Whole-class discussions can encourage students to learn from one another and to articulate course content in their own words. While generally not conducive to covering large amounts of content, the interactive dynamic of discussion can help students learn and motivate them to complete homework and to prepare for class. Leading discussions in which students contribute meaningfully requires a great deal of instructor forethought and creativity. The suggestions below can help you to facilitate good class discussions and improve your classroom climate, a piece of the Fearless Teaching Framework.
Devote a moment to communicating the value of discussion to your students. It may help to convey your rationale for discussion, perhaps deepening not only their sense of why they are expected to engage in active learning but also their engagement with the course.
- Learn students’ names.
- Review lesson-related material, even if you have already mastered content. Extemporaneous recall can breed trouble.
- Plan. Write out more discussion questions than you think you will need before class begins, but don’t treat your questions like a to do list. Your questions should be a resource for you; they should not inhibit your students from taking the discussion in a productive direction.
- If students were assigned reading prior to a class meeting, plan to use the text. You may want to begin class with a short reading from the text and have discussion flow from that reading.
- Every student should have an opportunity to speak.
- Encourage students to look and talk to each other rather than to just look and talk to you. Too often “discussions” take the format of a dialogue between teacher and a series of students.
- Before the discussion starts, ask your students to take several minutes to write down everything they know about the topic of the discussion. This will prime them for the discussion.
- If possible, make the class space more conducive to discussion. Arrange seats in a circle or in a manner that enables students to see each other easily. Don’t let students sit in seats that are outside this discussion space.
- After asking a question, wait at least eight to ten seconds before calling on someone to answer it (measure the time by counting silently to yourself). Otherwise, you signal they need only wait a few seconds for the “right” answer to discussion questions.
Posing discussion questions
- Ask questions that encourage responses from several people (“What do the rest of you think about that?”)
- Use phrasing that implies that the students are a learning community (“Are we in agreement?” / “Do we have any differences of opinion?”)
- Ask a mix of questions, including questions that ask students to
- Recall specific information
- Describe topics and phenomena
- Apply abstract concepts to concrete situations
- Connect the general with the specific
- Combine topics or concepts to form new topics or concepts
- Evaluate information
- Avoid yes/no questions – Don’t phrase questions in a way that the students can answer in one word (“Is X true?”). Open-ended questions elicit student thought (“In what way has X impacted Y?”)
- Avoid asking, “Are there any questions?” This implies you have finished talking about a topic. Sensing that you have said your piece, students may only ask questions about minor points of clarification or will simply hope that rereading the textbook will answer their questions. Consider asking instead, “Is there anything that is unclear or needs further clarification?”
- Avoid dissertation questions. If you want your students to entertain broad questions, break the question down into smaller queries that students are more able to address.
Dignify your students
- Avoid a style of questioning that is designed to punish inattentive or lazy students.
- Refer to your students by name. This models the intellectual community.
- Treat your students like experts. If a student makes a good comment, refer back to that comment in subsequent discussions (e.g., “Do you recall what Henry said last week? How does this new information confirm or deny his conclusion?”).
- Allow a student to “pass” on a question, but come back to him or her later in class.
- Admit when you make a mistake in class. Similarly if a student asks you a question to which you do not know the answer, promise to research the question after class or to provide students with appropriate resources to find the answer him or herself.
- Keep the discussion focused.
- State the discussion topic at the beginning of the class.
- Periodically summarize the main themes/points brought out in discussion. Consider writing these main themes/points on the board.
End discussion smoothly
- Review the main points of the discussion or ask a student, notified previously, to review the main points.
- At the end of the discussion, allow students to write down any conclusions or lingering questions they have. Perhaps, ask them how the discussion affected their views on a topic or their understanding of a concept. Ask several students to share these.
- Point out how the day’s discussion will tie in with the next discussion.
Specific Types of Large Group Discussions
Developmental Discussion is a technique in which a large group breaks down the problem-solving process into stages that approximate the scientific method. In the first part of class, students collectively identify a problem. Next, they suggest hypotheses concerning the problem, muster relevant data, evaluate alternative interpretations of the data, and assess the ability of the data to address the problem they identified at the beginning of class.
When using Discussion Clusters, members of a class are divided into smaller groups of four to six people, and the clusters are given one or two questions on a subject. One member of the cluster is chosen to record and report the group’s ideas to the entire class. This technique is particularly useful in larger classes and can encourage shy students to participate.
In a Panel Discussion, a selected group of students act as a panel, and the remaining class members act as the audience. The panel informally discusses selected questions. A panel leader is chosen and he/she summarizes the panel discussion and opens discussion to the audience.
Debate Discussion is a technique appropriate for discussing a controversial issue. The class is divided into two sides of pro/con or either/or, and each side and each speaker has a limited amount of time to speak. The object of the activity is to construct reasoned arguments that address the material and consider the arguments of the other side. Beware not to allow students to discredit fellow class members with ad hominem attacks.
Role Playing is a technique used to develop clearer insights into stakeholder positions and the forces that facilitate or hinder positive interactions or relations. Selected group members assume assigned roles (e.g., lawyer, doctor, engineer, diplomat, etc.) and act out an instructor-created scenario (e.g., a town-hall meeting on the ethics of stem cell research). The whole group then analyzes the roles and characteristics of the various players.
Challenges to Discussions
Students who do not contribute: Be attentive to the sensibilities of shy and quiet students; integrate them into the discussion with support. Nervous or inarticulate students may be greatly aided by writing down some thoughts before contributing (even before the class meeting). Encourage them to try that approach.
Students who contribute more than appropriate: Approach students who dominate the discussion. You might suggest they develop some of their discussion points with you via ELMS or email or during office hours or that their contributions are limiting the ability of others to contribute to class discussion. Alternatively, you might resort to restructuring the discussion a little. Make other students responsible for presenting small group discussions, require students to raise their hands, or begin calling on individual students.
Students who fail to respect the discussion and their peers: Make the group responsible for controlling unproductive antagonists by structuring a group response, i.e. articulate the student’s position (on the chalkboard, perhaps), and ask for a response. Of course, students who violate University codes of conduct should be referred to the Office of Student Conduct.
Students who are unprepared: Quizzes or reflections to stimulate out-of-class reading may be effective. Make sure questions are structured to foster discussion based on comprehension.