Learning & Teaching Topics
Facilitating Effective In-Class Discussions
Why Use Discussion Teaching?
- Discussions provide prompt feedback about student learning.
- Discussions help students with higher-order cognitive skills, such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
- This active learning method helps students become engaged with the material and be responsible for learning and creating their own knowledge.
- Students tend to learn and remember more from participation in discussions than listening to lectures.
Challenges of Discussions:
- Students may be hesitant to participate for fear of having the wrong answer, peer pressure not to excel, or cultural expectations of not standing apart from a group. Developing a supportive learning community can help encourage participation and allow students a safe place to explore different possibilities.
- Can be time-consuming, though this is very valuable learning time for students to think and develop intellectually.
- Less content can be covered in a discussion compared with a lecture, though this content is covered more thoroughly and in a way that appeals to many different types of learners.
- Can require more instructor preparation than a lecture because the discussion could go in many directions related to the topic.
- Provides for less instructor control of the class session, though this allows students to more fully explore topics of interest to them.
How to Effectively Facilitate a Discussion:
(An instructor’s role should be to facilitate, not lead, a class discussion.)
- Define the topic (“real world” or topics relevant to students’ lives make good discussion topics)
- Be prepared to explore any related topic
- Call the class to order.
- Set up the room so that all participants’ chairs (including the instructor’s) are in a circle, preferably in front of tables, desks, or other barriers.
- Clarify the goals of the discussion.
- Discuss guidelines for discussion (such as courtesy, active listening, staying on subject, supporting statements, speaking loudly and clearly) and consider asking students to agree upon-student-generated groundrules.
- Create an expectation of participation and clarify participation grades in relation to discussions.
- Beginning a discussion in pairs is a good way to increase students’ comfort level with participation.
- Consider cold-calling, as long as you provide to students a thoughtful rationale for its use.
At the end of the discussion:
- Summarize the key points of the discussion and reiterate the discussion goal.
- Have students assess how the discussion changed their understanding of the topic. Have them assess their own contribution to the conversation.
Behaviors of Effective Facilitators:
- Allowing silences for thinking (3-5 seconds at least!)
- Posting and verifying information, paraphrasing and summarizing information
- Requesting examples and illustrations, asking for clarification
- Clarifying and mediating differences
- Keeping discussions on track and on topic
- Encouraging and recognizing contributions
- Summarizing what was discussed and reaching conclusions
How to ask questions:
- Ask questions that are open-ended (without a “yes/no” answer) and divergent (with no one single “right” answer).
- Ask questions at the higher end of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
- Do not question a single student for too long.
- Make sure to look away from the student speaking. When instructors look at the student speaking, students tend to address the instructor instead of the group.
Dealing with students who speak excessively:
- Do not call on those who speak excessively first.
- Ask students who speak less frequently about their opinions.
- If nothing else works, speak privately with excessive talkers outside of class.
Language of Discussion:
- Metacommunicate: Make sure that everyone understands what is being said. Repeat what a student says, “If I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that….”
- Build on contributions. Ask students to elaborate on their comments and tie them back into the discussion.
- Redirect questions to the class saying, “That’s a good question. Does anyone have a suggestion?”
- When a student replies to a question with “I don’t know” there are several ways to respond. First, urge the student to try to answer, then restate the question, rephrase it, redirect to another student, or ask the student if they can answer part of the question (or if they need further clarification).
- When a student has the correct answer, praise the student, restate the correct response, apply the answer or compare it to something that has already been discussed or mentioned in the test.
- When a student responds with an incorrect answer, support the answer while acknowledging that it is not correct, rephrase the question, provide more information, probe for a route to the right answer. If the answer is partially correct, note which part is correct and seek the correct answer to the other parts.
Cashin, W.E. & McKnight, P.C. (1986). Improving Discussions. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from The Idea Center Web site: http://www.theideacenter.org/sites/default/files/Idea_Paper_15.pdf
University of Michigan. (n.d.). Teaching Strategies: Discussions. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from CRLT Web site: http://www.crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsd.php
University of Michigan. (n.d.). Teaching Strategies: Handling Controversial Topics in Discussion. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from CRLT Web site: http://www.crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tshctd.php
University of Washington. (n.d.). Discussion. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from Center for Instructional Development and Research Web site: http://depts.washington.edu/cidrweb/resources/discussiontools.html
Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. (n.d.). Discussions. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from CFT Web site: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/cft/resources/teaching_resources/activities/discussions.htm