April 23rd, 2014

Class Discussion Challenge: Getting Students to Listen and Respond to Each Other’s Comments


Issue 1: The classroom discussion is going pretty well. Students are offering some good comments and more than one hand is in the air. Then a student makes a really excellent observation that opens up a whole avenue of relevant possibilities. You follow-up by calling on a student whose hand has been in the air for some time. Her comment is fine, but it’s totally unrelated to the previous comment. How do you get students to respond to each other’s comments? How do you get student comments to build on a key topic so that it becomes more like a real discussion?

What about this idea? Tell students that when they hear you say “hold on to it” that means the next comments must respond to the comment just made. The faculty member who suggested this to me pointed out that often students aren’t listening all that closely to each other, so after saying “hold on to it,” you may need to repeat the original comment and give students a bit of time to prepare an appropriate response.

This same faculty member mentioned that those of us who’ve been doing academic discourse for almost as long as we can remember are sometimes a bit blithe in our assumptions that students know how to do it. She recommended identifying for (or maybe with) students a few ways they could respond to a comment made by a classmate. Here are some ideas:

  • Agree or disagree with it and say why. The “why” is the most important part of the student’s response.
  • Ask a question about the comment. Asking for an elaboration on part or all of the original comment is a good approach, assuming it needs further explanation.
  • Provide an example of it. Examples can come from content covered in class, from the reading, or from experience.
  • Relate or link the comment just made to another comment, maybe one the teacher or another student made. A link also can be made to something in the reading material.
  • Make a new, related comment. It needs to be different from what’s been said and don’t assume that how it relates to the first comment is obvious to others.

The “hold on to it” request can mean two other things as well. For students who have things they’d like to say unrelated to the comment being elaborated on, it means they should “hold on to” their thoughts; maybe jotting down a brief note so they don’t forget what it is they want to share. For the teacher, “hold on to it” is a good reminder to not succumb to the sometimes irresistible urge to say something in response to every comment a student makes. It’s a much better class discussion if students offer three or four responses before the teacher chimes in.

Why do students so rarely comment on the contributions of other students? First off, they tend not to value each other’s comments, especially if the teacher has a habit of clarifying and elaborating on everything a student says. Those elaborations sound a lot like right answers to students, so they tend to tune out their peers knowing the teacher will put everything in just the right context. And then there are those participation policies where the grade is primarily a function of how often one speaks, with little mention as to the quality of the contributions.

Issue 2: “Talk to each other.” It doesn’t matter how often you say it or where you position yourself in the room, students still address all their comments to you. You are the person in charge. Do you tend to be the person who answers the most questions?

Try this: assign yourself the role of the recorder. As students make comments, type them on your computer or write them on the board. Take a look now and then at the student speaking, but mostly keep your eyes on the comments you’re recording. If you use the board, that permits you to keep your back to students and it’s pretty awkward talking to somebody’s back.

If class size permits, seat students so that they face or at least can easily see each other. Sit with them and let them speak without being called on. You can step in and facilitate when too many students are talking at once, when someone needs help getting into the conversation, and to gently offer a reminder when it’s needed: “You’re responding to Reid’s comment, speak to him.”

What are some strategies you use to get students to listen and respond to one another? Please share in the comment box.

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  • guest

    Just a thought – I have found that students as well as people in general do not respond well to the "why" questions. It tends to put them on the defensive. so instead of the "why" question , Some other ways I phrase the "why" question are; "Can you explain your reasoning? Please help me understand your thinking? This way they are giving you the same information but not with the "why". Also as a nurse educator who teaches therapeutic communication skills this is vaildated by the literature about "why" questions.

  • guest

    Sometimes shy students will be very reluctant to contribute to discussions. In this case, it may be beneficial for the teacher to join the group or simply to stand near a shy student so that he or she will feel more comfortable in speaking out. Sometimes it is easier to address the teacher than the whole class.

    • Cynthia C. Johnson

      But sometimes this has the opposite effect – standing near a shy student makes them more tongue-tied!!! I have noticed that this happens even in an online class. If the facilitator enters the discussion often it can backfire and result in the students feeling intimidated. Perhaps it is better for both situations that the teacher/ facilitator stand back a little and allow the students to manipulate their own discussions. That is after the guidelines for the discussion have been explained.

