss?
- Where does your authority come from?
- How do you know when you can suggest changes at your new job?
Notice that these are still all consensus based questions. The group discussion is around sharing information but also about coming to a common answer or set of answers.
Since the different groups don't always work through the discussion cards at the same speed, it's important to include a few bonus questions at the bottom of your discussion cards. This way if one group finishes well ahead of the others they can still stay engaged until the time limit expires and you come back together as a class.
Usually for bonus questions, I add either/or statements for the teams to debate. Either/or statements ask people to choose the primary answer from two things that aren't mutually exclusive. For example, in the cultural literacy class, two of the bonus questions are:
- The primary role of the family is to: (1) Ensure that an individual can function on his/her own; or (2) Ensure that no individual has to function on his/her own.
- The main purpose of communication is to: (1) Build relationships; or (2) Relay information.
You can see in the examples that both are true. The debate, though, is over which is the primary or most important of the two.
The Activity and Discussion Jar
A sampling of A/D/U statements, open ended questions, list generating questions, and either/or selections are cut up individually, folded, and placed in a jar for the small groups or class as a whole to draw from. If you want to randomly get them up and moving, you can also toss in some human graph or four corners questions to mix things up. Each individual question is drawn from the jar and the small group responds. They keep drawing the next question from the jar until the larger time limit expires.
This method works well when you want a broader discussion on the topic without necessarily needing the instructor's input after each question. It helps the groups stay focused but doesn’t impose the time limit structure where everyone would need to be on the same set of questions at the same time.
What Not to Put on the Cards
It’s important to note that nothing on these cards should be numbers-based or rely on someone’s ability to remember a specific fact. The intent is to generate discussion. The numbers or facts can be part of the teacher’s response when the group comes back as a whole but it shouldn’t be the over-arching question on the card.
For example, I wouldn’t write, “85% of all new businesses are in technology A/D/U” on a card. No conversation can occur around that statement – it would either be directly right or wrong and it doesn’t lend itself to opinion-based discussions. If that was a point I wanted to get across, I may write, “New businesses are best started in the technology sector A/D/U.” This lends itself to discussion. Or, if I were doing the open-ended conversation card, I may write, “What area would it be most profitable to open a business in knowing the current market?” This also lends itself to discussion. Notice that I went just one level higher of the statistic to create the question. If the individual fact is important to bring out, the facilitator can mention it during their response when the class comes back together as a whole to discuss the answers.
Remember that retention can be upped greatly by having students discuss the information in small groups and come to their own conclusions first. It’s in this way that people engage their existing knowledge to better retain and comprehend the information you are presenting. You are also helping class members bring out any potential misconceptions they may have about the issues being discussed so you can dispel them as part of the broader discussion. Without the discussion these misconceptions would not have been engaged, corrected, and the new knowledge absorbed.
If the class is also more networking based, doing conversation cards engages the professionals in your class with each other beyond the usual topics to help them really learn and connect with one another.
Don’t teach people what they can discover on their own.
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