October 22nd, 2014

The Relationship between Participation and Discussion


My interest in participation and discussion continues. How do we use them so that they more effectively promote engagement and learning? A couple of colleagues and I have been working on a paper that deals with how we define participation and discussion. (Side note: If you want to challenge your thinking about an aspect of teaching and learning, consider focused conversations with colleagues and the purposefulness of a writing project. I have said it before and will likely say it again: We have so much to learn from and with each other.) One of the new insights that has come to me out of this collaboration involves the relationship between participation and discussion. I used to think of them as being related, but I didn’t see them as interrelated.

I’m convinced the effectiveness of participation and discussion in classrooms and online would improve if we highlighted the connections between the two. Participation can prepare students for discussion. It can be more than a single, linear, question-answer exchange between a teacher and a student that occurs in the presence of others.

But in order for participation to prepare students for discussion, it needs to have certain characteristics. It starts with us asking better questions, more open-ended ones, more provocative and stimulating ones, and, of course, we ask those better questions when we prepared them beforehand. This doesn’t rule out spur-of-the-moment-questions and the answers that tell teachers what is and isn’t understood. Generally, though, those aren’t the kind of questions that engage students, promote thinking, or motivate the quest for answers. I also think we have to play more with those questions—hang them out there, repeat them, write them out, surround them with silence, and wait for more than the first hand.

Participation prepares students for discussion when we collect answers. Students (especially beginning ones) are attentive (sometimes anxious, even frustrated) when there’s the possibility of more than one answer to a question. Which one is correct? Which one will get me credit on the exam? The need to know sustains continued engagement, and while answer options are being explored, some may see that “right” answers are often more tentative than they are definitive.

Participation prepares students for discussion when teachers hold back. Not every student response must be answered with a teacher comment. Students should be encouraged to respond to each other, to make comments about each other’s comments, and to speak directly to each other. The teacher moves out of the way and contributes by holding students to the topic. “Here’s the comment Jayla made … I’d love to hear more responses to that.”

Participation prepares students for discussion when the elements of discussion are incorporated into what may have started with a teacher’s question and a single student’s answer. If that answer is good, contains fresh ideas, offers different perspectives, draws on relevant experiences, or relates to course content, the teacher can use that answer to facilitate a mini-discussion before going to the next question. “Let’s work with those ideas for a bit.”

I see more clearly now that participation and discussion are ends of a continuum. There is no clear designated point where an exchange is participation or discussion except at those outer edges. In between they can morph partly or fully in and out of each other. A teacher-student exchange can launch a short discussion with multiple contributors. If the exchanges between students are no longer moving in new or interesting directions, then the teacher asks another question or introduces a different topic in the more structured format of participation. Perhaps the goal across a course is movement toward discussion, more interaction between students with teachers commenting less and facilitating more.

I think discussions often fail because we (who excel at academic discourse and can happily talk on topics of interest for hours and days, if not careers) expect too much. We want students to discuss the reading and sustain that interaction for 30 minutes. Why don’t we start by preparing students for discussions in shorter bursts? Why aren’t we using participation to provide the practice and feedback they need to develop discussion skills? Doing so has the potential to improve classroom interaction.