Six Keys to More Effective Class Discussions

Students find discussions disillusioning just about as often as faculty do. In the analysis referenced below, students objected when a few fellow classmates dominated the discussion; when the discussion wandered off topic, making it difficult to ascertain main points; and when students participated just for the sake of participating.

Problems such as these can be prevented or significantly reduced when discussions are structured—at least that was one of the conclusions reached in the study being highlighted here. A set of guidelines used in this analysis offers a concrete way to provide structure.

1. Use a modular approach to topical coverage to force integration of topical ideas and concepts. The point here is simply that discussions should have designated themes or topics. The focus should be more specific than the generic “Let’s talk about the readings” or “It’s time to discuss the material presented in class yesterday.”

2. Develop a very limited set of discussion questions that do not have “known answers.” Three or four questions (possibly distributed prior to the discussion or introduced at its beginning) can do much to focus and direct a discussion. If the questions are regularly returned to throughout the discussion, they effectively keep the discussion from drifting too far off topic.

3. Allow sufficient time for discussion to develop. This is an inherent advantage of online discussion. Students have time to review, think about, and prepare contributions. No face-to-face discussion can allow that much time, but in-class discussions can be slowed down. Students can be challenged to think about what others have said. They can be asked to summarize or indicate where they think the discussion is leading.

4. Set student expectations for instructor guidance and feedback. “It is essential that students take the lead role in the evolution of a discussion; the instructor must limit his or her involvement in the discussion to a role as facilitator and provocateur and should do so only after other students decline the opportunity.” (p. 124)

5. Establish a reward system that encourages interaction and peer critique. Students are motivated to participate if contributions to a discussion “count.” Instructors need to devise manageable grading systems and ones that make quality stipulations.

6. Provide additional participation incentive through assessment. In this case, the instructor followed in-class discussion exercises with a take-home essay exam that used themes and “lessons” from the discussion. Knowing that they will be using discussion content in an exam provides a powerful incentive for students to get involved in the exchange of ideas.

This analysis also includes a helpful comparison and contrast of online and face-to-face discussions. The author concludes, “The choice between online and face-to-face discussion exercises rests more on the instructor’s goals with regards to communication skills and rapport in the learning community.” (p. 128)

Online exchanges do a better job of developing critical thinking skills. They teach students how to make and support points in writing. For the instructor, the permanence of the record expedites the grading process. Rather than trying to keep track of who said what and at the same time facilitate the discussion, an instructor can review the record and more thoughtfully assess individual contributions. But in-class discussions are better at building instructor-student rapport, and they develop essential oral communication skills such as being able to “think on one’s feet.” No doubt in most professional contexts, students will be having discussions in both kinds of formats.

Sautter, P. (2007). Designing discussion activities to achieve desired learning outcomes: Choices using mode of delivery and structure. Journal of Marketing Education, 29 (2), 122–131.

Reprinted from Discussions with Structure, January 2008, The Teaching Professor.