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Open Discussion & Classroom Participation: Fostering Academic Belonging

Young adults participating in a discussion.
Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

By Matthew LaFevor, Geography.

One of the ways I like to begin my classes is by asking students a very broad question: What’s going on in the world today?      Such a broad question has strong potential to fail, especially if students are too concerned with answering ‘correctly’. Students often come to class having skimmed the readings. They may only tenuously hold information in their heads. Beginning with such a broad question forces students to zoom out for a minute, which can cause some to freeze. To help students, and before the frost sets in for the entire class, I often have ready follow-up questions or comments. If the proverbial ‘temperature’ continues to drop, I might just ask if any have heard about a specific news event that I heard on my way to work.

What is important for this strategy is that my students had multiple opportunities to contribute (even if they came to class unprepared).

Undergraduate classrooms

Teaching courses in Geography allows me to frame just about any news story in terms of its locational aspects—or at least in terms of why an event may have occurred where it did. Exploring the why of where things occur is central to geographical inquiry. And the habit of investigating the processes behind why spatial patterns form is a big part of what I hope they will learn from my classes.

As the semester progresses students usually become more comfortable volunteering anecdotes or bits of news stories at the beginning of class. Often, these involve local- or regional-level stories about floods, droughts, and other natural hazards or examples of human-environment conflict. By this point students have become aware there are participation points to earn by coming to class with something to share. Students also learn that I will pose additional comments or questions that frame their stories in geographic contexts, often in relation to the concepts we are studying.

For example, in my undergraduate class, World Regional Geography (GY105), I often ask “So what’s been going on in the _______ geographic realm or region”, referring to the area we are currently studying. Usually, someone will respond. But if the climate is frosty, I might continue with, in the case of the North American Realm:

“So, last class we talked about the different climatic and agricultural regions in the United States. Has anyone heard the news about this Hurricane Hillary approaching California? Yeah. We are kind of used to hurricanes here in the Southeast, no? But how often do hurricanes or tropical storms hit the west coast? Anyone here from California? What’s the worse rainstorm you remember when you were growing up? Yeah? Have you heard any news from home about the weather that Hillary is bringing? Interesting. Yeah, my mother-in-law lives in L.A., but she says she’s looking forward to the rain. She has a garden she struggles to water every August. Water is seriously expensive there, no? And there are many rules and regulations about water consumption. Anyway, how might this hurricane impact crop yields in California? Anyone buy almonds at the grocery? they’re really expensive lately! I wonder if this is because of the drought out west. California is one of the few places in the U.S. where almonds are grown. But hasn’t EVERYTHING been expensive recently? How much of the increase in almond price is due to general price inflation and how much is due to drought? How much of Hurricane Hillary is due to anthropogenic climatic change and how much is just due to natural processes? How do we determine these things? What is the ‘right’ amount of rain for farming in California’s Mediterranean climate environment? Do California’s lowland farmers and mountain ski resort owners want the same amount of precipitation? Has anyone visited Sequoia National Park north of L.A.? What about the old General Sherman tree? What happens when the ground becomes saturated with water, but the rain keeps coming? Surface runoff and erosion, or even mass wasting and tree uprooting, no? General Sherman has been there for thousands of years. I wonder how many hurricanes have hit California during the General’s lifetime. How far back do our weather records go? Are they all written down? What about Alabama? Did we have an unusual summer of rain? I lost a pecan tree (not almond), and my neighbor lost a 200-year-old red oak, all on sloped land. But for those of you who went home for the summer, was the weather ‘normal’ in your home region? How do you know? What did you see with your own eyes or hear in the news? Did your observations match the climate region designations of your home region we studied last class? What’s the difference between climate and weather? Interesting. Ok, let’s take those ideas to a new world region you are probably less familiar with and see what patterns and processes may be similar or different….”

We started class with a general question about Hurricane Hillary, followed by commentaries and additional questions, and even a few laughs.  What is important for this strategy is that my students had multiple opportunities to contribute (even if they came to class unprepared). Everyone experiences the weather, and only they are the experts on their own experiences. Talking about student experiences empowers them, fosters academic belonging, and hopefully builds their confidence to participate in future discussions.

