April 10th, 2013

Facilitating Effective Classroom Discussion, the Devil is in the Details


I have been known to berate the quality of classroom discussions—student-teacher exchanges that occur in the presence of mostly uninvolved others. Perhaps instead of berating I ought to be trying to help faculty improve how they lead discussions, and that has gotten me thinking about all the details discussion leaders must keep track of and make decisions about — all on the fly. Leading discussions effectively is not an easy task for any of us. Even those who make it look easy have actually worked very hard to hone this important skill.

Consider what needs to be decided after each student comment:

  • Is the point being made clear and coherent? If not, what follow-up question needs to be asked?
  • Is the answer or comment relevant? Does it answer the question? Is it on the topic currently under discussion? What needs to be done, if it’s not?
  • Should you respond? Invite someone else to respond? Not respond and solicit more comments? If you respond, what and how much should you say?
  • Can the student’s comment be linked to what another student said, to something you’ve said, to something in the text? Who should make that link?
  • Would a follow-up question deepen the answer, sharpen its focus, encourage others to comment? If so, what is that question?

As the discussion unfolds, here’s some of what needs to be monitored and kept in mind:

  • Who’s speaking and how often?
  • Who gets called on when there are a lot of volunteers? What about when there aren’t any volunteers?
  • What’s the level of attentiveness within the class collectively and individually? Who’s clearly not paying attention? What are they doing and does that need to be addressed?
  • Is the discussion losing steam? If so, how might it be re-energized?
  • Is the exchange becoming heated? Are emotions running too high? Does the atmosphere feel tense and threatening? If so, what should be done about it?
  • Is it time for a summary? Do the main points need to be sorted out of the morass?
  • Where did the discussion start, where is it now and where does it still need to go?
  • Has there been enough discussion of this particular point or on this topic in general?

That’s a lot to keep track of at the same time you’re processing content. You might need to summon information to answer a question, come up with an example, or point out other relevant material. When we facilitate discussion, most of the focus is on the content. All of these discussion details are at the periphery of our awareness.

How then do we develop our discussion leadership skills? Let me suggest three ways, each involving one thing: awareness. First, we need to be aware of what discussion involves. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever made a list like the one above —and that’s just a portion of what facilitators must consider to keep the discussion flowing. Next, we need to observe how we facilitate a discussion (or several of them). The idea is to stand alongside and observe, to pay attention to things like the details listed above. Yes, the content still needs our attention, but at the same time we need to become aware of how we “do” discussion. Finally, we need to reflect on discussion after the fact. We need to recall the details and use them to develop an accurate account of what happened during a particular discussion that then becomes part of our larger understanding of how we lead and guide discussion.

Building discussion skills begins with awareness—awareness of what’s involved, awareness of our skills, and awareness of what actually happens during discussion. The individual strategies used in discussion aren’t all that difficult. There are lots of things you can do when a student makes a point that isn’t relevant. There are many ways to respond when a comment isn’t very good. If you consider the options, become aware of how you usually respond, then you can try something different the next time. What’s complicated as the dickens is how many individual responses are needed to ensure a productive discussion and how all of those things must be selected and delivered without the benefit of time to carefully think about any of them.

  • Joe Incandela

    This was an extremely helpful article. Thank you! Can I follow up on the "lots of things you can do when a student makes a point that isn't relevant." Can you provide suggestions about this or point me to an article?

  • Pete Watkins

    For all teachers who use discussion, I would recommend Discussion as a Way of Teaching by noted educator Stephen Brookfield. It includes numerous 'structured discussion techniques' . For example, in Circle of Voices, the professor teacher gives a prompt or question and every student must speak once before any student speaks twice. In Snowball, groups discuss in pairs, then fours, then eights etc. In Quotes to Affirm or Challenge, students must bring to class one quote from the assigned reading to affirm or challenge. This helps to ensure they did the reading and that they are prepared for the discussion

    These techniques are very useful for avoiding the problems of uneven participation and disengagement that can occur in a typcial large group discussion.

    • tinaem

      Found a Power Point on it, excellent, thank you!

  • Laura S

    I would love to have more discussion in my classes and more involvement from more students when we do have class discussion. Small group discussion does tend to be more active. I have found that groups of three are ideal to get everyone involved in the small group discussion. But, when it comes to whole class discussion, one strategy that worked for me in the past was to start each class with two or three designated "dicussion starters" – these were randomly selected students whose names I wrote on the board. They were given "first dibs" and the chance (required) to respond first before others could respond. I found that normally quiet students often had some keen insights to share and seeing their name on the board made them more comfortable speaking up. As the semester goes on, you can also focus on making sure the quiet students get their name on the board for "first dibs" more often than those who do commonly volunteer and speak up often. This system of "first dibs" being assigned tends to quiet the "over participaters" – they learn to wait their turn so that others can be heard.

  • Laura S

    I can see using these suggestions as guidelines for STUDENT discussion leaders (asigned to lead small group discussions, rotaing discussion leader from one class session to another)

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  • Lori N.

    These are great suggestions. I am looking for an online video that shows a good example of how to lead a small group discussion that I can use for a faculty development program.

  • I'd like to add what I think is one very important key to effective class discussions–whether they take place in the lecture hall or in a small group–respect.
    I say this, although it's a fairly obvious point, because when I first read your post, I had to think a bit on whether I had worked hard to "hone" my discussion facilitation skills, as you suggest all effective discussion facilitators do. After spending a moment reflecting on it, I realized that I had worked to hone this particular skill set, though not necessarily in the classroom. Instead, I learned how to facilitate discussion in my many years working as a waitress during and before my undergraduate education.
    When I first started serving, I was terrible at it. I only got good at it, and started to receive better tips as a result, when I became more respectful of people, and of myself. This is key: I got better at facilitating table-side communication when I treated customers as individual human beings, and not as clients I must unerringly be nice to. This required that I also had to respect myself: I had to be assertive about limits on my time, attention, and how people addressed me, all without turning so-called "demanding" customers into opponents.
    All of this is to say that I think the primary thing most discussion facilitators need to work on being aware of is respect for learners as individuals, and for themselves, too.
    Thanks for another great post!

  • Jennifer

    Thanks for the Stephen Brookfield reference, Pete! I use discussions all the time in my advanced ESL classes and his article/PPT have provided me with a few more ways to use discussions in the classroom.

    Being an ESL teacher, I also think that Lisa's comment about respect is one of the most important aspects of a discussion, especially in ESL classes as they are multicultural environments where students (and teachers) share different ideas about what is/is not respectful. Setting clear ground rules and expectations for discussions is key to managing this type of activity in an ESL class. As well, explicitly teaching hedging and polite language, which is often used in discussions and is actually quite culturally-based and difficult for even advanced ESL students to master, will help ESL students contribute their ideas in a respectful manner. From my experience, students don't usually intend to show a lack of respect during a discussion, rather they lack the knowledge or mastery of hedging and/or polite language to avoid coming across as disrespectful.

    • Cindy

      I have just completed a text by Stephen Brookfield, which is the chosen text in a graduate class I am taking. By far it has been the most useful book I have ever come across. Not only does this book explain theory, but than it backs up that theory with definitions and activities so that you don't have to haphazardly define and guess on an activities for yourself. To my dismay I have sat many a theory/methods books aside simply because they did not really tie theory to method, they only told you how to do that task for yourself with very little help. It lifts me up know that others share my excitement over this writer!!! Adult Educator/ESL Instructor