Strategies for Facilitating More Effective Classroom Discussions

If you’ve been teaching for any amount of time, you probably have a few nicknames for students based on the personality traits they exhibit. Roben Torosyan, PhD, associate director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Fairfield University, has some nicknames for his students, too. Names like Q, Sunny, and Light Bulb.

It’s not what you might think. The nicknames are just some of those Torosyan uses to represent each student’s role in classroom discussions. Q is there to ask questions, find out facts, identify needs, and clarify goals. Sunny’s role is to highlight benefits and provide encouragement. Light Bulb is expected to help generate new ideas, propose multiple hypotheses and promote brainstorming.

“The point is for you to get students to create their own guidelines for discussion, including some roles they can use to break the ice and get discussion going in the quiet classroom … and to keep it going, and really deepen the quality of conversation,” Torosyan said.

During the recent online video seminar 9 Ways to Use Class Discussion to Promote Transformation, Torosyan shared techniques he uses to help students become active participants in the learning community.

Here are just some of the tips he provided:

  • During a lecture, stop and ask students to pair up for 30 seconds to generate one question based on the notes they are taking.
  • Have students do “free writing” for two minutes and then break into groups where they share what they’ve written.
  • Use groups and assign each a different problem, question, or section of the reading to summarize and report back to the class.
  • Increase your wait time when asking questions.
  • Rephrase and wonder about the questions as if you’re trying to figure out possible solutions like the students are.
  • Break up cliques by having students count off and then assign them to groups based on their number.

Another important consideration for encouraging class discussion is how to handle the students who participate too much and the reflective or introverted students who are hesitant to add their voice to the conversation. In the case of the introverts, Torosyan will often send an email to them encouraging them to participate by reinforcing the value of what they’ve done in written assignments.

For the overparticipators, besides saying “What are others thinking?” or “Who we haven’t heard from?” Torosyan will ask the class a question like, “What are you wondering or trying to understand better?” He says that often stumps the students who are used to performing by talking.