When you provide opportunities for students to verbalize what they are learning in the classroom, you are able to provide feedback at the time when it is most effective. In addition, discussions provide a socializing mechanism, examine and clarify confusing concepts, raise value questions, and help further instructional goals, by helping students:

  • learn to think in ways particular to the discipline
  • identify and evaluate the logic and evidence at the basis of their own and others' positions
  • find opportunities to apply theoretical principles
  • identify and formulate problems using information gained from reading or lectures
  • use the resources of members of the group
  • develop motivation for further learning
  • get prompt feedback on how well they are attaining the course objectives

Follow the guidelines below to learn to effectively prepare for, start, moderate and conclude a discussion.

Preparing for Discussions

Good discussion sections give students an opportunity to formulate principles in their own words and to suggest applications of these principles; they help students become aware of and define problems implied in readings or lectures; they also can increase students' sensitivity to other points of view and alternative explanations.

Too many instructors assume they can just walk into the classroom and rely on students to carry on a useful discussion for 40 or 50 minutes. However, a good discussion takes a great deal of prior planning and review of the subject matter. This list of questions may help guide your planning as you prepare to conduct a class discussion.

What can I do to prepare myself for a classroom discussion?
  • Review the content itself and bring it up to date (keeping up in your field is important — inevitably in a discussion, a question will come up about present applicability or trends; at that point, you can be of great help if you are able to relate the topic of discussion to recent events or developments in the field.)
  • Anticipate the kinds of questions that will emerge during the discussion so you can provide more appropriate and helpful sorts of answers. Also consider how you might refer the questions to other students, thereby helping them reinforce their understanding, and encouraging interchange of ideas.
How do I make the discussion relevant to my students?
Identify your objectives for the discussion.
  • What do you hope to accomplish?
  • Do students know enough about the topics to discuss them?
  • Are students able to link concepts to their own lives, evaluate material critically, and address topics that are open-ended and have no clear resolution?
How can I determine the best focus for the discussion?

Before the section meets, decide what kind of discussion is most useful for your class.

  • Is there a certain topic to be discussed (perhaps arranged previously by the supervising instructor)?
  • Does the group have to reach a conclusion or come to an agreement?
  • Must they learn subject matter?
  • Is the section a forum for expressing and comparing views?
  • Is it important that the students carefully analyze the topic or that they learn certain skills?

Once you have decided what kind of discussion you want, tell the students. It is easier for everyone if the goals for the class have been clearly stated.

How can there possibly be enough to say to fill the class period?

This will be the least of your worries. Your job is facilitating and moderating the discussion, not doing all the discussing. New TAs sometimes tend to over-manage the situation. Remember that the discussion isn't just a matter of you communicating with your students; it's a chance for students to share ideas and pool resources. Many TAs overlook this potential and end up trying to carry the whole conversation themselves.

Getting Discussions Started

You can use a number of general techniques in opening up discussion and keeping it going. The most obvious is to enlarge upon students' questions and comments with your own remarks. However, if the subject matter is new and your students are, too, you may want to write several statements or questions beforehand and use these as a springboard.

Ask open-ended questions that will get students thinking about relationships, applications, consequences, and contingencies, rather than merely the basic facts. Ask your students the sorts of questions that will draw them out and actively involve them; encourage your students to ask questions of one another. Above all, convey to your students that their ideas are valued as well as welcomed.

Here are some questions that may occur to you as you think about getting a good discussion going.

