Discussion: Basic Strategies
Discussion is important to learning in all disciplines because it helps students process information rather than simply receive it. Leading a discussion requires skills different from lecturing. The goal of a discussion is to get students to practice thinking about the course material. Your role becomes that of facilitator. You design and facilitate the discussion rather than convey information. If you want to hold a discussion, don’t do all the talking yourself; don’t lecture to the group or talk to one student at a time.
To start planning a discussion (or any instruction, for that matter) decide what you want your students to get out of the discussion. For example, do you want them to share responses, make new connections, and articulate the implications of a text? Should they be able to work certain problems by the end of the hour? Should they be able to interpret and critique a journalistic photograph or a piece of art? Deciding on and articulating the objective for the discussion will help you decide what kinds of discussion activities will best help your students reach that objective. Remember that you can organize a discussion in many different ways: you can have students work in small groups, role-play, choose sides for a debate, or write and share a paragraph in response to the theme in question1. You will also want to leave time to wrap up and summarize the discussion for your students (or have students summarize it), or to debrief after activities such as debates or role-plays.
Develop a Clear Goal for the Discussion
Knowing the content to be covered is not enough. Naming the chapter your students will read is not enough. If you’ve only thought as far as, “I want students to know ...” you haven't thought through enough what needs to be accomplished. You should be able to articulate what the students will be able to do with the information or ideas. For example, in a philosophy class for which students have read a chapter on epistemologies or theories of knowledge, you might want students to be able to construct legitimate arguments for and against any epistemology about which they have read.
Problematize the Topic
Having a clear goal in mind makes it much easier to plan a discussion. You know what you want students to get out of it. But it is not enough: An instructor at IU several years ago told the story of how she wanted her students to deal with the issue of prejudice. She tried to start discussion merely by saying “Discuss prejudice.” No one spoke. She then asked if anyone had seen prejudice. One student raised a hand. When she asked what it was like, the student merely said “awful.” She had a goal, but not a problem or an activity to get the students to engage the ideas to achieve the goal.
The opposite end of the spectrum is also a problem. While “Discuss prejudice” is too open-ended, merely asking for the basic facts won’t work either. You’ve probably heard a professor rattle off a list of questions that require only brief factual replies and little student involvement:
Q. When was the Battle of Hastings?
The result could hardly be called a discussion. So, give your students an open-ended problem to solve, a task to complete, a judgment to reach, a decision to make, or a list to create—something that begs for closure.
Select a Discussion Format
Many discussion activities can be used in the classroom. Choose one that will help your students meet your goals for the discussion. The more specific you can be in assigning the task, the more likely your students will be to succeed at it. Consider the protocols for tasks such as Think-Pair-Share, Affinity Mapping, Chalk Talk and other conversation structures.
Choose a Method to Assign Students to Groups
When assigning students to groups, consider the following questions.
- How big should the groups be: Two to six is ideal. Smaller groups (two-three) are better for simple tasks and reaching consensus. Also, students are more likely to speak in smaller groups. Larger groups of four-five are better for more complex tasks and generating lots of ideas.
- How should students be assigned to groups: Randomly assigning students to groups avoids the problem of friends wanting to get off track. For long-term groups, you may want to select for certain attributes or skills (e.g. a statistician, a geology major, and a writer) or by interest in the topic, if different groups have different tasks.
- How long should the groups meet: Just for this activity or for all semester. Stop the discussion groups while they are still hard at work; next time, they will work doubly hard. Long-term groups allow students to practice collaborative skills and make stronger bonds, but sometimes they get tired of each other.
Choose a Debriefing Method
Always debrief students; it is the most important part of a discussion, the time to summarize and synthesize. Most of learning in discussions happens during debriefing, so don't squeeze it in—a rule of thumb is to use one-third of the total discussion time for debriefing.
You can use debriefing to correct incorrect notions. You can slip in any points that students neglected but that are important. You can pick which student reports from each group, though you should tell them in advance that you plan to do this. This makes everyone in the group responsible. You don’t have to hear back from every group, but can instead choose a few at random. When groups start repeating ideas, it’s time to stop.
Many techniques can get students to share what their smaller groups have done with the entire class: verbally, on newsprint/flipchart, blackboard or overhead, ditto/photocopy, etc. And you don't have to hear from everyone; calling on a few groups at random to report works quite well. To encourage student cross-team competition in Team-Based Learning, reporting out from groups is simultaneous. Answers can be posted to a Powerpoint slide or pieces of newsprint hung on walls of class.
