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The Appropriate Response: When Should Professors Involve Themselves In Student Debates?

As more and more colleges are beginning to integrate discussion based curricula into their majors, the era of the dreadfully dull lecture hall is coming to an end. I think I speak for quite a few of us when I say, good riddance. However, this new curriculum format is not without its issues either. Now that the professor is no longer devising entire lectures, we have to consider what role the professor should take on in this new format. Are they asking the questions? Are they directing the discussion in specific ways? Should they even be involved in student discussion or should they simply be present?

Personally, I believe that professors have three roles in student discussions: to be a facilitator, a mediator and a teacher.

There are very few debates that don’t have at least one lull that carries on until someone decides to finally end it. As a facilitator, the professor has full permission to be that person. As the discussion is there to help enhance student comprehension, it stands to reason that awkward silence isn’t getting the job done. So, to ensure continued lively discussion, a professor can ask a question or pose a scenario for students to think about and then speak on if they so choose. In this way, the professor is still leaving the discussion in the hands of the students. They’re not dictating the flow of conversation but simply trying to encourage it. The professor’s only goal is to revitalize a flagging conversation, not to push students into a discussion they don’t care for.

Another common part of debates is that sometimes the people involved can become quite heated. This is when a professor can step in as a mediator. No class should ever become hostile and it is a professor’s job to make absolutely sure of that. As such, the professor should make sure to be aware of when a discussion is beginning to be less than friendly. They don’t have to be watching the discussion like a hawk, but they shouldn’t be ignoring it either. Keeping a mindful eye on student attitudes can prevent controversial topics from creating tension or fights that will ruin thoughtful discussion and potentially hurt people’s feelings.

The last part a professor can play in class debates is the teacher. This one seems fairly explanatory, as it is the professor’s job to teach, however, I mean beyond just giving out the lesson plan. During debates, the professor becomes an expert resource to consult if the need arises. If there’s a point where the students need clarification, the group can decide whether or not to call on the teacher to help them understand. They can choose if they want to truly gain a more in-depth explanation of a concept they are wrestling with or if they feel that they have covered it sufficiently. If the professor is called on to intercede, then they can happily clarify the issue. If they are not called to intercede, the professor should respect that decision unless it would be detrimental to student comprehension. The only time a professor should explain something without an invitation is if students have misinterpreted something or have missed a vital component of the concept. The remaining times that a professor should step in as a teacher are if the topic of discussion has gotten horribly offbase. At that point, there is no productive learning occurring and it is well within the professor’s right to course correct the wayward conversation onto something more appropriate.

In each of these roles lies the few times that a professor should intervene in student discussion. Outside of these specific cases, a professor should let the students discuss and explore concepts together. As young adults, we don’t need our hands held, and a professor doesn’t need to hover like a nervous parent. Professors should let student debates, for the most part, remain student debates and recognize that they don’t have to be overly involved, merely an active presence that occasionally intervenes.

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