  • Anne-Marie

    I am becoming more aware of how many students need time to process information. We often call on the high responders and these " reflective thinkers " don't have any air time. A strategy I have used is: pose a question on a slide before break and let the students know we will be discussing this after break. Let them know what exactly you want them to share.
    For example, "is critical thinking important for healthcare workers?"
    Think about: why or why not, what would the outcome be if they didn't thnk critically etc.
    Now we are ready for some discussion.
    I love the idea of taking the notetaking role during discourse, I am going to use that!

    • I love your idea of posting discussion questions ahead of time to give students time to think about them and develop somewhat of a response. If one was organized enough

    • Kathie

      The slide idea before a break is a great and easy-to-do suggestion. I am going to try this one!

  • Lake

    I agree that processing time is important. The main questions should be given along with time to discuss in small groups, so students feel like they have something more substantive to contribute.

    Another thing to try is assigning a student or pair of students to the role of discussion facilitator, and then standing off to the side of the room, contributing mainly to clarify. The standing off to the side is especially important. If the student "leader" is sharing field of vision with the instructor, the class will still default comments and questions to the higher authority figure.

    • Larua S

      letting other students facilitate is a good idea. However, facilitation is a skill that first needs to be learned – especially by students. It is generally not what students are accustomed to doing in the classroom.

  • Russ Hunt

    The most successful strategy I've ever used — and I've used variations for decades — is to begin with writing. It's called "inkshedding," and when you have an issue needing discussion you invite everyone to "freewrite" about it for five, ten, fifteen minutes. Then everyone reads what five or six other people wrote, looking for something worth attending to. Then you invite people who've found something to share it. There are lots of ways of using inkshedding, but this is the most immediately functional in getting people to attend to what others in the class have to say. For more on inkshedding, just Google the term.

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  • Cynthia C. Johnson

    A thought about the teacher/facilitator assuming the role of recorder. Yes, writing the comments on the board with your back to the class is not a good idea. Who knows what can transpire among the students while your back is turned!!! But writing their comments on your computer or anyplace else can bring up cultural issues. For example where I teach. Writing student comments can be intimidating – the student views this almost as something for which they could be indicted!!! So this might not be such a good idea here. But I love the other suggestions, which can be used for both FTF and online discussions. I like the ideas for responding to others' comments – especially for online discussions – since many online students do not appear to see the beauty of the forum discussions in enhancing learning among the widely separated persons.

  • Archana Shrivastava

    Addressing a disinterested student by his first name during your classroom session makes the student responsive as he feel s involved and being catered to. Often reprimand for being inattentive does not work and disturbs the flow of delivery. Making each student feel the class delivery is for each of them rather than for a crowd makes them more attentive and participative. What worked for me is getting a student to summarize what his peer just discussed.

  • rusiana

    what I see working in my class that is preparing the questions to lead a successful discussion might be helpful. Starting from the very simple questions to the most difficult ones. The simple ones may help students who are rarely engaged in the discussion, and the difficult ones can be used to stimulate the rests to elaborate and extend the material of discussion. By doing that, each student will achieve success and feel secure in expressing their opinion based on to what extent they have understood what is being discussed. In addition, getting the students discuss in groups also work well. Then each group may come up with more than one ideas. Through this way, shy students might be encouraged to express ideas freely in group. They may cope with their nervousness through group discussion. have a nice try.

  • Laura S

    Small group discussion is one most obvious way to get students talking to each other rather than to the teacher. However, I got the sense that this article was trying to focus on strategies for whole class discussion that would still have students responding to each other. Another idea for the whole class discussion would be that the teacher does not respond or say anything until three students have spoken. Students are informed of this “rule” prior to discussion. It might be a standing rule throughout the semester, introduced in the first class session. That way it becomes the expected “norm” for the class. If students want to hear what the teacher has to say, someone is bound to speak up after the first and second students speak.

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  • KKS

    I wonder how one can draw out reluctant, introvert students into a discussion in a class of 80 students! Any tried and tested ideas???

  • Arthur Smith

    A good technique to encourage student participation is for the teacher to sit down and therefore be at the same physical level as the students. This nonverbal signal will be felt by all. If the class begins to lose focus, just stand up and summarize the main points to establish the proper focus once again.

    Some have suggested breaking a class into small groups to promote discussion.Good idea. But the teacher will need to be attentive as students often get off the subject and need a gentle reminder to get back on track.

    Another caution with small groups: Strong personalities may dominate. The lecture method may be used, but by a student instead of the teacher. The teacher needs roam from one group to another "as a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage."

    In the final analysis, there are many good techniques, but the art of teaching is knowing when to use each one.

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