Consolidation of Responsibility

Last week’s Marshall Memo directed me to a fascinating article (and rabbit hole of related articles) on the state of discussion in college classrooms. Jay R. Howard, author of Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged in Person and Online, identifies several issues professors deal with in the college setting that negatively impact discussion including the “consolidation of responsibility”:

2. “Consolidation of responsibility.” At every faculty workshop I have ever given on this topic, the same question arises: What do I do when the same two or three students dominate class discussions?

Excellent question, and Howard suggests that more of us should be asking it. His research shows that faculty members often think discussions are more participatory than they really are. In fact, he argues, “in the typical college or university classroom, a small number of students (five to eight) will account for 75 to 95 percent of all student verbal contributions to discussion regardless of class size.”

That happens, he explains, because of a sociological phenomenon called the “consolidation of responsibility,” in which social groups delegate responsibility to small numbers of people who do most of the work. “The consolidation of responsibility,” Howard says, “tends to be the default setting in the college classroom, regardless of class size, unless the instructor takes intentional steps to create a new norm.”

I’ll write more over the next few weeks about discussion in the high school classroom and steps we are take to ensure that students enter college with the skills to succeed and drive discussion. I’m interested to dig into these texts and articles and see what the recommendations are for professors on the college level and applicability to high school.

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