Three More Tips for Facilitating Classroom Discussions

Editor’s note: What follows is part-two of the article on facilitating classroom discussion. If you missed part-one, you can read it here.

4. Learn to slow down the pace—We are used to discussing topics with our colleagues. They know the material, have already thought a lot about it, and can answer questions quickly. We want conversations in class to clip along at a similar pace—there’s always lots of material the class needs to get through. “We would do well to pause and reflect on the fact that it takes time for students to formulate answers to questions of any complexity, and that their thinking does not come forward in smoothly flowing units of speech.” (p. 61) If the question is a good, thought- provoking one, ask it—maybe even write it on the board and tell students you will wait 30 seconds before calling on anyone. The author suggests waiting a few seconds after a student has spoken before saying anything. Often that space empowers the student to continue, to clarify or to add more.

5. Learn to be open and accepting in manner—The advice here is to hold back on judgments, especially those that agree or disagree with a view expressed by a student. Respond with interest but with a certain neutrality. Research is clear that praise does encourage students to contribute, but praise can backfire. If a first response gets a “super answer” from the teacher, the rest of the class thinks that student has gotten a right answer and there is no need to think further.

6. Keep discussions productive— Discussions are made productive when teachers begin them with a clear idea of what they hope to accomplish. Is the purpose of this discussion to clarify understanding? Is it to pose problems addressed by principles presented previously? Is it to encourage students to think critically about views expressed in the reading? Is it to expose and explore a range of different viewpoints?

Discussions are also made productive when teachers keep them on track. Contributions can sidetrack discussions, sometimes to the benefit of the discussion, but then those discussions need to be brought back to the main topic under consideration. And discussions are made productive when they are interesting and informed exchanges. In the beginning, in the interest of creating a climate for exchange, students may be allowed to say what they think, but generally across discussions, unsupported views and poorly informed opinions should be constructively challenged.

“It can be a messy and frustrating business, this class discussion. … It is so much easier to tell students what you know and think, to retreat to the more controlled world of the lecture. Keep it always in mind that discussion can do more to stimulate students’ minds and interests than any other form of teaching we know, and that under the surface much more learning is taking place than we may think.” (p. 63)

Laing, D. “Nurturing Discussion in the Classroom.” In Smith, K., (ed) Teaching, Learning, Assessing: A Guide for Effective Teaching at College and University. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 2007.

Excerpted from Discussion: It’s All about the Details, The Teaching Professor, January 2008.