Discussion is a staple in most teachers’ repertoire of strategies, but it frequently disappoints. So few students are willing to participate and they tend to be the same ones. The students who do contribute often do so tentatively, blandly, and pretty much without anything that sounds like interest or conviction. On some days it’s just easier to present the material.
When describing the problems with discussion, it’s good to remind ourselves that all too often faculty are part of the problem. Our principal offense? We talk too much.
A chapter in the book referenced below offers six pointers—all aimed at helping us control how much we contribute while at the same time we improve the overall climate for discussion in a class.
1. Learn to draw out contributions—Ask a question and wait. Do not fill the silence with your opinions and views, thinking that your comments will prime the pump and get the class going. Rather, this action demonstrates that if students don’t speak, you will. Students will happily wait you out. Instead, you should wait and while waiting, look confident. Establish eye contact with whomever might be looking. Offer encouragement and let the question stand. If you feel as though the silence may be the death of you, ask a question about the question.
2. Learn to withdraw and attend to managing the discussion—Because we are leaders in the classroom and experts to boot, and because we regulate and control the flow of communication, we easily fall into being in charge of the discussion as well. “However, in the interest of fostering discussion, it will be better if much of the time you refrain from doing so, for nothing suppresses potentially fruitful discussion as quickly or as thoroughly as professors who hold the floor and treat student contributions as springboards for their own comments.” (p. 60)
3. Learn to hold back your own thoughts—Often the answers that students give to open-ended questions are not very good. The ideas are stated without a lot of clarity, the opinion is not supported with much evidence, or the viewpoint is not logically coherent. Teachers are very motivated to correct and improve those answers—that’s our job! But the climate for discussion is improved when a teacher asks the student to explain something in more detail or when the teacher defers to the rest of the class, asking, for example, “Is there anything anyone would like Sarah to clarify?” (p. 61).
Editor’s note: In tomorrow’s post we’ll share the three remaining tips for facilitating effective classroom discussions.
Laing, D. “Nurturing Discussion in the Classroom.” In Smith, K., (ed) Teaching, Learning, Assessing: A Guide for Effective Teaching at College and University. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 2007.
Excerpted from Discussion: It’s All about the Details, The Teaching Professor, January 2008.