Leading A Discussion Using the Nominal Group Technique
Students are often anxious about contributing to discussion because they don't want to look stupid in front of the class. The beauty of the nominal group technique is that it short-circuits that fear by soliciting anonymous contributions from everyone. This makes it an effective technique to use early in the quarter before the ice is broken in class.
The core of the technique is the use of "anonymous cards." These can be 3 x 5 index cards, small pieces of paper, or whatever is convenient for you. When you want to generate contributions to a discussion, pass out these cards to the class. Give everyone a minute or two to write down questions, issues, or ideas, then collect and redistribute the cards randomly. Finally, have everyone read what is written on the cards. Presto -- everyone in class has contributed to the discussion and no one looks stupid!
It is often useful to write the responses that you get up on the board, and cluster them according to topic. This gives everyone a visual display of what opinions and priorities are held by the class as a whole.
There are two ways you can use anonymous cards:
- If you want to focus the discussion on course material, have
the students respond on their cards to a strategic question you have
posed. For example: "Tell me why Medea was or was not justified in
killing her children." Or "Write down all the variables you can think of
that might affect the reaction between these two compounds."
- If you simply want the discussion to clarify a concept covered earlier (in lecture, reading, or discussion), then have the students pose questions to you. For example, "Write down any questions you have about yesterday's lecture -- anything you don't understand or have a hard time connecting to the homework."
As students read their cards aloud, use the blackboard to cluster what they say, putting hash marks on the board next to questions that are repeated. When you are done, the blackboard will contain a prioritized agenda for the day.
The advantage of the nominal group technique is that it solicits contributions from everyone, no matter what the class climate is like. Whether your class is shy or over-active, the use of anonymous cards gets everyone's ideas -- even those from the guy in the back reading the Emerald -- heard and thought about by everyone. This is a wonderful technique, but it is important not to use nominal group technique to the exclusion of other techniques.