September 25th, 2013

Structuring Discussions: Online and Face-to-Face


I found a nice set of online discussion activities that strike me as good in-class discussion activities as well. One of the reasons discussion so often fails or doesn’t realize much of its potential is the absence of structure. The discussion is too open-ended. It wanders around and is easily sidetracked. I’m not discounting the value of an occasional unstructured exchange, but when students are still learning what academic discourse entails, a structure can keep the discussion focused and on track.

The list of discussion activities are by Laurel Warren Trufant, in the article “Move Over Socrates: Online Discussion is Here.” I’ve added some comments and elaborations (in italics) after the author’s suggestions.

  • Assign a reading in which an expert disagrees with the conventional wisdom. Have students defend or disagree with the expert’s position. I wouldn’t underestimate the value of comparatively short readings, such as a paragraph or two that students can read quickly in class or online. With shorter readings, it’s easier to keep the discussion on topic.
  • Share contrasting quotations and have students respond—agreeing, disagreeing, or finding some place in the middle. The collection of student responses needs to be organized and summarized. Can the students identify the most common response? Can they pick out what they think is the strongest argument for or against a position?
  • Set up a scenario, assign individuals or groups a role and have them respond to the scenario from that position. Ask some students to listen and then respond to the whole discussion. Which group made the best case for its position? Based on the discussion, how do they think the situation in the scenario should be resolved?
  • Form three groups. Two of the groups debate and the third group mediates. Beginning students are often uncomfortable disagreeing with each other so you might want to begin with a controversial but low-stakes proposition. “Parking lots on campus should be open to everyone with a valid parking permit.” The mediators should work to find common ground and propose compromises.
  • Start the dialog with a case study and while it’s under discussion, add new details and revelations to which students must respond. The goal here is for students to react to changing, fluid situations. The learning will be enhanced if this activity concludes with a debrief where students must analyze and discuss group reactions to the changes. That analysis will likely be richer if developed in response to a series of teacher prompts.
  • Let students moderate discussions. If they are inexperienced, two of them might fill this role as partners. Clarify for students what moderators do, maybe with a handout or discussion of the role and then start them out moderating a short discussion. In the beginning provide formative feedback. Hold back on grading until they have some experience.
  • Use discussions to “bookend” weekly class meetings. Students do initial explorations of a topic in the first discussion and an analytical discussion at the end. You could also schedule these discussions at the beginning and ending of each content unit.
  • Use “buzz groups” where just a few students chat about a topic (in a private chat online or in person in class) and then have that group report to the rest of the class. Have the class critique each group’s conclusion. It can be deadly having lots of groups report out orally in class. Posting conclusions is probably more efficient and an easier way to get commentary on group contributions.
  • Assign portions of a topic to small groups, then post the aggregate solutions/conclusions for critique and discussion. Have students look at the assumptions made by the various groups and how those affect the solution. Start simply if students have no experience doing this—it’s not an easy task.
  • Invite a guest speaker to host a discussion, preferably someone who takes a controversial approach to the topic. The discourse must be a civil exchange. Both the guest and the students may need clarification and reminders.

If you’ve devised or use other structures that focus and direct discussion activities in your classes — whether face-to-face or online — please share your strategy below.