Classroom Discussions: How to Apply the Right Amount of Structure

student engagement

While preparing for a Teaching Professor Conference session on facilitating classroom discussions (much of which applies to online exchanges), I’ve been reminded yet again of the complexity involved in leading a discussion with students new to the content and unfamiliar with academic discourse.

Teaching Professor Blog One of the most vexing complexities involves finding the balance between structure and the lack of it—between controlling the content and opening it up for exploration. Without structure, discussions tend to wander off in different directions, and what should have been talked about isn’t discussed. A single comment can take the discussion off track, and once it’s headed in the wrong direction, it’s tough to get it back. Open-ended explorations are potentially productive, but too often the wandering doesn’t go anywhere and little learning results.

Of course, the solution to these meandering discussions is to structure the exchange. Teachers can keep the discussion on track by identifying beforehand exactly what topics will be discussed. Off-topic comments can be ignored or politely set aside.

But it’s easy to make discussions too structured. That’s one of the lessons we’re learning about online interactions. When they’re tightly scripted (make a comment, respond to someone else’s comment, and then follow-up if someone comments on your comment) they aren’t all that interesting and don’t engage students all that effectively. Students will follow the script for their online exchanges but there’s none of the spontaneity that breathes life into a discussion.

Discussion has two features that make it a powerful teaching tool. If different voices, different perspectives, and a range of experiences are shared, they can lead the discussion to new places. Ideas emerge that participants (including the teacher) haven’t considered before. The comments flow, circle each other, and connect unexpectedly. Participants are engaged—with the content and each other. In a good discussion, you can feel the learning happening!

Secondly, discussions have power derived from their uniqueness. The combination of comments, questions, ideas, and insights shared in a discussion become a knowledge base created by that group. No other group has talked about this set of issues in exactly this way. What the group creates may not contain much, if any, new knowledge, but the group owns it. It’s related to how constructivists describe knowledge creation. When a group makes meaning, it does so in ways that are meaningful to its members.

Overly structured discussions rarely accrue either of these powerful benefits. The tough challenge for teachers is figuring out how much structure is enough, but not too much, so that we can move the discussion where it needs to go while still allowing it to go elsewhere.

How does one prepare for these unstructured structured discussions? Maybe it starts with having a general sense of discussion possibilities, identifying some of the priorities, but being open to unexpected outcomes. What actions does this general orientation entail? Most of us launch discussions with questions, but we also head into the discussion having good answers to those questions. We take seriously our role as defenders of what the discipline has discovered or come to believe. However, knowing the answers can limit how we respond to what students offer. Perhaps our perspective on content needs to be less fixed, more open to other ways of considering how it looks and feels when it’s first encountered.

Maybe we ought to track with an idea a bit further before concluding it’s a dead end. So, the comment sounds off target, irrelevant, potentially misleading, but we might just need to hear more. Maybe we’ve missed something in the student’s thinking. Maybe it makes lots of sense to everyone else. Maybe it does it lead somewhere.

Lastly, one place that deserves strong structure, but often doesn’t get it, is the end of the discussion. Discussion shouldn’t just peter out or end when the class session does. Every discussion should conclude with time devoted to summary, integration, and new question generation. Interesting ideas can lay around for a while in a discussion, we need to reinforce learning by doing something with these ideas in the conclusion or letting students see if they can put them together in a sensible way.