Pedagogy is commonly defined as the principles and methods of instruction. Instructional pedagogy, at all levels, is mediated through the communication process. Successful pedagogy is thus dependent on successful communication among teachers and students. However, all teachers do not effectively use communication to support instruction. A teacher’s thorough knowledge of content does not mean that she or he can communicate it to students.
Much of student learning success and teacher satisfaction with the process is derived from the quality of the student-teacher relationship. All teachers are faced with the challenges of classroom communication, of communicating content to students, and of engaging students in the learning process. When the communication process works well, learning takes place and relationships are developed. But the process does not always work. Some students feel course content is worthless, some are unresponsive, others fear talking in class, and still others struggle with the English language. These issues, in part, are affected by how a teacher communicates with students. An effective teacher is a content expert, and many teachers believe that is all they need to be. However, teachers who also focus on how to support students and learning through effective communication increase learning, student liking for learning, and teacher satisfaction.
Role of Student Talk
The strategies outlined below focus both on student talk and on teacher talk. The primary objective of developing student talk is to provide opportunities for student engagement in content. For example, studies have shown that the lecture method is not universally effective in helping students learn because they are not actively involved in the learning process. On the other hand, an old dictum states, “If you want to learn something, teach it.” There is truth there, truth that points to helping students communicate what they have learned. “If you can’t communicate about it, you probably don’t know it.”
Yet many teachers and students do not see the value of student talk. Barbara Wood (1981) made the point that many students see a negative relationship between talk and grades. It is the quiet student that just does his or her work who seems to get a positive evaluation. This isn’t always the case, but it happens with regularity. Wood described four beliefs that guide many teachers’ approaches to student talk in the classroom:
- I must retain the floor as much as possible.
- I must insist on complete quiet from my students in order to retain control.
- Students cannot gain access to the floor without first getting my invitation (I call on them).
- Students should not ask questions or make comments about the topic until the proper time (such time is rarely provided).
These beliefs invite passive behaviors from students. Alternatively, an effective focus on communication in classroom pedagogy can improve student ability to relate effectively to others, improve social system understanding, build confidence in influencing that social system, and most importantly, build confidence in content.
Communication Strategies for the Classroom
Once the decision is made to focus on the role of communication in pedagogy, the question becomes one of implementation. However, choosing the appropriate teaching strategy for a course or an individual class session is not easy. An instructor can choose from an increasingly wide range of methods including lecture, discussion, guided discussion, small groups, peer instruction, computer-assisted instruction, podcasting, online chat groups, experiential games and activities, and the like. All strategies work, but not equally well for every learning objective. Cooper & Simonds (2003) developed a set of guidelines applicable to choosing an appropriate instructional strategy.
- The teacher: what is the teacher’s teaching style? What is he or she comfortable with?
- The students: what is the student’s background, interest level, knowledge level, attention span, etc.?
- Objective of the lesson: what is the learning outcome? Different outcomes (such as information acquisition or skill development) require different learning strategies.
- The environment: factors such as class size, amount of time devoted to the lesson, classroom physical arrangement, and other environmental considerations impact learning strategy selection.
Using these guidelines, a teacher can select the most appropriate strategy. The remainder of this article focuses on three commonly used strategies.
The lecture method is generic across subjects and education levels. It is well documented as a strategy for communicating ideas to others, and it has also been known to put many a student to sleep. It has survived because it is efficient, familiar, and necessary. No teacher escapes giving directions, specifying procedures, and providing demonstrations (Cooper & Simonds 2003). In recent decades, the lecture has received a great deal of criticism for misuse and unskilled applications. Research studies link the lecture method to reduced motivation (Spaulding 1992), lower long-term memory retention, and passive learning (Freiberg & Driscoll 2005). The implication of these findings is that the lecture should more strongly engage students in the content (Freiberg & Driscoll 2005).
How does an instructor accomplish this? The teacher can develop an effective lecture by focusing on the student, the content, the organization, and the delivery. Lecturing is a form of public speaking, and the principles of a good public speech apply. Preparation begins with audience analysis. Understanding who the students are and how they can be prepared to listen lays the groundwork for tailoring the lecture to meet their needs. Variables that should be considered include: students’ learning styles and the instructor’s teaching style, students’ information processing ability, their attitudes and beliefs about the topic, their previous knowledge, feelings about the instructor, and the range of cultures represented in the classroom.
