Education Technology Expert, Center for Teaching and Learning
Faculty, School of Education
Discussion gives students an opportunity to process course content in new ways by applying it, evaluating it, and comparing their understanding of it with other students. Overall, discussion provides the opportunity for students to become critical thinkers with regards to course content rather than passive recipients of the information.
Preparing for Discussion
Instructors can help students prepare for discussion in a variety of ways, including the following:
Consider the type of question you are asking
As you prepare questions for a discussion, think about what is most important that students know and understand about the topic. You’ll want the discussion questions to connect to the course learning outcomes, so shape your questions with that goal in mind. Avoid questions that prompt a "yes" or "no" answer and questions that generally have one acceptable answer. In most cases, questions that have many answers encourage students to be creative or express insight and create an opportunity for students to learn from a variety of perspectives.
Give students time
Before sharing opinions and ideas in a large group, give students time to reflect individually on a discussion prompt, writing down ideas they want to share with the large group. Then, during the discussion, they can refer to their initial thoughts, removing items that have been contributed already by other students, adding additional points that other students contribute during the discussion, and indicating other students who shared an item on the list but perhaps from a different angle or supported the point with different evidence. For online discussion, instructors may provide students with a series of preliminary questions to which students respond and submit to the instructor before participating in a discussion board with other students.
Vary the discussion group sizes
Consider using collaborative learning techniques like think-pair-share or snowballing to prime students for a class discussion. [link to collaborative learning on Toolbox] Some students will feel uncomfortable—perhaps even intimidated—participating in a whole-class discussion, especially if the class size is large. As a rule of thumb, you can help all students prepare for a whole-group discussion by first asking them to participate in a small-group discussion. After a period of time, form new groups, each consisting of at least one person from each original group. The new groups will continue the discussion, drawing upon the perspectives shared in their original groups. Then, when students participate in a large-group discussion, they will have had the opportunity to share their opinions and ideas and hear others before sharing with the whole class. Furthermore, you can feel more assured that every student has participated at some point in the discussion process.
Arrange the classroom to facilitate discussion
For in-class discussions, you can arrange the classroom to accommodate the experiences, strengths, and energy of a group of students. This may involve arranging students into small groups, pairs, teams, or rows facing one another. During a discussion, move to a part of the room where quiet students are sitting; smile at and make eye contact with these students to encourage them to speak up. By the same token, when frequent volunteers speak, look around the room rather than only at them to encourage others to respond. (See http://www.cultofpedagogy.com/speaking-listening-techniques for a list of 15 formats for structuring a class discussion to make it more engaging, more organized, more equitable, and more academically challenging.)
Provide students with tools
There are many ways you can help students prepare for a discussion. For example, if students know the discussion topic ahead of time, they can use Post-it® notes to bookmark parts of the required reading that they want to contribute to a discussion. They can also write reactions to the reading or questions they want to ask on the Post-it® note. In addition, you can write a discussion question on the board and give students 5 minutes to make a list of 3 to 5 ideas they want to share about that question during the discussion. This can include thoughts they have related to the required reading or connections they make to prior learning, learning in other courses, personal experiences, or professional experiences.
Learn students' names
Students will be more engaged if they believe that you perceive them as individuals, rather than as anonymous members of a group. Encourage students to learn one another’s names, as well; this strategy will increase the possibility that they will address one another by name and direct their comments to one another, not just to you. You can do this as well with online discussions.
You will likely need to spend a good deal of time supporting students by modeling the type of thinking you want to occur during a discussion. Consider doing the following to encourage participation in discussion:
Teach discussion strategies
Be careful not to assume students know how to participate in a discussion. Demonstrate how to listen carefully to a question (e.g., by repeating students' responses to summarize or clarify their ideas), how to avoid interrupting others while they speak, and how to interpret what is intended by a question (e.g., what is the instructor really asking me?). Remember that it oftentimes takes time for students to feel comfortable enough in a classroom or online to express feelings and opinions in front of others.
Give a reason
To get students involved in discussion, it is helpful to explain the value of their participation and what they can expect to get from the experience. Students need to understand that they share the responsibility for making the discussion a worthwhile experience. This is a new idea for most of them. If you are planning to assess their participation, be up front with what you are looking to observe. For example, are you looking to assess how often they participate? Are you looking to assess if they can give evidence or reasons to support their ideas? Are you expecting them to make a connection to a concept in the reading? Ar you expecting them to make a connection between a concept in the reading and something in their personal and/or professional lives? Be clear at the outset about your expectations and the reasons for spending class time engaging in discussion.
Model good thinking
Instead of responding to students with "I agree," "Good point," etc., ask follow-up questions that ask the student and the whole class to think more deeply about an issue. For example, ask students: "What leads you to think that?" or "What is your reasoning?" or "Is there an alternative way to think about that?" Over time, you might assign students roles in the discussion (e.g., devil's advocate, trouble-shooter, moderator, etc.) and challenge them to model good thinking during the discussion period.
Revise the question
If a particular question is not working well and/or students are confused or many of the responses are just off-target, consider revising the original discussion immediately. Sometimes we do not realize that we have actually asked several questions in one question (i.e. a double-barrel question) or that we are asking a question that is too difficult or too vague for students to answer. This can be confusing to students and makes it especially difficult for them to respond appropriately. Rephrase the question (breaking it into smaller questions or using clearer language), and ask the question again.
Use wait time
Pause three to five seconds after asking a question before calling on someone to allow all students time to think. You can also pause three to five seconds after a student's initial response to the question. Don’t be afraid of silence in the classroom. Sometimes not responding immediately will allow an opening in the conversation for a student to jump into the conversation. Furthermore, by waiting to see if there was more to the student's response, you provide him or her and other students with an opportunity to really think about the question and articulate a full response, which will likely result in higher-order thinking.