September 30th, 2015

Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussions


calling on a student

I once heard class discussions described as “transient instructional events.” They pass through the class, the course, and the educational experiences of students with few lingering effects. Ideas are batted around, often with forced participation; students don’t take notes; and then the discussion ends—it runs out of steam or the class runs out of time. If asked a few days later about the exchange, most students would be hard-pressed to remember anything beyond what they themselves might have said, if that. So this post offers some simple suggestions for increasing the impact of the discussions that occur in our courses.

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1. Be more focused and for less time – It’s easy to forget that students are newcomers to academic discourse. Academics can go on about a topic of interest for days; hours, if it’s a department meeting. Students aren’t used to exchanges that include points, counterpoints, and connections to previous points with references to research, related resources, and previous experience. Early on, students do better with short discussions—focused and specific. Think 10 minutes, maybe 15.

2. Use better hooks to launch the discussion – Usually discussion starts with a question. That works if it’s a powerful question—one immediately recognized as a “good question.” Prompts of that caliber require thoughtful preparation; they don’t usually pop into our minds the moment we need them. But questions aren’t the only option. A pithy quotation, a short scenario that requires content application, a hypothetical case or situation, a synopsis of a relevant current event—all of these can jump-start a discussion.

3. Pause – Stop the discussion and ask students to think about what’s been said so far, or ask them to write down what struck them as a key idea, a new insight, a question still unanswered, or maybe where they think the discussion should go next. Think short pauses, 30 seconds, maybe a minute.

4. Have note takers – Ask whether there are two or three students who’d be willing to take notes during the discussion. Then post their notes on the course website or otherwise distribute them. This should count as class participation! It gives introverts a way to contribute comfortably. You might encourage some extrovert who has tendency to over-participate to make your day by volunteering to quietly take copious notes, which he or she could use to summarize the discussion when it ends.

5. Talk less or not at all – Too many classroom discussions are still dominated by teacher talk. You will talk less if you assign yourself a recorder role. You’ll key in on the essence of comments, record the examples, and list the questions. You’ll be listening closely and will probably hear more than you usually do because you aren’t thinking about what to say next. Or you can function as the discussion facilitator. Recognize those who are volunteering. Encourage others to speak. Point out good comments that merit response. Ask what questions the conversation is raising. Challenge those with different views to share them. Do everything you can to make it a good student discussion.

6. End with something definitive – Return to the hook that launched the discussion. Ask some students to write a one-sentence summary of the discussion. Ask other students to list the questions the discussion has answered. And ask a third group to identify unanswered questions that emerged during the discussion. Finally, use what students have written to help them bring closure to the discussion.

7. Use the discussion – Keep referring to it! “Remember that discussion we had about X? What did we conclude?” Refer to individual comments made during the discussion. “Paula had an interesting insight about Y. Who remembers what she said? Does it relate to this topic?” And if you really want students to listen up and take discussions seriously, use a comment made in the discussion as the frame for a short essay question on the next exam or quiz.

8. Invite students to suggest discussion topics – If the suggestion is good, reward the student with a few bonus points and ask him or her to launch the discussion by explaining why it’s a topic that merits discussion.

9. Discuss discussions – Briefly is fine. “Why do teachers use them? What keeps everyone listening? How do they help us learn?” Or do a debriefing of a discussion that just occurred. “So, the discussion we just had, say we’d like to improve it. What would you recommend?”

I welcome your suggestions for making the most of discussions. Please share in the comment box.

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  • jill

    There are some really good ideas here; in particular, I'd never thought of having a note taker — great idea!

    You could have students tweet their favourite points of the discussion, using a particular hashtag; then, students could read what resonated with others. The teacher would also have access to things that students felt were important and access to whether or not they understood the point of the discussion.

    • Melissa Hudler

      Jill, I really like your twitter suggestion. It seems like a great way to keep the class discussion going outside of the classroom and is an efficient way to check understanding.

  • Melissa Hudler

    I really like the note-taker idea, especially for the way it benefits introverts and could help to rein in the discussion dominator. One strategy I use to ensure student-centered/student-led discussion is to put students in groups and give each group a passage from the literature. They "make sense" of the passage with regard to the context of the passage, the immediate relevance of it, and the broader relevance of it. Then each group presents its findings. I and/or other students fill in the gaps when necessary, and I encourage students from the other groups to ask the presenting group questions. I love hearing the buzz of literary discussion throughout the room!