Some instructors, unfortunately, take the point of view that “It is my job to give the lecture, their job to listen.” These instructors believe that no adaptation is necessary, and some would even say adaptation is pandering to students. This issue does bring up the necessary question of student responsibilities during a lecture. If we view the lecture as a communication event, then we know that whatever the outcome, both interact ants (instructor and students) have an impact. Students do need to actively participate in this communication event to make it successful, but what is their responsibility? A very useful idea is for the instructor to talk with the students about lectures, about expectations, and ask the students for their opinions on how course lectures can be made most beneficial. In this way, adaptations are made on both sides for everyone’s benefit.
A key factor in lecturing success is explicitly stating learning outcome(s) for the content. All lectures should have a clear instructional outcome, and the teacher needs to make the determination that a lecture is the best strategy to accomplish this objective. The identified learning objective becomes the main point for the lecture and guides the content of the lecture.
Once the main idea is determined, the teacher can develop the lecture’s organization. A clear organization has many benefits. It helps students listen more effectively as it allows them to follow the development of the content; it helps the lecturer stay on track; and it aids in information retention. Good organization begins with an introduction that gains the attention of the students, introduces the main points, describes the relevance of the information, and previews the content. The body of the lecture needs to have clearly identified sections, with obvious transitions. Depending on the attention span of the students, a lecture can sometimes use the transitions between points to give the students a moment to talk with each other about the content. This breaks up the lecture’s flow and more actively involves students. The conclusion should summarize the primary ideas of the lecture and restate the significance of the material.
Once the lecture is prepared, the instructor needs to consider delivery. Good delivery enhances listener attention. Delivering the lecture with animation, energy, and enthusiasm will help maintain interest. Watch student response during the lecture and if it appears that attention is waning, it may be time for a break, for the students to interact with each other, or for a refocusing activity.
Lectures will continue to be used in education because they are an effective strategy for certain purposes, such as introducing students to new information and concepts and clarifying material perhaps already read in the course textbook. Becoming adept in the use of this classroom strategy is a necessary part of the teaching profession, just as important as leading in-class discussions.
A goal of this pedagogy is developing the student’s ability to engage actively in the course content. Classroom discussions are one of the most efficacious strategies for accomplishing this goal. Cooper & Simonds (2003) noted that discussions are both exciting and messy. Discussion does not always follow a specific organizational pattern, teachers are not always in control, and students do not always discuss what the instructor thinks are the right ideas. However, the discussion method has no peer as a means to encourage students to participate actively and to ask more questions of the teacher and each other, and to find out how well the students can verbalize the content.
Hyman (1987) described five different reasons to hold class discussions: (1) explaining – analyzing causes, reasons, background, etc. for a given topic; (2) problem-solving – exploring options for tackling an issue; (3) debriefing – reflecting on the meaning of a shared activity; (4) predicting – speculating on consequences of a particular action or forecasting future events; and (5) policy deciding – coming to group consensus on lines of action. These five goals cannot easily be accomplished by other strategies.
An effective discussion should have a specific plan and structure. Like lectures, the discussion needs an introduction that captures the interest of the student, increases their motivation to participate, describes the purpose of the discussion, and describes the potential outcome. In addition, the teacher should briefly describe ground rules for the discussion. These rules might include suggestions on turn-taking, length of comments, listening behavior, disagreement resolution, decision-making strategy, etc. Next, the teacher should plot the body of the discussion out. What topics should be covered? What questions will generate the best student response? How will the decision be moved from one topic to the next? Either the discussion plan can be teacher developed or the teacher can develop it with the students. Last, the conclusion ties the discussion together, reinforces the outcomes, and may link the outcome of the discussion to the next lesson.
Questioning is one of the most important aspects of the discussion strategy. Without good probes, the discussion will not succeed. Bloom’s Taxonomy of education objectives is an excellent source for questions that increase critical thinking and support the lesson (Bloom 1956). Following this taxonomy will help develop questions that allow students to explore knowledge, develop comprehension, apply concepts, analyze situations, synthesize various points of view, and evaluate ideas based on specific criteria.
