Friday, November 5, 2010

Business Spanish Discussion Leaders

by Ann Abbott

One of the best things in Éxito comercial, the textbook I use in my business Spanish class, is the section at the end of every chapter titled ¨Minicaso práctico."  They are modeled after the cases used in business schools, and they highlight the business concepts and cultural information included in each chapter.

Although I admire faculty who can use the case method very effectively--meaning that the students take ownership of the discussion and end up conversing amongst themselves while the instructor simply takes notes and occasionally nudges the discussion in one direction or another--I have never had that much success.  I felt that students rarely engaged in a sustained conversation with each other, perhaps because of the added layer of speaking in a second language.

However, this semester I devised a solution that has worked out wonderfully so far.

First, I assigned a full day on the course calendar for each chapter's minicaso práctico, and each student signed up to be a discussion leader on one of those days.

Then, at the beginning of the semester I gave a class on how to encourage discussion and participation, control conflicts, connect ideas and lead discussion to deeper analysis.  (Students have an intuitive sense about these things, because they can all point to examples of discussions that go off point, break down, lead to anger, etc.)  I especially emphasize that facilitating a discussion is not the same as dominating it.  In fact, the less you talk, the more successful you have been.

On the day of the minicaso práctico, all students come to class and hand in the answers to the book's questions about the case.  This ensures that all students are prepared to participate and contribute to the case discussions.

I then assign each student to one of the day's discussion leaders.  So, for example, if I have 21 students in my class, I may have three discussion leaders, each with a group of six students.  Each discussion group sits in a small circle, and the discussion leader asks leading questions, follows up on students' comments, asks for clarification, etc. I simply move back and forth between the groups, listening, observing and taking notes; I don't say anything. These discussions have gone on for as long as 25 minutes--a big accomplishment for a discussion on a very short case and in a second language.

Finally, the discussion leaders do a self-evaluation of their performance by filling out the discussion leader rubric.  I compare my notes to theirs and then assign a grade.

In their self evaluations, I have been the most impressed with their answers to the last item: "Describe the group's overall preparation and participation. Explain what the top performer(s) did well and how the lowest performer(s) can improve. Tell what you would do differently if you had to do this again."  Their answers show that working with well-prepared teammates is key (if they haven't read the case ahead of time, they have nothing to say).  Here are some other quotes:
  • "The ones that participated most had actual experience in situations like [the one presented in the case] and related to [them]. Those that participated less had things to say about [the more general topic]."
  • "The top performer did well by supporting all his points and allowing others to add on to his comments.  The lowest performer can improve by jumping into the discussion more often."
  • "The group's overall preparation and performance was quite good. Everyone had read the case and everyone actively participated. In general, however, people were timid to think outside the box about issues not directly found in the case. ... The top performers elaborated a great deal on their answers."
  • "...members who were most successful used critical thinking as opposed to simple one-word answers...[and] they asked questions they felt would help facilitate discussion even though they weren't required to."
  • "One of my goals was to create an environment in which people were not afraid to say what was on their mind."
  • "The top performer did a great job of relating the situation to what could happen in our real lives, and the lowest performer could improve my spending more time thinking about the questions [before answering]."
  • "The group...came prepared with great examples to analyze and compare the case to, and defended their positions extremely well."
  • "The best performers in the group excelled at tweaking ideas of others and adding more and more to their own ideas..."
  • "If I were to do this again, I would have come up with more thought-provoking questions rather than questions that have only one or two possible answers. Also, I would try to involve everyone by asking people questions directly, rather than just asking a question and waiting for someone to respond."
I am happy to see that my students understand that good participation in a discussion requires both creativity, preparation, elaboration and risk-taking (getting over shyness and fear of making a mistake).  

Before the end of the semester I will connect this classroom requirement to real-world professional activities.  In their future workplaces, not only will they be expected to contribute thoughtful, creative and elaborated points to group discussions, they may also soon rise to a position in which they have to evaluate other people's performances and make suggestions for improvement.  I hope this structure for the minicasos prácticos can help prepare them for those tasks.

How do you encourage students to take charge of discussions themselves?  How do you give students skills that you believe will be transferable to their future jobs?

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