In-Class Reading: The Round-Robin

Ok, so this is a Moorhen and not a Robin, but I'm strangely obsessed with the weirdness of these birds

 This is a Moorhen and not a Robin, but I’m strangely obsessed with the weirdness of these birds

Ok, so I promised to talk about my favourite variation on in-class reading. Here it is: the Round-Robin. I’ve done this with a class of 150 (although there were probably only 130 or so in attendance that day), and classes of 35. In both cases it worked really well, so I’m pretty sure that you can adapt it to whatever class size you’re working with. The trick is to make sure that your groups are no larger than 8 or 9 people each… and, of course, that you have the photocopy budget for all the copies.

So, here’s what to do. Take 4 different documents, each of which approaches the theme for that day’s class in a completely different way. I usually try to create a mix of primary and secondary sources and I choose excerpts that do not exceed about 1.5 pages. Students then get broken into their groups at random. In the small classes, I only create 1 group per document. But in bigger classes, it’s sometimes necessary to double or triple the groups – that is, to have 2 or 3 groups reading the same document. Make sure there is at least 1 strong student in each group, but otherwise, a random distribution of butts in seats seems to work just fine.

Once everyone is in their groups, hand out the readings. I give students 15 minutes to read, and faster readers often start talking amongst themselves as they finish. Students who take longer to read can either finish reading once we enter the discussion period, or stop where they are and try to glean more information from the discussion. After the reading period is finished, students get another 15 minutes to talk the document out in their groups. At this point, depending on how advanced your students are, you might want to give them some guiding questions. For example, when I did this in my History of the British Empire course, I asked them how each document “characterized the east.” When my Media Ethics class did the same exercise as part of our discussion about privacy on the Internet, we looked at a series of documents and asked: “what does it mean to be seen?”

Once everyone seems comfortable with their document, having become an “expert” on the literature they were assigned, mix up the groups – hence why I call it a Round-Robin. If you want, you can try to create some sort of elaborate rules about how people should circulate around the room. Since, however, this exercise is as much about team work and peer-to-peer learning as it is a lesson about the subject matter at hand, I actually don’t give them instructions. Instead, I tell my students that the new groups must be roughly the same size and contain at least one person who knows about each document. This creates temporary chaos, but within 5 minutes they have usually – and quite impressively – sorted themselves in the appropriate manner. Sometimes there will be a group here or there that is missing an “expert” on 1 of the 4 documents, but that’s easily fixed by asking a group that has multiples to send someone over to the group in need.

At this point, the new groups get another 15 minutes to talk through the same question. Again, depending on how long you’ve been working with these students, you might want to give them instructions about how to proceed, or you might not. When I did it with the large group I explained that “experts” should present their document to the group before they began informal discussion, so that everyone was on the same page. This was because a class of 150 students, by its very nature, won’t have much experience with group work and will need some extra direction. In my smaller classes, my students intuitively knew what to do since they’d had a lot of practice, and they began explaining what they had read to one another without any prompting.

It's probably best not to give them anything in original format -- for example, this -- but otherwise, you're pretty free

It’s probably best not to give them anything in original format — for example, this — but otherwise, you’re pretty free

But it’s this last phase where things really get interesting! If you’ve chosen your documents well, and asked interesting questions, students are often keen to compare notes. They ask questions of one another, and some groups end up Googling things in order to find more information. Some settle into consensus fairly quickly, and others fight it out (in my experience, such disagreements have always been respectful, but that does not mean that they haven’t also been heated). At this point, it’s essential that you circulate through the room. I tend to do this for the duration of the class, but at this point it’s even more important because some groups will require a little prodding, while you might want to throw some cold water on the more aggressive ones.

When the majority of the groups have finished their discussion – don’t feel bad about cutting some discussions short, because some of these debates could go on forever – call the class back together and go over the topic one last time. This might seem repetitive but it’s actually quite useful because it evens out the overall experience and ensures that your students have at least some common information despite all the simultaneous (and not necessarily parallel) discussions going on in the room up to this point. It also allows students to fill in their notes. Because the exercise itself is very “hands-on,” almost none of your students will have had the time or the forethought to jot down more than a few cursory thoughts while they are chatting with their peers, and they will appreciate the time to get this information down in an orderly fashion.

There will always be a range in the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the group discussions; however, I guarantee you that working with the documents in this way will make the material much more memorable than a traditional lecture or reading a set of texts at home ever could. Moreover, if you choose the documents well and your students are excited about the topic, more than a few will want copies of the other 3 documents that they didn’t read. This is why I always make everything available on the online forum right after the class.

My one word of caution about this exercise is that, much like when you plan a seminar, you really do have to choose your readings wisely and this takes time. The in-class period will be less labour-intensive for you as an instructor than a lecture, but the preparatory time will be roughly the same. That having been said, even though it won’t save you much work time, the change of pace is often a welcome one and in-class reading exercises like this have saved my sanity on more than a few occasions. Both my students and I sometimes need of change of pace, and this is an effective way of breaking the monotony while still making sure that students are actively engaged in the learning process.

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