The final consideration when implementing this strategy is teacher response to student comments. As the goal is to develop student comments, the teacher should refrain from overt evaluation of student comments. Even positive responses can have a limiting effect on the discussion. Instead, the teacher should focus on building on student contributions, accepting and developing feelings, listening and reflecting student thoughts, developing further detail, and guiding student thinking toward deeper understanding of the topic. The teacher also needs to act as an effective moderator of the discussion. This includes encouraging comments from the reticent, discouraging monopolizers, pacing the discussion so that the necessary topics are covered, providing summaries and transitions between topics, and bringing the discussion to a close.
Small Group Communication
Some students, generally the brighter ones, do not like small group activities in the classroom. Complaints about groups in class are, unfortunately, frequently well founded. Many teachers do use small groups as a teaching strategy, but do so badly. Merely “getting them into groups” will not guarantee that a teacher will reach the goal of increased interaction and increased learning. Rather, classroom groups need to be constructed and implemented effectively.
Small groups ought to be used with two purposes in mind: helping the students acquire and better understand the content, and helping students learn to work in groups. If the class in question is a communication course, then the second purpose is likely built into the class structure. Given these two purposes, the usual rationale for using small groups is collaborative learning. The focus of collaboration fits the overarching theme of this article – teaching communication. Collaborative learning is an attempt to take advantage of differing viewpoints held by students as they focus on a single project. Differing viewpoints can be a group’s greatest disadvantage as well. If students are not properly prepared to participate, chaos can result.
To set the stage for effective small groups, the teacher needs to consider process variables (how the group accomplishes its task) and content variables (how the content is managed). Students are frequently unaware of the importance of process variables. The teacher needs to help the groups develop procedures on leadership, participation, decision-making, group norms, individual roles and responsibilities, and logistics. The teacher also needs to help the group determine how it will tackle the content. Used well, the classroom small group can be an effective strategy to enhance learning.
Students need feedback on their communication efforts, and the teacher needs to effectively guide the classroom communication process. This cannot be accomplished without evaluation and assessment. Handled well, evaluation can increase skill, develop confidence, and promote effectiveness. An effective evaluation system can increase both the quantity and quality of classroom communication. Guidelines for this system are as follows.
- Early in the class, at the beginning of the year or term, promote interaction between teacher and students and among the students. Use activities that require, in a nonthreatening way, every student to say at least two things the first few days of class. The goal is to develop the pattern of students contributing, orally, to the class. The longer it takes for a student to contribute, the more difficult it becomes. Developing student expectations for communication is important groundwork for later success.
- The students’ efforts at talking early in class should have minimal feedback or evaluation. The best approach is to develop outside boundaries such as specific time frames for their comments and interactions, with other time periods devoted to specific instruction. “Time” is a convenient beginning boundary, followed by the boundaries of topic, channel (who can talk to whom), and similar boundaries.
- After the students have realized that talking in class isn’t necessarily wrong, and after they have gotten used to the idea of boundaries, the teacher will be ready to move to descriptive feedback on their communication efforts. Descriptive feedback focuses on message effects. This evaluation technique asks the student to describe, with perhaps some probing from the teacher, the original intent for the conversation, the communicative acts used, and the subsequent effect. Through students’ describing those three things (either orally or in writing), the teacher can probe and suggest alternatives in each area. This model is a powerful tool in getting the student to see options in communicative behavior.
- The previous point focused on after-the-fact evaluation. This point focuses on before-the-act evaluation. This follows a more traditional teaching model in that the teacher sets up a specific objective to work on using a communication behavior. The teacher develops the objective, models the behavior, helps students practice, and then helps them to try it out in as real a situation as possible. Evaluation is done afterwards in the sense of “did it work?”
Evaluation is difficult, but necessary. It takes working with students on an individual basis frequently, but it is an educationally powerful method. If it follows the model described above, and focuses on description of behaviors, then evaluation can be a powerful learning tool that helps students sees the connection between their communicative efforts and results in the real world.
Communication in pedagogy is frequently overlooked by content area instructors. However, a concentrated focus on communication in the classroom can do much to improve learning, increase student participation, and develop a more satisfying learning environment for all concerned.
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