Providing students opportunities to talk about what they’re learning in the classroom allows you to give them feedback at the time when it’s most effective. Through classroom discussions students can examine and clarify confusing concepts, apply theoretical principles, explore the basis of arguments, and learn to think in ways relevant to the discipline.
Preparing for Discussions
A good discussion takes a great deal of prior planning and review of the subject matter. Use the following tips to guide your planning as you prepare to conduct a class discussion.
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.
- Review the content and update it, if necessary. Students understand how to apply what they’re learning, so prepare some real-life examples.
- Anticipate questions that will emerge during the discussion so you can provide more appropriate and especially helpful answers. Also consider how you might refer the questions to other students, thereby helping them reinforce their understanding and encouraging the exchange of ideas.
- Make the discussion relevant to your students by identifying your objectives for the discussion. What do you hope to accomplish? 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?
- Once you’ve decided what kind of discussion you want to lead, tell the students. It’s easier for everyone if the goals for the class have been clearly stated.
- Plan the discussion so that it engages students. Don’t over-manage the situation. There’s no need to comment on every point. Allow students to share ideas and pool resources.
Getting Discussions Started
You can use various techniques to open a discussion and keep it moving. Here are just a few suggestions.
- If the subject matter is new, develop your main questions beforehand and use these as a springboard. If you have more than one question, write your questions on the board.
- To set the stage for the discussion, provide clear guidelines for participation and discuss them beforehand.
- Ask open-ended questions to get students thinking about relationships, applications, consequences, and contingencies. Ask questions that will draw students out and actively involve them. Encourage students to ask questions of one another. Above all, convey to your students that their ideas are valued as well as welcomed.
- Have students write about a question or idea for a few minutes. This strategy gives students the chance to reflect on the question and 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). Each group might also select a facilitator who leads the small group discussion, makes sure all members take part and that no one monopolizes the conversation, and then summarizes the group’s main points for the entire 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.
- Phrase discussion questions as problems that are meaningful to students.
- After you’ve posed a question, wait. Give students a chance to think. If you’re too eager to share your views, students will get the message that you're not really interested in their opinions.
One of the keys to facilitating a discussion is to guide its course without appearing to do so. Here are some strategies for moderating a class discussion.
- Model effective interaction by looking occasionally at others in the room when you are addressing a question or comment from a particular student. Students will do likewise when they’re speaking. The point is, you want to create a classroom culture where students ask questions or make comments to one another with you with you serving as the facilitator. This is especially important for students in the front rows. Ask them to turn and address the rest of the class with their questions or comments.
- Watch for clues that indicate students might want to participate (e.g., "Alan, you seem disturbed by Dan's idea. What do you think?"). Be careful you don't embarrass a student into participating.
- If one or two students consistently monopolize the discussion, try using their comments to throw the discussion back to the class (e.g., "You've raised an important point. Maybe others would like to comment") or acknowledge the comments and offer another outlet (e.g., "Those ideas deserve a lot more time. Maybe we can discuss them after class.")
- If there’s a lull in the discussion, relax. Every conversation needs a chance to breathe. If the lulls come too frequently, though, turn your attention to the types of topics you're picking. You also may be inadvertently shutting down discussion by dominating rather than facilitating.
- To 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.
- If you run out of discussion material before the class ends, ask students to write down additional questions and form small groups to further explore the issues identified.
- If the discussion gets heated or conflicts of opinion arise, 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.
Ending a discussion is as important as beginning one. You don't want the discussion to end too abruptly or to fade in the flurry of coats and backpacks as students leave the classroom. Build into your discussion a strategy for ending well. To steer a discussion to a conclusion, review the main ideas, the thread of the discussion, and any conclusions reached in the course of the discussion. Finally, assess the effectiveness of the discussion. How many students participated in the discussion? Who participated and who didn’t? What was the tone of the discussion (stimulating? respectful? contentious?)? Did you accomplish the goals you established for the discussion? If you’re not sure, ask your students for feedback.