Skip to content

13 – Hot-Button Topics In Student-Led Discussion: Strategies for Civil Engagement


Jennifer Gogarten, School of Public Health, UW Seattle


A large introductory course about genetic technology implications for society taken largely by freshmen in their first quarter at the UW has developed a parallel approach of discussion sections and blogging to facilitate civil discourse of hot button topics, while reducing load on instructors.

Lecture sessions are focused on education about underlying science technologies, and the broad scope of ethical, legal, social implications. The diversity of beliefs are highlighted through the use of Polleverywhere, stimulating awareness about the need for sensitivity in discussion/blog contributions.

A student-led approach to quiz section discussions hinges on random selection of leader at the start of section. Assessment for participation in this drawing yields punctuality, and uncertainty about leadership yields high preparation, while empathy for the student leaders being tasked with leading the section yields high participation. Assigned readings are selected from popular press and contain varied biases, encouraging student discourse. TA participation is only allowed in the second half of discussing each article, and is generally limited. TA assessment focuses on the assigned leaders, while citizenship assessment is informed by periodic self-evaluation, which allows for more successful accommodation of neurodiversity and language learner status, recognizing that different people’s best efforts at contribution may vary widely.

In parallel, a blog community requiring students to bring in outside resources or experiences to an informal blog, and then responding in a substantive way to 3 different students writings. The student responses reduced the workload on TAs as compared to traditional writing assignments, since students usually correct each others’ mistakes. This online community allows introverted, shy, anxious or private individuals to more actively share with their peers, and encourages active participation in driving the content of the course. Students varied in their discussion versus blogging strengths, supporting the hypothesis that these are different ways to engage the material that add value to assessment.

Additional elements supporting civility include explicit guidelines about respectful participation, implicit-bias assessment and icebreaker exercises.

This approach can be taken to increase student engagement and active participation in learning in large lecture courses that cover other topics, allowing for greater student participation while decreasing assessment burdens on instructors.

View a PDF of this poster