How to help students engage with tough material and each other? The answer from criminology professor Talia Moore, EdD, begins with a question.
Assistant Professor of Criminology,Holy Names University, Oakland, CA
EdD in Counseling Psychology and Forensics; MA in Counseling Psychology; BA in Social Welfare, Psychology, African-American Studies
What do a college professor with a classroom full of students and a deputy probation officer with a caseload of 400 felons have in common? That may seem like the setup to a joke, but it is not.
Talia Moore, EdD, has served in both of these roles: Before she began teaching, Moore spent 13 years as a deputy probation officer in California, with a caseload including juveniles, the mentally ill, and others in need of support and help. Today, as an assistant professor of criminology at Holy Names University in Oakland, California, Moore shares her hard-won insights with students in courses, including The Criminal Justice System, Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice, and Forensic Psychology.
In both roles, Moore has learned that sometimes you need to motivate people to open their mouths before you can open their minds. And to do that, you need a good icebreaker.
Moore’s answer to this challenge: She starts each class with a straightforward, open-ended question—appropriately called an Opening Discussion Question—based on the course topic of the day. This kicks off discussions that include everyone in the class and can uncover personal opinions that shape the direction of the lesson. “I didn’t want to just feed students content,” she says. “I was looking for a way to connect with students, read the students’ moods and attitudes, and coalesce the energy of the room quickly.”
Below, she shares five tips for doing just that.
“I want students to feel comfortable and compelled to talk. This way, the material makes sense to them, and they are engaged as we delve into complicated content of the course.”
-Talia Moore, EdD
Course: CRIM 120 The Criminal Justice System
Course description: This course provides a detailed examination of the workings of the criminal justice system, including the roles played by police, judges and other court officials, corrections and parole officers, lawyers, therapists and other advocates.
Craft the Lesson Opening
A straightforward question to spark conversation at the start of every class? It sounds easy, but Moore says there are a number of factors to consider before implementing this as a classroom practice. Here, she offers advice for those interested in kicking classes off with a killer question.
1. Create an atmosphere of respect
Moore says her Opening Discussion Questions provide an important way to build class cohesion early on, so that students can handle eventually having difficult discussions with their classmates. The questions are “less about polarizing opinions,” she says, “and more reflective of shared experiences or views”—what students have learned, observed, or believe. She sets the stage for this from the beginning: “At the start of each semester, I present ‘housekeeping’ items and class expectations,” she explains. “Students are informed, even prior to the presentation of text information, that in this class we engage in discussions that are relevant, thought provoking, and provocative.”
2. Put your own hat in the ring
Along with getting students talking, the questions Moore creates—and the personal answers she sometimes shares—also make her more relatable. (“You’re a teacher, but you’re also a human being,” she says.) This can help students become more comfortable with sharing their own opinions.
“I can share personal examples from my history that correlate with most topics we need to cover,” Moore says. “I have work experience to back up the theoretical discussions. I can tell them what going to court is like and what procedures happen from arrest to post-jail supervision.” She believes that it is important to bring her personal and professional experiences into the class, especially since she is asking students to share their personal thoughts.
3. Plan a cache of questions in advance
Before she sets foot in the classroom, Moore creates a list of the questions she will ask in each class—and does so for as far into the semester as her syllabus will allow. Of course, she may not know every single topic she will cover, and a breaking news story may provide a more relevant point of discussion that will supersede a “canned” question. However, preparing a group of questions based on the textbook and syllabus makes it easier to get the conversation going on most days.
4. Slip in some current events
Throughout the semester, Moore looks to reputable news sources to find inspiration for new questions that are timely and relevant—as well as related to the topic she will be covering in class. Current events, news, and pop culture are great sources of material, she says, particularly if they are local. “There are lot of crimes in California news, and these backyard stories make it easier to create questions that hit close to home,” she says.
For example, Moore recently asked the class about the Brock Turner sexual assault case, which gained national attention for the relatively light sentence given for three counts of felony sexual assault. What did they think about his sentence—was it fair? The students’ responses helped to highlight what she wanted to convey: That even though a judge’s decision may outrage citizens, he or she has discretion in criminal sentencing.
5. Have a plan for defusing tension
Students reacted strongly to Moore’s questions surrounding the cases involving Brock Turner and Jared Fogle (the former Subway spokesperson convicted of sexual offenses against minors). This is bound to happen, especially with controversial topics, so Moore is always prepared to defuse, redirect, or triangulate the discussions. Here is what she recommends:
- Use humor in the class to ease tension around a subject. This can be difficult, because humor cannot be planned in advance.
- If one student takes control of the conversation, there are a few ways to get it back. For example, ask a different student to share his or her opinion, take a vote (e.g., “by a show of hands, how many agree with what’s being said?”), or pose an entirely new question to the class.
- “If two students are going at it, then interject with your own opinion and/or play devil’s advocate,” Moore says. “This will help you regain control or bring a third student into the conversation to break the tension between the two students.”
Moore has found that her Opening Discussion Questions have helped to significantly increase overall student engagement and discussion. For one thing, she says, “I notice the predictability of the opening class format has become something students look forward to.” The questions themselves inspire students who regularly contribute to class discussions, she says, but they also encourage more reluctant students to offer responses. Not least, she adds, “once the comfort and safety in the space is recognized, it is appreciated and valued by all.”