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It is common that students may experience monotony if the instructor continuously teaches. And there are many ways to grab attention.

I am particularly interested in knowing whether it is a proper step from the instructor side to moderate short debates (5 mins, 10 mins, etc.,), especially on (probably ongoing) politics, movies, religion. The question is about the domains that are aliens to either of the three topics.

If no, what is the reason for it?

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  • Well, it depends on what the lecture is about. If it is about quantum mechanics, it is probably less adequate than if it is about history or politics. In general, however, religion and politics are private matters and trying to force the students to express their views on those topics can backfire easily.
    – wimi
    Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 7:14
  • @wimi thanks. I updated.
    – hanugm
    Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 7:16
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    Do you mean topics on politics, movies, religion related to the topic of the course (i.e. how does the general population think about the course topic, how is it presented in movies, what are the regulations etc.)? If so, this could be really valuable - far more than just stating facts. Or are you talking about "small talk"?
    – user111388
    Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 7:17
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    @henning--reinstateMonica I accept those ways are good. But, many students are not sensitive enough to them for long classes (say 2 hrs). I observe that even silent students also get interact with class on discussions related to the three topics mentioned above.
    – hanugm
    Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 7:37
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    There are lots of ways to get students to interact that are not debates on popular topics. At the very least you could do some exercises as think, pair, share activities. Or you could try selecting a set of articles or knowledge domains and using a jigsaw approach.
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 15:55

3 Answers 3

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No. Distracting the students with other subjects than the one being taught is not a solution to the problem but a way around it. Of course it is different if the discussions are on the topic being taught: that is a great way to teach!

The problem of "boring classes" is not the subject or the students. The problem is the teacher, who should learn (often by experience) how to keep the students interested. It is possible to interest students in any and all subjects, as long as the teacher is engaging, explains why the subject is useful, provides interesting real-world examples (if appropriate), explains the subject at a level appropriate for the group, is able to answer questions, etcetera.

Secondly, many students will be annoyed by the constant interruptions and irrelevant off-topic discussions, and they will also notice that the teacher is trying to hide his lack of teaching skills behind "entertainment", alienating them further and possibly even leading to them complaining about ineffectiveness of their classes.

Thirdly, an important part of studying is learning to learn and to concentrate. You would not be doing the students a favour by distracting them. (But do not misunderstand this: a light-hearted remark or funny joke is perfectly fine and even helpful to relieve some tension and stress, but that was not what you were asking about)

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I suggest that if you want to bring up other subjects than the subject matter of the course, then you, in particular, avoid religion and politics. People can be too involved with their own beliefs to consider the beliefs of others as having any validity whatever. It is a minefield that, once you step in, is very dangerous.

But if you want to break the ice or change the mood a bit, you could bring up other professional level topics that the students should be aware of if they want to become practitioners. In a math course, discuss the importance of developing skill in writing, say. Or the need to develop enough interpersonal skills that they can work in collaborative environments.

Of course, in a political science class it might be worth dealing with current events, but I don't think that is what you intend with this question.

And, don't let any side topics distract from the main thread. Things can be "interesting" and useful but not controversial or lead to confrontation. Do the main job and only use distraction when the need is really there.

And, for something topic related, though mostly in face-to-face situations, asking students to work in pairs for five minutes to formulate a question for you can be a useful way to take a break. Some students hesitate to ask a question, not realizing that others have the same question. Pairing for a few moments can help resolve that.

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In some galaxy far away, in a time long ago, some clown correctly observed people fall asleep rather than pay attention if lectured to for a long time. And other clowns, with pedagogical expertise of sorts, observed that human beings generally learn better by being engaged rather than by being passive. And those clowns resolved to Fix The Problem.

Unfortunately, especially in the business/private sector, and amplified by sensitivity to not put students (oops, learners...) on the spot by demonstrating their incomplete understanding if forced to engage in actual subject matter discussion, the horrendous concept of "energizers" and "icebreakers" emerged. This is the practice of interrupting boring lecturing by making people do something completely unrelated, generally dumb, interactively. I guess it is preferable to just droning on altogether, but it is a weak subsitute for actually teaching well, interactively and engagingly. It's principal advantage is that it needs minimal preparation, and minimal thought by the instructor to include, since it's generally off the shelf.

Since no clueless idea goes unimproved, this idea of "energizers" is now being recycled in other settings, including academia, by sometimes deliberately planning inane, off-topic interactive interruptions to the flow. It reminds me of tales of concert pianists making markings in their music where exactly they plan to make a dramatic flourish with their hands.

Removing tongue from cheek, of course there is value in a) allowing breaks, b) building relationships though idle, possibly unrelated unforced banter, c) breaking up the monotony of one person speaking, d) humanizing the instructor and students with occasional breaks from the script and deviations off-topic, e) looking for partially on-topic and partially-off-topic analogs and examples "from real life". But all that's another story.

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