Discussions are, by their very nature, full of learning possibilities, and a feeling that there is another perspective to be expressed, another understanding to be gained. As a teaching method, it enables you to stimulate critical thinking and provides insight into students’ level of understanding and thought processes. Discussions can be conducted at class level, or at group level (involving varying numbers of students). Regardless of the level of students you are teaching, it is important to carefully prepare and actively facilitate the discussions to ensure that they are disciplined, inclusive and promote learning.
Here are some tips on how to conduct meaningful and effective class discussions.
- Set out clear rules and expectations for discussions: Some of the more commonly cited ones are set out below. Consider incorporating them in your discussion or class participation rubrics (click here for some discussion rubrics).
- Respect everyone’s right to hold different views, beliefs and opinions. Challenge or criticize the idea, not the person
- Support your statements with evidence.
- Expressly acknowledge preceding contributions made and how they connect up with your point.
- Approach discussions as a means of thinking aloud, where ideas and positions can be regularly clarified in response to new information and insight
- Summarize and synthesise the major discussion ideas and themes, either verbally, or visually on the board.
- When answers are not immediately forthcoming, wait and refrain from answering your own questions too readily: Research findings suggest significant educational benefit when faculty extend wait time - (a) the length of students’ responses to questions increase dramatically (b) students do more speculating about possible alternative explanations or ways of thinking about a topic (c) the number of questions asked by students increase. As a general rule, allow for at least 3 seconds of wait time after posing questions (Tobin, 1987). Answering your own questions quickly establishes an expectation among students that they need only to wait you out for challenging questions. Any discomfort that arises will diminish as your students get more familiar with you, your teaching approach in this area and each other.
- Signpost in advance some of the questions you plan on asking in class: this especially benefits your reserved students, and those who do better with a bit of advance opportunity to think. Overall, the quality of discussions across the class can be expected to improve. This can be done over email or by sneaking in a quick word with selected students if you overhear them making good points in group discussions.
- Ask questions that are require more complex thinking: richer discussions emerge when students are probed and stretched to elaborate, evaluate and synthesizes, as opposed to answering ad hoc questions that spring to mind. Until you get more familiar, it helps to make an advance note of some questions to ask.
|Questions that link or extend the discussion
- Can you put that another way?
- What’s a good example of what you are talking about?
- Can you explain the term you just used?
- Could you give a different illustration of your point?
|Questions that pose interesting hypotheticals
- How might World War II have turned out if Hitler had not decided to attack the Soviet Union in 1941?
|Questions that provoke students to explore cause & effect linkages
- What is likely to be the effect of raising the average class size from twenty to thirty on the ability of learners to conduct interesting and engaging discussions?
|Questions that invite students to summarize or synthesize
- What are the one / two most important ideas that emerged from this discussion?
- What remains unresolved or contentious about this topic?
- Based on our discussion today, what do we need to talk about next time to understand this issue better?
Source: Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2012). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. John Wiley & Sons.
- Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2012). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. John Wiley & Sons.
- Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait time: slowing down may be a way of speeding up!. Journal of teacher education, 37(1), 43-50.
- Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of educational research, 57(1), 69-95.