Facilitating Discussion: Five Factors that Boost Student Engagement

class discussions

It’s another of those phrases frequently used and almost universally endorsed but not much talked about in terms of implementation. What does facilitating discussion mean? How should a teacher do it? Two faculty researchers, Finn and Schrodt (2016), frame the problem this way: “The literature is replete with descriptive accounts and anecdotal evidence but lacks the kinds of empirical investigations that could create theoretical coherency in this body of work” (p. 446). They decided our understanding of discussion facilitation could be deepened with an operational definition, one that resides in an instrument to measure it quantitatively.

Beyond developing and validating the instrument, they wondered what learning-related outcomes does discussion facilitation accomplish. Does it generate student interest and motivate learning? Can discussion promote those behaviors that reflect interest and involvement in learning across courses and in activities outside the classroom?

Developing the instrument was the first task. To do so they used literature on discussion to generate an initial pool of 75 items. Three hundred and sixty undergraduates were asked to use those items to rate the discussion facilitation skills of the instructor they had in the course that met prior to the class in which the data were collected. Analysis of their responses revealed five factors involved in effective discussion facilitation.

  • Affirms students’ discussion: This aspect of discussion facilitation accounted for 45 percent of the variance, which was significantly higher than the other four factors. It included high ratings on items such as, “My teacher encourages participation during class discussions,” “My teacher communicates appreciation for student contributions during discussion,” and, “My teacher values what students say during class discussions.” These data confirm a fundamental feature of effective discussion facilitation. Teachers must “patiently” and “positively” encourage students to contribute during discussion (p. 448).
  • Organizes discussion: Discussions benefit from instructor guidance and direction, as long as they stop short of controlling the discussion. From the overall structure of the discussion, to promote the sense that it is going somewhere and to keep it on track, effective facilitation involves keeping the discussion focused on the designated topic. That focus needs to be achieved with guidance, a kind, constructive direction that sets the boundaries of the discussion without dictating or more subtly controlling what can be said within those boundaries. Participation in a discussion is dampened if there’s a sense that participants aren’t free to express relevant ideas, opinions, and perspectives.
  • Provokes discussion: The skill here is sparking discussion with controversial statements (i.e., points that can be debated). The teacher needs to give students reasons to want to discuss something. Sometimes that’s effectively accomplished when the teacher assumes a devil’s advocate role. Interestingly, Finn and Schrodt (2016) found this factor generated mixed reactions from students. “Playing ‘devil’s advocate’ with an air of inquisitiveness is quite different from playing ‘devil’s advocate’ with an air of superiority.” (p. 459) Discussion facilitation involves a nuanced use of verbal and nonverbal communication skills.
  • Questions students: What you want to hear is, “My teacher asks students thought-provoking questions.” Rather than questions with straightforward answers, these are open-ended, probing, even leading questions. When these kinds of questions are regularly infused throughout the discussion, they can help to provide the structure a discussion needs. They can continue to provoke student interest, but, more importantly, they can make students think.
  • Corrects students: Only accounting for 3.6 percent of the variance, this factor ended up being assessed with only three of the 33 items on the second version of the instrument. The idea here is that students appreciate teacher discussion facilitation that ensures that when it ends, they have information that is correct and enhances their understanding of course content.

As part of exploring the relationship between discussion facilitation and student interest and engagement, the researchers used a “student perceptions of instructor understanding” scale. It measures the extent to which students think instructors understand or misunderstand them, such as with, “My teacher understands the questions I ask.” The second study documented that “when instructors provoke and organize discussions using a variety of questions, employ responses that affirm students, and correct discussions to focus on course content, such behaviors are directly associated with student interest and engagement in the course, as well as indirectly predictive of both outcomes through perceived understanding” (p. 459).

Not only is this instrument of value to subsequent explorations of discussion facilitation, it is a great tool for instructors who wish to understand the specific components of effective discussion facilitation. And for those interested in feedback on the extent to which they are effectively facilitating discussion, items on the final 25-item version of the instrument are included in the article. Kudos to these researchers for developing an instrument with both empirical and pragmatic utility. Best of all, it offers a clear description of how a teacher facilitates a discussion.

Reference: Finn, A. N., & Schrodt, P. (2016). Teacher discussion facilitation: A new measure and its associations with students’ perceived understanding, interest and engagement. Communication Education, 65(4), 445–462.

Reprinted from Facilitating Discussion, The Teaching Professor, 30.10 (2016): 4. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.