Mechanically, our discussion has elements of the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which many who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s remember. The game is based on the idea of six degrees of separation, or that any two people on Earth are only six or fewer acquaintances apart. But instead of acquaintances, we use place-based, human-environment characteristics and concepts to wend our way around to the day’s lesson. As a framework for this exercise, one of the first things I teach students is the First Law of Geography, otherwise known as Tobler’s Law. It posits that while everything is related to everything else, near things tend to be more related than distant things. By keeping the discussion rooted in local-, regional-, and national-level news events and experiences, students usually find connections between these events and their growing understandings of the socioenvironmental contexts in which they are situated. The exercise partly serves as review, but also as an exploratory segue to what comes next.

Graduate classrooms

The strategy works beyond the undergraduate classroom, too. During introductory discussions, undergraduate students often seem more attuned to local or regional news, while graduate students often seem more attuned to national or global news. This is especially true in my Geographical Research Methods and Traditions (GY500) class, in which more than half of the students come from abroad. These students often bring strong knowledge and understanding of issues that impact their home countries, the discussion of which helps educate the rest of us about global issues of concern. Flooding in Pakistan; air pollution in Bangladesh; protests in Iran; military takeovers in the rural Sahel; refugee crises in the Mediterranean; geostrategic developments in the war in Ukraine and their impacts on grain supplies in Northern Africa. Bringing up these issues at the beginning of graduate-level classes provides numerous opportunities for students to engage. These opportunities can be especially valuable for international students who struggle with English. Among these students, being able to discuss topics related to one’s homeland can help strengthen engagement and build confidence to participate further. In short, this can foster a sense of academic belonging.

Classroom memories

I had a similar experience as a master’s student in Mexico, struggling through my Spanish-language business finance classes. During my first year, I was hesitant to participate in discussions, in part, because I was not confident in my limited ability to speak Spanish, which I had developed mostly while washing dishes in restaurants and not in formal academic settings. But one day a friendly, creative, and somewhat informal professor opened class discussion with, “So, what is going on in the world today? Anyone read the news and see what happened in Nueva York?” As the only gringo, I felt the stares, including that of the professor, and so I responded as best I could that I had read that a couple of planes had flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center that morning. And that while we still didn’t know the full human toll, many Americans and indeed many from abroad had been killed.

Eventually, the class launched into a discussion of the global perceptions of capitalism. I learned that several of my classmates were interested in communism, while others in furthering free-market capitalism. We had an unusually philosophical discussion for a course in business finance. Our discussion remained civil, though I was still emotionally raw from the events of the morning. Importantly, we all became more familiar with each other’s perspectives and who we were as individuals. For me, my linguistic deficiencies were now in the open, acknowledged, and most importantly, out of the way.

As the semester rolled on, I gradually felt more comfortable joining class discussions. I was invited to join a group of open-minded Mexican students to collaborate on our final course project. Our project explored the business applications of a new, emerging technology called geographic information systems (GIS). Our study of GIS convinced me of what I already was suspecting—that I wasn’t really interested in international business, finance, or logistics. Instead, I was most interested in spatial relationships, and in exploring the why of where things occur—though I didn’t know how to express this at the time in any language. After finishing my degree, which took years of living in Mexico, I learned about the field of Geography and was off on a new path.

In retrospect, many of my fondest memories of undergraduate and graduate studies came about through informal class discussions and some of the acquaintances I made as a result of broad, open-ended conversations with students and professors. I don’t have empirical evidence, but I suspect that many of my own students’ memories of my classes will come from the discussions we have at the beginning of class. I guess these could be called semi-structured introductions. Perhaps there is a literature about this somewhere, though I’m obviously not familiar with it.

Fostering Academic Belonging

In sum, I had several valuable formative experiences in education because I was coaxed into participating in discussions at the beginning of class by some creative, informal questions posed by the professor. It is a practice I’ve tried to replicate for my students, though perhaps subconsciously because I never really thought about why I teach this way until I wrote this.