By Santiago Mejia, Department of Philosophy and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching
Class discussions can be used for a variety of purposes: to rehearse and solidify previously acquired knowledge, to evaluate your students’ understanding, to improve their oral abilities, to foster analysis and synthesis of different viewpoints about a problem, to generate debates and arguments amongst students, etc. These goals are not mutually exclusive, but it is important to determine which have more priority given what you want your students to learn.
Clarifying what you expect to get out of a discussion is crucial to determining its format and the way you will handle it. It will also allow you to have clear guidelines against which to evaluate its actual success. We recommend that you are transparent about these guidelines with your students and enforce them throughout the quarter (both through friendly reminders and through formal evaluations).
Foster a collaborative environment
To lead an effective discussion, it is important to foster an environment where students feel safe to speak their minds. Knowing that it is all right to make mistakes will allow them to risk trying out ideas with which they might not feel entirely comfortable, ideas which are likely to enrich the discussion of the whole group.
For this, we recommend that, early in the quarter, you remind your students that discussions are collaborative enterprises in which you expect not only respect, but actual support among them. Make sure that you model this behavior by positively reinforcing students for responding even (or perhaps especially) if their answer is incorrect, making eye contact with each person speaking, calling students by their names, and encouraging quieter students to speak. It is important to keep in mind that being a good discussant requires being a good listener. It is common for instructors to teach speaking, writing, and reading skills, but they often fail to recognize the importance of teaching listening skills. (We encourage you to read more about this topic in our handout on Effective Listening).
To get students comfortable speaking in the large group, you might want to start a discussion by splitting them into small groups. Small groups provide a low stakes environment where students feel more comfortable speaking and can gain confidence as they develop their ideas (to explore this, take a look at our guides to \[link to small group discussion and sample small group exercises. You might also want to start by prompting students with easy questions that they feel comfortable responding, after which you gradually increase their level of difficulty or complexity (doing this has the added benefit of allowing you to gauge student understanding and determine more precisely where they stand).
Questions in discussion
Asking good questions is an art, but it is especially important to keep in mind that different types of questions will generate different types of discussions. Polemical or polarizing questions, for instance, are particularly good for igniting debates, while open ended questions might be better to get the students to construct a response by synthesizing different points of view. Keep in mind the kind of skill that you want your students to develop when thinking about the type of questions you will ask your students. (We encourage you to check out our suggestions about how to ask effective questions in our handout on effective questions)
Handling the discussion
Discussions involve cooperation and improvisation. You can enhance these features by leaving ample space for students to talk and limiting your own role to that of facilitator. If you want your discussions to be open ended and inclusive, make sure that you are getting students to do most of the talking and that they actually talk to each other. For this, it is a good idea to avoid responding to or commenting on students’ interventions. Rather, ask the group itself to do it. You might also want to try out a `floating chair’ discussion, where the last person to speak decides who speaks next.
Depending on the goals of your discussion, however, you might want to keep more control of it, either by asking most of the questions yourself or by actively guiding the discussion. It is important to be careful not to be too heavy handed and especially not to use a discussion to get students to “guess your mind”.
Keeping a record of the discussion on the blackboard is a valuable strategy. It gets everyone on the same page making visible the different contributions and allowing the group to see their evolution. This helps to build a more cooperative environment and allows students to get a clear sense of the discussion’s achievements. It is important to note, however, that if the students are not prepared for the discussion, you should not let the discussion wander; in these cases, it is better to spend your time getting the students up to speed (if this is something that happens often, devise strategies to make sure that your students come properly prepared).
It is important that you and the whole group learn to tolerate pauses and silences. Students often need time to think through their ideas, especially when prompted with a difficult question or when facing a complex quandary. If you are the one asking the question, wait sufficient time before repeating, rephrasing or adding further information to it (depending on the difficulty of the question this can range from 5 to 15 seconds). If the silence is becoming uncomfortable, ease up the tension by acknowledging that the question needs some thought and that you don’t expect students to answer right away. You might also want to ask them to take a couple of minutes to jot some ideas on a piece of paper, or put them in pairs or small groups to discuss them in a low setting environment.
Evaluate the discussion
Throughout the quarter, evaluate the extent to which the discussions are achieving your learning goals and think of ways to modify it to better suit them. Not all groups are the same, and even a single group is not the same as the quarter develops. Don’t be afraid to make changes or try things out. However, make sure to let your students know what you are changing and why. In fact, it is usually quite powerful to make these changes collaboratively. If you have been transparent about your learning goals with the students, their opinions can be an extremely powerful resource to achieve them better.
- Stanford Teaching Commons, Discussion Leading Guidelines
- Takayama, Kathy. “Facilitating Group Discussions: Understanding Group Development and Dynamics”, Essays on Teaching Excellence, A publication of The Professional & Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (www.podnetwork.org), Volume 21, Number 1, 2009-10
- Barkley, Elizabeth F. Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
- Brookfield, Stephen D. and Stephen Preskill. "Keeping Discussion Going Through Questioning, Listening, and Responding," Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.