Odd Tools in Your Utility Belt

Most (if not all) of us have idiosyncratic exercises or techniques that others don’t use but which work exceedingly well for us. So I thought it would be useful to share some of these here, in case others might want to stea… er, I mean, borrow some of them.

To kick things off, here is one of mine (which conversations with Claudia Cortese and Liz Martin made me think of sharing, so blame them). To provide a little background, I don’t like to call on students to speak in class. At the same time, I think that it is a good idea for the quieter students to be impelled to participate. So, a number of years ago, I came up with something which would do so without them feeling picked out, and while encouraging those around them to support them in speaking. Also, I am a card-carrying geek and played Dungeons and Dragons through most of my college career, which means I own a lot of multi-sided dice. Like these…



So, linking gaming and pedagogy, here’s my personal approach to group discussions. (Note: a d20 is a twenty-sided die, with numbers from 1-20; a d8 is an eight-sided die, with numbers from 1-8; etc.)

1 – I usually divide the class into 4 groups.

2 – I put up six or more topics on the board for discussion. These may be questions, sections of text to look at, ideas to discuss, etc.

3 – Then I get one person from each group to roll a d20 for the group, to determine in what order the groups will choose topics. The group with the highest roll chooses first and then they work downwards.

4 – Then the groups get 10 minutes to discuss their subject among themselves, after which they will have to tell me and the class what they came up with.

5 – Five minutes into their discussion, I tell them that now we choose who gets to start off speaking for each group. To determine that, I assign each person in the group a number (or numbers) and roll a die. So, for example, a four person group is 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8 on a d8.

6 – Once the ten minutes are up, we start with the first group which chose. The spokesperson has to speak for at least 30 seconds or one minute, before others can join in. Once the group covers what they have to say, I may ask a couple of questions, asking for clarification and/or pushing their ideas a little further, and ask for responses (from the individual group and then the class as a whole).

7 – Then I move to the second group, repeat the above, and then to the third and the fourth.

8 – In the time remaining, I turn what they all brought up into material for further discussion, usually drawing out the connections between the points and filling in gaps as needed.

Over many years of using the above, in classes ranging from less than 20 students in a Freshman Composition class, to 30 students in an upper-level Literature class, to 40+ students in a graduate literature course in India, it has always worked.

It gets students excited (people love rolling dice, are scared of the results, jokingly compete with other groups, etc.), gets everyone involved and talking about the subjects, ensures that people who do not talk end up doing so, and positively switches things up from regular classes.

And, without fail, if I do this even once, I find that students in general are much more willing to participate and be engaged in class, having had the opportunity to do so in an enjoyable, low-stakes but focused manner. Every semester, I have multiple students who never spoke till I did the above and then continue to do so.

In short, it works—and so I use it every semester, and will presumably do so until you pry my dice from my cold, dead hands. (So I’m attached. Sue me!)

So, what’s your favorite odd trick? Share in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Odd Tools in Your Utility Belt

  1. I love that idea, Shil. I’m trying to use a gentle form of gamification too, when trying to give quiet students a way to participate. A few weeks ago, I assigned Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” and asked them to think about genre. In class, I assigned small groups to either be on “Team Short Story” or “Team Poetry,” using the elements of short fiction and poetry that we’d discussed in class. They generated a central claim, and I dropped in on every group to make sure it was a group effort (it was!). It went so well that one of my students is still using the idea that “‘Girl’ is a short story” to talk about other texts!

  2. Pingback: Assessing Students’ Participation | GradHacker | Studently

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