How do I set the stage for the discussion?
Provide clear guidelines for participation. Discuss them beforehand, stick to them, and enforce them during the discussion.
What are some ways of initiating discussions?
  • Have students write about a question or idea for a few minutes (this method also increases the likelihood that everyone will have something to contribute)
  • Assign questions or tasks for small groups to work out among themselves (such activities tend to loosen things up, helping students overcome any inhibitions they may feel about speaking up in front of the class)
  • Ask for reactions to specific portions of assigned readings or lectures (questions can be given as part of the previous class's homework assignment, or introduced at the beginning of a lecture). The more students are prepared to discuss a particular topic, the better they will be able to participate in a discussion about it.
What are some behaviors to avoid when asking questions?
  • Avoid phrasing a question so your implicit message is, "I know something you don't and you'll look stupid if you don't guess right!"
  • Avoid phrasing a question at a level of abstraction inappropriate for the class. Phrase discussion questions as problems that are meaningful to student and instructor alike.
  • Be careful to wait long enough to give students a chance to think. The issue of "wait time" is an often ignored component of questioning techniques. If you are too eager to impart your views, students will get the message that you're not really interested in their opinions. Most teachers tend not to wait long enough between questions or before answering their own questions.
Why can't I seem to get a good discussion started?
  • If you habitually can't get discussion started, pay more attention to the topics you're picking; they may not be broad enough.
  • Your questions may not be open-ended; try posing questions that ask students to clarify, define or provide examples.
  • You may not be using good questioning skills—be careful that you're not putting people on the spot or embarrassing them.
Moderating Discussions

To speak of "controlling" a discussion may be misleading, since in this setting you really want to relinquish control over the learning process to your students. Running a discussion section skillfully requires you to create a context of "organized spontaneity," giving students opportunities and incentives to express themselves and develop skills within the otherwise somewhat passive context of the lecture course.

One of the keys to facilitating a discussion is to guide its course without appearing to do so. Here is a list of some common questions related to the problem of "control" that TAs ask about leading discussions.

How do I get the students to actually talk to each other?
You can model interaction by looking occasionally at others in the room when you are addressing a question or comment from a particular student. This will lead students to do likewise when they are speaking. If some students seldom or never talk, see if you can find out whether they are shy, confused, or simply turned off. Watch for clues that indicate that they might want to speak up ("Alan, you seem disturbed by Dan's idea. What do you think?"). However, be careful you don't embarrass a student into participating.
How do I prevent some students from monopolizing the discussion?
If one or two students consistently monopolize the discussion, you can try a couple of approaches to get the rest of the class involved:
  • Use the comments of the monopolizers to throw the discussion back to the class ("You've raised an important point. Maybe others would like to comment")
  • Acknowledge the comments and offer another outlet ("Those ideas deserve a lot more time. Maybe we can discuss them after class.")
What should I do if there is a lull in the conversation?
If there is a lull in the discussion, relax. Every conversation needs a chance to catch its breath. Your topic may be exhausted or people may need to pause to digest what they've heard. If the lulls come too frequently, though, you may need to give more attention to the types of topics you're picking. You also may be inadvertently shutting down discussion by dominating rather than facilitating.
How do I keep the discussion going?
  • Summarize student responses without taking a clear stand one way or another.
  • Pause, giving students time to reflect on your summaries or others' comments.
  • Consider taking notes of main points on a chalkboard or overhead (but, if you do, write everyone's ideas down).
What if I run out of discussion material before the class ends?
Ask your students if they are interested in discussing any other topics. If not, let them go early. Don't keep them the whole hour just for form's sake.
What if the discussion gets heated or conflicts of opinion arise?
If a fight breaks out over an issue, then you've got a hot topic on your hands! Your major task here is to keep the argument focused on the issues. Don't let it turn personal, under any circumstances. Deal openly with conflicts, don't ignore them; listen to your students — attempt to learn from them.
How do I encourage students to attend discussion sections?
Despite the fact that discussion section participation is a requirement for many introductory courses, students may believe attendance is not mandatory since the TA rather than the professor is in charge. Therefore you may want to incorporate required assignments, projects or presentations into your sections so participation will be a part of the final course grade. If students know you have some responsibility for determining grades, you will have considerably more authority in the classroom or in any interactions with students. Students also will be more likely to attend sections or lectures you lead.

Concluding Discussions

Ending is critical, too. You don't want the discussion to end too abruptly or to fade out in the flurry of coats and backpacks as students leave the classroom. Build into your discussion plan a strategy for ending well.

What is the best way to steer a discussion to a conclusion?
Keep close track of time. With about five minutes remaining, review the main ideas, the thread of the discussion, and any conclusions reached in the course of the discussion.
How do I know if the discussion was effective?
  • Determine how many students participated in the discussion, identifying who did and who did not participate.
  • Assess the tone of the discussion — was it stimulating and respectful?
  • Ask students about their reactions to the discussion session.