How Do Students Learn from Participation in Class Discussion?

student raising hand in class

Despite numerous arguments favoring active learning, especially class discussion, instructors sometimes worry that discussion is an inefficient or ineffective way for students to learn. What happens when students make non-value added, irrelevant, or inaccurate contributions? What about comments from non-experts that may obfuscate rather than clarify understanding? What about students who speak only to earn participation credit rather than contribute substantively to the discussion?

In our recent study, 246 students shared their understanding of how participation in class discussions affected their learning. More than 70% of students perceived a positive relationship between their own participation and learning but additionally discussed the value of other students’ comments for their learning. Finally, a number of students verbalized that when participation is required, they prepare more, and this preparation actually increases their learning.

The students further articulated five ways that participation enhances learning. To summarize, participation:

  • increases engagement;
  • helps students retain and remember information;
  • confirms what they have already learned;
  • provides clarification of prior learning; and
  • deepens their understanding especially through hands-on and application-based learning opportunities.

Implications for Teaching

Here is a brief summary of how we have translated these student-generated categories into concrete pedagogical strategies to facilitate learning from class discussion. Instructors should plan discussions to provide opportunities such as those suggested to reinforce each of these five paths to learning.  

  1. Increasing engagement. Make discussion participation required and ensure all students participate. For example, have each student take a stand on a key issue by requiring them to vote at the start of class. Alternatively, ask students to provide examples from the media that illustrate course concepts. Additionally, ask students to discuss links between course concepts and their experiential learning (e.g., volunteer activities, internships, study abroad, work experiences). 
  2. Remembering and retaining information. Ask students to summarize key take-away points at the end of individual class sessions. They could also be asked to identify contributions made by peers during a given discussion that helped them learn a specific concept.
  3. Confirming learning. Provide verbal and nonverbal affirmation in response to student comments. Select media illustrating applications of course concepts, then have students identify the concepts evident in the media. In more advanced courses give students responsibility for selecting these real-world examples of course concepts. After new concepts are introduced, hand out problems requiring student application of these concepts. Problems may be solved individually or in small groups, after which the solution is discussed by the class. Alternatively, ask students to read articles—or again locate relevant articles themselves—where application of newer material is integrated with more foundational material. 
  4. Clarifying through verbalization. Students noted two methods that improved their understanding: the verbalization of feedback by instructors and their use of questions to clarify student learning. We insist, however, that learning is enhanced when both instructors and students reciprocally: (a) ask and answer questions, and (b) give and receive feedback about both course content and the process by which it is explored.
    1. Receiving feedback. Provide feedback in both written and oral form to students. Further ask students to evaluate their peers’ work, including integrating a peer-review process into written work.
    2. Asking questions. Encourage students to ask questions, especially those at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. There is value in discussing explicitly not only the pedagogical choices made but why these specific strategies are selected. For example, consider explicitly introducing the taxonomy at the beginning of each semester and then encouraging students to identify moments in the course where they see the instructor effectively utilizing it. Additionally, signal that questions are valued by including and rewarding them in the grading criteria for participation.
  5. Enhancing/deepening understanding. Consider asking students higher-level questions (e.g., “What is really going on here?” What might be the reason for ___?” “What can you conclude from these data?” “How did you come to that conclusion?” “What are the pros and cons?”). Begin the class with an overarching “question of the day”—which students are expected to answer at the end of class—to create an atmosphere of questioning for students. In the wrap-up, ask students to link broader course objectives or previous discussions to a given course concept. Further, consider utilizing a questioning strategy at the end of each class (e.g., “What is your take-away?” “What was the significance of what we did today for our question of the day—or to the overarching course objectives?”).

Even though some students commented that their participation doesn’t enhance their learning, the sizable number who indicated the role others’ comments play in their learning validates the importance of encouraging participation from a broader range of students than might normally volunteer. Further, students who assert they learn better by listening can be encouraged to participate at least a moderate amount to contribute to the learning of others, just as they benefit from others’ contributions. Although not comprehensive, these recommendations illustrate the breadth of strategies instructors can use to increase learning through discussion.

Elise Dallimore is an associate professor of organizational studies in the Department of Communication Studies and a joint appointment in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University.

 Marjorie Platt is a professor of accounting in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University.

 Julie Hertenstein is an associate professor of accounting in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University.

This article is adapted from: “Creating a Community of Learning Through Classroom Discussion: Student Perceptions of the Relationships Among Participation, Learning, Comfort and Preparation,” by E.J. Dallimore, J. H. Hertenstein, and M.B. Platt (2016), Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27(3), 137-171.