- Getting Started: Students are often reluctant to get down to work in a discussion. Students are more likely to join in discussion if you divide them into pairs or small groups and assign a specific discussion question. After a few minutes of small group discussion, ask several groups to report out their ideas to the entire class. This often helps to get discussion going because students have had a chance to “try out” their ideas on their peers. Alternatively, give students time to write individually before opening up a discussion; they are much more likely to speak up if they have some notes to speak from. Further, by allowing for this kind of pre-discussion activity, you will be able to ask more complex and interesting questions. At the same time you will be promoting equity in the conversation, allowing everyone in the class to gather his or her thoughts before speaking rather than privileging the bold or the entitled, who can otherwise dominate the discussion.
- Attendance: Despite the fact that discussion section participation is a requirement for many introductory courses, students may believe that their attendance is not mandatory since the AI rather than the professor is in charge. Therefore you may want to devise a way to structure required assignments, projects or presentations into your sections so that section participation will be a part of the final course grade. If students know that the AI has some responsibility for determining their grades, that AI will have considerably more authority in the classroom or in any interactions with students.
- Losing Control: One fear about discussion is the possibility that the discussion will be TOO enthusiastic or not remain civil. Develop ground rules as a class. Gently, students can be reminded that behavior X (e.g., interrupting, blatantly ignoring the conversation, showing disrespect) is not appropriate in the context of the rules the class agreed on. If no rules have been established, or if the inappropriate behavior doesn’t seem to fit under the rules, you should address it immediately. Otherwise, you send a message to the students that such behavior is acceptable. Often, simply walking toward the student(s) will resolve the problem, as they will see that you are paying attention. Sometimes, however, you will need to address the problem directly. Try not to get rattled—take a deep breath, allow some silence, and then respond. This gives you some time to plan a response that models for the students how to handle a difficult situation. Remember: never shame or humiliate a student, and don’t take student remarks personally—although an attack may seem personal, it may be directed at authority figures in general rather than at you in particular.
- Discussion Monopolizers: If the same students answer all the time, you might say, “Let’s hear from someone else.” Then don’t call on students who have already spoken. Do not allow one student to speak for an inordinate amount of class time. Take that person aside and ask him or her to limit comments in class. If the student does not respond to this hint, tell him or her an exact number of times he or she will be allowed to respond in class, and do not call on him or her after that number has been reached in any class period.
- Controversial Topics: If you teach charged topics, prepare students for discussing them. For an article about how to build up the skills necessary to discuss sensitive topics, see “Controlled Fission: Teaching Supercharged Subjects” (Pace, 2003).
- Delay the problem-solving part until the rest of the discussion has had time to develop. Start with expository questions to clarify the facts, then move to analysis, and finally to evaluation, judgment, and recommendations.
- Shift points of view: “Now that we’ve seen it from [W’s] standpoint, what’s happening here from [Y’s] standpoint?” "What evidence would support Y’s position?" "What are the dynamics between the two positions?"
- Shift levels of abstraction: if the answer to the question above is “It’s just a bad situation for her,” quotations help: "When [Y] says “_____,” what are her assumptions?" Or seek more concrete explanations: "Why does she hold this point of view?”
- Ask for benefits/disadvantages of a position for all sides.
- Shift time frame—not just to “What’s next?” but also to “How could this situation have been different?” "What could have been done earlier to head off this conflict and turn it into a productive conversation?" "Is it too late to fix this?" "What are possible leverage points for a more productive discussion?" "What good can come of the existing situation?"
- Shift to another context: "We see how a person who thinks X would see the situation. How would a person who thinks Y see it?" "We see what happened in the Johannesburg news, how could this be handled in [your town/province]?" "How might [insert person, organization] address this problem?"
- Follow-up questions: “What do you mean by ___?” Or, “Could you clarify what you said about ___?” (even if it was a pretty clear statement—this gives students time for thinking, developing different views, and exploration in more depth). Or “How would you square that observation with what [name of person] pointed out?”
- Point out and acknowledge differences in discussion—“that’s an interesting difference from what Sam just said, Sarah. Let’s look at where the differences lie.” (Let sides clarify their points before moving on).
- Compare topics from a previous week—“Use the four systems of though/intellectual movements we have studied to create a slide that answers the following questions...”
Cashin, W. E. (2011). Effective classroom discussions. IDEA Paper number 49. Available at: http://www.theideacenter.org/sites/default/files/IDEA_Paper_49.pdf.
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