Structuring Discussion to Engage Students

Instructors face a Herculean challenge in managing discussion – whether the discussion is face-to-face or online. To be an effective instructor, it is important to learn how to facilitate discussion, and keep the dialogue flowing without veering off topic.

In a discussion group, we might have all sorts of participants. Some could be the desired type of active participants, but there could be the overzealous participants, or the opinionated participants, or the “I don’t want to participate” participants. How do we engage these difficult participants in a meaningful discussion?

Before we answer this question, let us first look at what discussion means and why we use discussion to support learning. That will guide us in figuring out how to engage students in meaningful discussion.
In a classroom situation, discussion often means interactive exchange of ideas and views so that students can co-construct meaning and build a more in-depth understanding of the topic than what they would have achieved on their own. This is the bottom line of using discussion – it has its roots in principles of constructive learning.

The instructor plays a crucial part in aiding the discussion process because he or she must engage the students in conversation and manage the flow of the discussion. For instance, the instructor needs to encourage the silent students, harness the contributions from the overzealous students to catalyze discussion, and utilize opinions to challenge ideas.

Having the purpose of discussion in mind, we need to structure the discussion so that it is meaningful. Structuring discussion involves the following seven activities, which need not necessarily be in sequence.

1. Planning and organizing the group Divide groups into teams

Split the topic and get each team to do a topic

2. Motivating and engaging the students Introduce yourself to the class and get to know students

Prompt questions

3. Managing student engagement Harness the contributions from the overzealous students to catalyze discussion
Utilize opinions to challenge ideas
4. Sequencing and controlling the flow of interaction like a traffic cop Make your rules and regulations for the discussion clear
Plan ahead which group would present first etc.
Listen attentively to what students have to say and guide them (you could also get students to play the facilitator role sometimes)
5. Providing appropriate feedback to keep the discussion in check/asking questions Students may discuss not-so-relevant ideas or they may not have considered a particular topic in-depth, so you need to provide feedback, ask questions and guide students
6. Managing time Plan your activities and time your activities, make the timing for activities clear to students

Upload reading material ahead of class

Establish routines

7. Providing succinct summary Summarize before providing feedback

Summarize what has been discussed at the end

Student-centered discussions
Traditionally, there are two main types of structured discussion in the classroom: instructor-centered and group-centered discussion. In student-centered learning, we are of course working toward a group-centered discussion so that students learn from each other. By understanding the purpose of discussion, we can build on this group-centered discussion model and add further structure to the group discussion.

For instance, one commonly used technique to manage large group discussion is to divide the group into smaller teams. Each team can then work on different topics and present their findings so that the teams can share and learn from each other. A variation of this could be to have one team discuss, while the other team observes the interaction amongst the students who are discussing. This could be then reversed if time permits. The benefit of the variation is that we can help students to not only engage in a discussion and focus on content, but we can also help them to reflect on their discussion pattern and learn how to participate effectively in a group discussion. Getting students to study discussion would be an eye-opening experience and it could be more effective than telling students what an effective discussion should be like.

Nachamma Sockalingam PhD, Lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University, Singapore.