John Powers ’26 is a prospective Public Policy major who hails from Brooklyn, New York. He is a proud member of the William and Mary Debate Society. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
At the start of this semester, I was expecting many changes in my classes, but one I did not see coming was the use of turn and talks. Any student has probably done one before: the professor poses a question to the class, students discuss their answers with the person sitting next to them and then the professor may call on a few pairs so that they can share their responses with the class.
I participated in turn and talks last semester, but their prevalence was minimal. Sure, I worked with my neighbor to fill in the blanks in Spanish sentences on occasion and had one discussion in an economics class. This semester, though, turn and talks are very common in three out of five of my classes across different disciplines. It is very reminiscent of high school and middle school.
Don’t get me wrong, robust discussion and group work are vital elements of any learning experience. I love participating and gaining insights from my peers. However, the excessive use of the turn and talk poses a problem to students.
I see the underlying rationale for the use of the turn and talk as threefold. First, it serves to get students talking with each other, which promotes collaboration and makes the lesson less professor-centered. Second, it is designed to foster a synthesis of different ideas as students consider their neighbor’s response and make new connections. Third, it is an alternative to other discussion methods, which may be plagued by students who are more vocal and thus dominate discussions.
The problem is that it rarely works out this way. Turn and talks usually last just a few minutes, so it would seem rather unrealistic to expect fleshed-out ideas and connections to be shared with the class. Oftentimes, turn and talks are employed for simple recall questions with easy answers. What substantive collaboration is to be expected here? Time after time, my partner has said the same thing I would have said, and vice versa.
Other times, you happen to get a partner who is not in the mood to engage with the activity, which undercuts its whole purpose. However, they should not be blamed. I’ve been there. College is stressful, and we all sometimes just want to go to class to sit down and take notes, nothing more. Of course, I’ve also had some fulfilling turn and talk experiences on questions that necessitated its use, but these experiences are exceptions to the practice.
So, if it is clear that turn and talks do not quite work out the way they are intended to, it begs the question of why some professors choose to use it excessively in the first place. I would guess that one reason is purely for the sake of interaction. While social interaction is not the sole pedagogical rationale of turn and talks, it nevertheless is important to a class. For example, because one of my classes is large, I benefited from a turn and talk on the first day of class. I got to meet two peers and eventually began working with them outside of class on homework. Evidently, turn and talks are appropriate in some instances.
But probing deeper reveals a more fundamental reason for turn and talks: to make classrooms more student-centered. This is seen in the fact that over the past few decades, classrooms have generally become less strict, structured and soldier-like and instead more dynamic. American education has gone from the days of the 1950s, where “quiet” was upheld as the key virtue of elementary schools, to the days where teachers in New York City are asked to use discussion techniques that prompt “unsolicited contributions” from students. Turn and talks are one of many of the building blocks of this educational transformation.
It’s trickled up to higher education, and even to training sessions. It seems as though an expectation that students pay attention and take notes is wholly unreasonable and that every learning experience must be peppered with active learning techniques and collaboration. Yet the irony is that activities can look and sound active but involve no deep thinking. Indeed, turn and talks are often performative.
For the College of William and Mary, the emphasis on performative learning techniques like turn and talks do not meet the moment. Excessive turn and talks only exacerbate the declining attention spans our generation has from social media and technology. There is room at our institution for some learning experiences devoid of interruptions and full of professor expertise.
Professors should have the space to lecture for prolonged periods, and when the time for discussion comes, it shouldn’t be an experience in which they go through a monotonous routine of calling on a few pairs and moving on. Instead, it is the role of the professor to seek out responses, challenge them and really contribute to the learning experience.
Turn and talks may play a minor role in classroom discussion, but they shouldn’t play a major role.