April 25th, 2014

Letting the Students Lead Class Discussions


The joy of discussion as a class activity is starting it up and seeing where it goes. Although some of the same themes come up in every discussion, how they emerge and the connections they raise vary as much as the individual students do. On a great discussion day, the talk flows freely in interesting and unexpected directions, much like jazz.

And yet, as great as discussion is when it goes well, we’ve all been in class when there is no music. We start the discussion, throwing out fabulous and well-thought-out questions, which are then met with silence and blank stares, or the same five people volunteer over and over again. And through it all, instead of talking to each other, students direct their comments to the teacher.

A few years ago, I felt that if students could wean themselves from relying on me to orchestrate class discussions, the activity would become richer and many of these problems would be solved. With this in mind, I decided to try “leading” a discussion without speaking. Although I’ve had to modify this original experiment, overall, I like the exercise so much it is now a regular classroom activity.

I started experimenting with my silent leadership in a children’s literature class. I selected that class because I thought education majors would benefit from knowing how to lead a discussion. Previously I had students do teaching presentations and write discussion questions, but I was always there to facilitate if the discussion drifted off topic or the conversation stalled. I had never given students responsibility for leading a 30- to 45-minute discussion themselves.

At first, students were reluctant to get started. They didn’t believe that I could actually keep quiet for that long in class. I had doubts myself. But then their discussions would take off, mostly. Much to my surprise, even though I was silent, students still talked almost exclusively to me.

Each time we tried this activity, I asked students to write anonymously about their experience. After the first few trials, most felt the activity was helpful, but not perfect. Many wrote that the discussion would be better if I participated because I “knew more” than they did. Many also pointed out how anxious the activity made them feel. They looked to me for the “answers,” and this decentering of the classroom made them uncomfortable.

After these initial attempts I decided to try building up to the teacher-free discussion day a bit more gradually. Since everything worth doing needs to be practiced, I began to ask students to write discussion questions from the start of the semester. We talked about which ones were effective and why. We also talked about follow-up questions and practiced improvisation. I started to incorporate students’ questions into class discussion more regularly, and they started leading their own discussions in small groups.

I found that the more groundwork I incorporated at the beginning, the more successful the class- led discussions were. After I helped students build up to the teacher-free discussion, their responses also became overwhelmingly positive. Those closest to being teachers themselves valued the experience and wanted more opportunities like it. The groups even began to police themselves to make sure everyone had the opportunity to ask and answer questions. They began to talk to each other and mostly ignore me.

What started out as an experiment to garner more participation has turned into one of my favorite classroom activities. I highly recommend letting students take the lead. I believe you will find that your silence will break down theirs.

Dr. Amy Getty is an English professor at Grand View University, Iowa.

Reprinted from Letting the Students Lead, The Teaching Professor, 27.2 (2013): 2. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

  • Laura S

    I have to wonder how this would work if the class size is large. I don't mean hundreds of students in a huge lecture hall, just a group of 20 students I cannot imagine them all contributing to a whole class discussion even if the teacher did not monopolize the discussion. I can see this working well in small groups but small groups typically already discuss without the teacher present (since she cannot be in all the groups, all the time). I might modify this to start with small group discussion (sans teacher input) and then have a representative from each group summarize the group's discussion and get response to the summary from students in the other groups (also without teacher input). The role of the teacher might simply be to record insightful observations and offer an overall summary of the group/class discussion during the final 5 minutes of the class session.

  • Amy Getty

    I love the idea of scaffolding up using smaller groups and feedback as Laura S. suggests. To clarify, though, the activity I described above was done in classrooms of 17-25 students. It does work with a larger small class, especially over time and as the students buy into the idea that they all need to participate and they all need to speak. Starting out by having everyone ask at least one discussion question is a good way to get this rolling.

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