  • B. Emmons

    The physical environment is critically important. It sets the stage for openess, engagment, and participation.I reommed that you put them in a circle (a circle of chairs-no tables) Ground rules, made in advance and posted are also helpful. For example, "No blame, everyone contributes, one person speaks at a time, start and end on time, focus on the task " and other student generated ground rules. It is very helpful to define participation (what does one say an do), enagment, and contribution (e.g., caused a higher level of thinking, facilitated others). The last helpful mechanism is evalaution: students create a evaluation or the faciliatror creates one. Great benefits occur from students rating each other, e.g., the degree of engagment, and participation

  • Have each student post a critical analysis or reflection online after the discussion. Also have them respond to at least one other students reflection. Assign grades for college level writing and critical analysis. This allows for thoughtful reflection, makes students pay more attention during the discussion, and enables introverts to have their full say after the fact.

  • J Kaur

    Some great tips! Thanks for sharing!

    The topic of discussion is key. You must make sure that the topic lends itself well to discussion, that there are various aspects/angles/pros and cons to it.
    I, too support asking students for suggestions of topics for discussion. This should get them to do some research resulting in deeper learning.

    Since we recognize that students are not used to prompt academic discourse, face-to-face discussion topics could be given in advance. This will give some students the much needed prep time to research, reflect etc. and most likely result in deeper learning.

  • Tricia Alexander

    I try to get every student in the class to participate by first asking them to discuss the question with their nearest classmate(s). After that, I ask for a couple of students to summarize what they discussed with others.

    • Perry Shaw

      This is a significant observation Tricia. Too often we rush classroom discussion, and in the end only the self-confident and outspoken students participate. By having them talk in twos and threes first there is a greater potential for quieter students to participate.

  • LynnV

    This is all very helpful in preparing students for entering a new job requiring training almost immediately. I found as a new hire trainer the relatively younger students often passive and a challenge to encourage analytical thinking. This article highlights several productive tips that would've helped me (and them) later on entering the workforce.

  • I gave my students a journal at the start of each program.

    I found that I often started by using a writing challenge. This forced the student to think more specifically at the question. From there each student was ore committed to the discussion.

    Sometimes I would have the discussion first then a short writing assignment and come back for a follow up the next day.

    I am no retired but I still write a writing challenge each Thursday based upon a historical event twisted to reflect an issue of today. see.

  • Perry Shaw

    Some other ideas on classroom discussion:
    •Ensure the voices of quiet students can be heard. Quality facilitators develop means by which the voices are heard of both the confident and articulate class members, and the more silent members. In general, men are more likely to contribute than women, and white Westerners are more likely to contribute than Africans or Asians. One effective way to give voice to more silent students is to change the classroom geography from auditorium style to workshop format in groups of three to five students, with the more vocal members placed together in the same group, and more silent members together in other groups. Rather than giving an open forum to speak (in which case the more vocal students will dominate), each group is allowed to offer only one or two key responses. Such an approach also helps learners to develop and focus their ideas more clearly.
    •People process information differently. Some develop their ideas by talking, while others need to organize their ideas before speaking. Consequently, it is sometimes valuable to allow a brief period of silence before entering into class discussion, to provide opportunity for the latter group to prepare their initial ideas. One of the greatest errors committed by instructors is to respond to silence by answering their own questions. Students rapidly come to expect this, and what began as a thoughtful silence will end in student non-participation. If there is an extended silence it is possible that your question is not understood. Student engagement is more likely to be promoted through rephrasing the question or even asking a student to explain what he or she understands you to be asking.
    •Playing “Devil’s advocate”. It is possible to develop critical skills in students by playing “devil’s advocate”, presenting opposing points of view and challenging the students to give reasons for their views, or by asking other students for a counter-example: “Who can think of a different point of view/an argument against that?”

  • We're making Spiral Discuss, along with the Institute of Education in London, with these points in mind. Message me if you want to learn more.

    • Luana Nan

      I would love to hear more about this.

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  • Martin

    I know this discussion is a bit old but, I'm pretty sure you all have just made me a better student. I relly enjoyed everyone's points and feedback. This is going to be fun!

    Martin Williams

  • plthomasedd

    Student Choice, Engagement Keys to Higher Quality Writing

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