class discussion August 9

How Good Are Your Discussion Facilitation Skills?

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Successfully leading and guiding student discussions requires a range of fairly sophisticated communication skills. At the same time teachers are monitoring what’s being said about the content, they must keep track of the discussion itself. Is it on topic? How many students want to speak? Who’s already spoken and wants to speak again? How many aren’t listening? Is it time to move to a different topic? What’s the thinking behind that student question? How might the discussion be wrapped up?


adult student talking in class June 7

Improvising Great Classroom Discussion

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I was watching a video of several of my students teaching this week. I had to be away for a conference, and they were scheduled to teach that day anyway, so I asked our Center for Teaching Excellence to record it. I would evaluate them later. Although most of the students in the class are planning to be English teachers, it’s not an education class. For that reason, I planned to pay closer attention to the content and preparation than to their actual pedagogy.

However, as I watched the video, I kept noticing places where discussion would be on the verge of beginning, only to see it die almost immediately. The students were prepared, and they were often asking the types of questions we want them to ask. Why did the discussion keep faltering? I had to start looking at their pedagogy.

What I discovered was that they didn’t know how to build on each other’s comments. A student would make a statement that could easily lead to a larger discussion, but no one responded, as if there was nothing else they could say about the comment. The student leading the discussion would then move on to some other topic. When I realized what was happening, I remembered the “Yes, and . . . ” idea from improvisational comedy.

The “Yes, and . . . ” idea has been rather popular of late, stemming from a rising interest in improvisational comedy; Don’t Think Twice, a movie about an improv group; and a variety of comedians and business leaders speaking and writing about the idea. For those not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .” idea, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. In improv, the actors are supposed to accept whatever premise another actor begins with; they say “yes” to the setup. And then they try to build on the situation or line of dialogue, the equivalent of saying “and . . . ”

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student engagement June 7

Classroom Discussions: How to Apply the Right Amount of Structure

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While preparing for a Teaching Professor Conference session on facilitating classroom discussions (much of which applies to online exchanges), I’ve been reminded yet again of the complexity involved in leading a discussion with students new to the content and unfamiliar with academic discourse.

One of the most vexing complexities involves finding the balance between structure and the lack of it—between controlling the content and opening it up for exploration. Without structure, discussions tend to wander off in different directions, and what should have been talked about isn’t discussed. A single comment can take the discussion off track, and once it’s headed in the wrong direction, it’s tough to get it back. Open-ended explorations are potentially productive, but too often the wandering doesn’t go anywhere and little learning results.


pile of question marks May 9

Questions to Ask When Students Won’t Participate

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Participation continues to be one of the most common methods faculty use to get students involved in their learning. It’s a go-to strategy for many, but various studies have shown that it’s not always used in ways that realize its full potential. We go to the well so often, we fall into patterns and do not observe or analyze what we are doing and why.

Meanwhile, getting students to talk in class, much less provide meaningful contributions, is like pulling teeth. Whether they’re shy, unprepared, or simply reluctant to share their ideas, getting students to talk in class is a constant struggle.

The point here is not to find out who’s to blame for the lack of discussion, but rather to encourage teachers to take inventory of what’s occurring in the classroom. Is there something else that might be done to encourage students to get involved?


Ideas and Strategies to Encourage Participation 


Have you given students something to talk about? Something to read? Questions to consider as they read? A reaction paper that captures their thoughts and gives them something concrete to contribute?

Discussion Prompt: “When you do the reading, I’d like you to note a passage that you disagree with. We’ll use those passages to start our discussion of the reading.” Alternatively, the selected passage might be something that relates to a personal experience or something we’ve talked about in class, or something you don’t understand, never thought about before, or would have a question about. This option works best when the prompt is singular and specific.


Have you talked about the role of participation in this course? Why do you want it? What it contributes to learning? How do you feel about wrong answers and mistakes?

Discussion Prompt: “I encourage participation in this course for five reasons: 1) it gives me feedback so that I know how you’re thinking about and understanding the content; 2) it gives you practice speaking like a biologist, political scientist, engineer, philosopher (whatever the field); 3) it gives your classmates the chance to learn from someone besides me; 4) it helps you develop an important communication skill; and 5) it gives us a chance to get to know each other. I don't expect you to perfect--you'll make mistakes and so will I. That's how we learn.”

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student raising hand in class March 27

How Do Students Learn from Participation in Class Discussion?

