By Dr. Everett Wade,
English Faculty, Belhaven-Memphis
Class discussions do not always come easily, especially when they focus on readings from course material. Stimulating conversation is often difficult, and students are often reluctant to engage. At other times, students are so eager to speak that the conversation is shallow and drifts off topic. Even lively discussions may lack the underlying critical thinking that is necessary for a profitable evaluation of the reading. In order to motivate discussion while avoiding these pitfalls, I use a three-step procedure of summary, analysis, and assessment. This process helps students to discuss texts in a manner that encourages critical thinking.
Critical thinking is generally defined as “objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” Too often, however, class discussions reverse this process, as teachers begin by asking students what they think of the reading (their judgment) and then try to work back to objective analysis and evaluation. During my time teaching, I have certainly been tempted to begin class discussions with questions that require a student to make an overall judgment on the text. The problem with this approach is that students generally haven’t had time to digest the reading material for that day. To give the proper structure to the discussion, I begin by writing three column headings on the board: summary, analysis, and assessment.
We begin with summary. How well we are able to summarize is a good barometer for how well we have comprehended a text in the first place. Furthermore, the mere act of restating the main ideas of the text often results in insights and discovery. As we summarize the reading, I let the students do the talking while I take notes on the board. It can be helpful to ask the students to provide citations for key points in the summary, e.g., “Where did the author claim that—can you give me the page number?” or “Can you read me the sentence where the author makes that claim?”
After summary, we move on to analysis—the detailed examination of the elements and structure of the text. Although the attribution is dubious, Aristotle is often quoted as having said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Regardless of this statement’s source, its sentiment is valuable. I stress to students that when we analyze, we are holding the text and its ideas at arm’s length: we table our emotions, responses, and judgments. We ask questions regarding the reading’s context—to whom was it written, and during what time period? We also discuss the nature of the work: is it merely informative, or is it persuasive? If it is argumentative, can we find a thesis statement? How well do the author’s reasons support his or her claim? And what kind of evidence does the author provide? The answers to such questions provide a basis for the next step in our discussion: assessment.
Having grounded our discussion in summary and analysis, we then move on to assessment—making a final judgment about the text. At this point, students may express their views more freely. What is their emotional reaction to the reading? Do they agree or disagree with the author? Discussing such observations is more profitable at this point for several reasons. For one, we have already grounded the main points of the reading, thus reducing the risk of mischaracterizing the author’s ideas. Furthermore, because we have analyzed the article, students can frame their emotional responses more critically. The process of summary and analysis enables the students not only to evaluate the reading itself, but also their reactions to it. We can judge whether certain gut reactions were warranted, or whether they break down under closer observation. Finally, students can use the summary and analysis during the first parts of the session to develop an overall judgment of the reading, thus developing their own thesis that could be used for writing a response or as a springboard for a longer research essay.
Although this three-step procedure may need to be adjusted for each course’s unique context, it provides a basic structure that ensures more substance and depth for classroom discussions. By engaging in this process, students can avoid a shallow exchange of ill-informed opinions, and instead think critically, engaging in objective analysis and evaluation of an issue before forming a judgment.