What students think about discussions

Earlier this year in a class which depended a lot on discussion, I asked a bunch of students for some advice on making discussions work.  Here’s what they said:

What kinds of comments do people find useful?

  • Comments which relate what you want to do to previously published work.
  • Preferably with an added “OH there’s lots of work to do in that!” — and ideas for what.
  • Preferably with a specific paper in mind, not generally suggesting that there must have been something done.
  • “That’s a great/interesting idea!” — if it was.
  • There will always be good and bad aspects to what people suggest: point these out and don’t lie.
  • Good questions can be better than advice.
  • General conversational skills stuff, like nodding, showing you’re interested, rephrasing what has been said to show that you’ve been listening, “go on… interesting idea…”

Typical unconstructive critical comments

  • This has been done before — it’s all known.
  • Nobody will be interested.
  • Too specific or too complicated questions too early!
  • Destroying a general idea by picking on one very specific problem

Coping with negative comments

  • To someone who criticises: “How would you do it?”
  • Shifting the burden of authority to elsewhere, e.g., to a published paper.
  • If a group discussion, then try to engage the other (positive) group members.
  • Be blunt!  (In cases of emergency.)  Sometimes diplomacy doesn’t work.
  • Ask the critical person to come up with a counterargument to his or her own criticism (I like this idea — I wonder does it work!)
  • “I appreciate your feedback…” “Hmmm there might be some truth in what you’re saying…” Try to compromise.

Unsuccessful strategies for coping

  • Personal attacks
  • Ignoring the person
  • Giving up
  • Getting into a shouting match
  • “I don’t care what you have to say”