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Despite numerous arguments favoring active learning, especially class discussion, instructors sometimes worry that discussion is an inefficient or ineffective way for students to learn. What happens when students make non-value added, irrelevant, or inaccurate contributions? What about comments from non-experts that may obfuscate rather than clarify understanding? What about students who speak only to earn participation credit rather than contribute substantively to the discussion?


Group of University students in lecture hall March 9

Five Types of Student Questions and Sample Responses

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Students ask all different kinds of questions. Some are on the money—good, honest queries about content that they don’t understand or want to know more about. Other student questions are more difficult to handle. It’s good to have some strategies lined up for when these sorts of questions are raised.

Questions you can’t understand – Sometimes when the understanding is muddled, so is the question. It doesn’t make sense, even though what’s in the midst of the muddle may be a legitimate question.

  • Apologize: “I’m not sure I’m understanding the question. Please ask again. Maybe you can rephrase the question or talk to me a bit about what’s behind the question.” When the student tries again, listen intently.
  • Take a stab: “Let me see if I’ve got the question. Here’s what I think you’re asking.”
  • Enlist help: “I need help. Would someone else take a crack at asking the question?”

Questions that are irrelevant – These aren’t bad questions, they’re just not appropriate given the content under consideration or at this time in the course.

  • Recognize the question’s value but decline to answer it for now: “That’s a good question, but I’m not going to answer it now because the answer will make more sense when we’re talking about. . . .”
  • Say when you’ll answer it: “We’ll be taking about that [in a couple of sessions, later this on today, etc.] and I’d like to ask you to repeat the question then.”
  • Don’t forget: If you said you’d answer the question later, be sure to do it.
  • Say where the answer can be found: “Answering that question is going to take us away from what we’re discussing. If you’re interested in the answer, here’s where you can find it.”
  • Answer briefly, as in very briefly, and explain why. “That’s a good question. It’s not really relevant to what we’re discussing now. However, I’ll give you a one sentence answer.”

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questions marks February 6

Questions That Promote Student Engagement

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I don't know a single teacher who doesn't try to use questions to encourage student interaction. The problem is that most of us don't spend a whole of time thinking about the kinds of questions we're asking students, how or why we're doing it, and whether there might be some things that we could do that would encourage more student interaction.

Since this is a piece about questions, I'm hoping you'd expect me to pose some. Let’s start with this one: What kinds of questions are students asking in your classrooms or online? Are they provocative and stimulating queries driven by intellectual curiosity? Or are their questions more pedantic than provocative—how many words you want on a reaction paper, or how many of the homework problems they need to do, or whether there’ll be multiple-choice questions on the test?

Yes, those kinds questions are important to students, but they aren't the kind of questions that we'd like to have students asking us. We need to ask ourselves why students ask these not very inspired questions. Lately I’ve been wondering if it’s related to the kinds of questions we’re asking them. How often do we ask them provocative, stimulating questions?

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Student in lecture hall January 30

Navigating Ethical Waters in the College Classroom

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Should teachers strike?
How should government balance privacy rights with national security?
Should companies value their shareholders over the environment?
How quickly should a software company fix a known bug?

Regardless of discipline, faculty are faced with ethical issues in our classes around a variety of sensitive topics, and students will question the ethics of certain practices or topics in our field. As trained academics, we are not always comfortable having discussions where there is no clear right or wrong answer or talking about ethical areas in which we do not feel we are experts. So, how do you respond to students who really want to know “the answer” to these types of questions?


pedagogical research_active participation December 1, 2016

Strategies That Increase the Number of Students Who Participate in Class

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  • Increase your wait time.
  • Talk about how you think discussion is better when many students participate.
  • Get students to discuss what makes participation a valuable learning experience for them.
  • Don’t let some students participate too often.
  • Listen carefully when students speak and thank them for their contributions.

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Managing student complaints November 28, 2016

Three Tips for Navigating Contentious Classroom Discussions

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Good teaching often relies on productive classroom discussion. However, many of us have experienced dynamics in which our discussions take a perilous turn and a palpable tension settles over the class. The precipitating comment may have offered a provocative perspective on an issue—maybe it rather aggressively challenged something someone said, or perhaps it smacked of racism, sexism, or some other discriminatory innuendo. Generally, students respond to comments they perceive as contentious with an awkward, uncomfortable silence. Nobody says anything; body language registers a collective recoil. What can or should teachers do when situations like this occur? Constructive disagreement, argument, and debate can play instrumental roles in learning, but not unless the exchange moves forward constructively. I’d like to offer three suggestions that can help teachers safely navigate through the potentially destructive terrains of contentious comments.

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