It’s another of those phrases frequently used and almost universally endorsed but not much talked about in terms of implementation. What does facilitating discussion mean? How should a teacher do it? Two faculty researchers, Finn and Schrodt (2016), frame the problem this way: “The literature is replete with descriptive accounts and anecdotal evidence but lacks the kinds of empirical investigations that could create theoretical coherency in this body of work” (p. 446). They decided our understanding of discussion facilitation could be deepened with an operational definition, one that resides in an instrument to measure it quantitatively.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
Engagement. . .it’s another one of those words that’s regularly bandied about in higher education. We talk about it like we know what it means and we do, sort of. It’s just that when a word or idea is so widely used, thinking about it often stops and that’s what I think has happened with engagement.
Engaging students in class conversation is not always an easy task. Even though we may make class participation part of their final grade, stress its importance in the syllabus, and give subtle (and not so subtle) reminders of this throughout the semester, there are always days when students simply do not want to participate in the class discussions.
Here’s the scenario: Students are taking a chemical thermodynamics course. The instructor solicits clicker responses to a conceptually based multiple-choice question. Students answer individually, write a brief explanation in support of their answer, and indicate how confident they are that their answer is correct. They are then encouraged to discuss their answers with two or three (self-selected) other students. After that discussion, they have the opportunity to change their answer if they wish, write another explanation for the answer, and once again indicate their degree of confidence in their answer. Do you think that discussion would make a difference—particularly, would it make a difference in their understanding of the concept?
The joy of discussion as a class activity is starting it up and seeing where it goes. Although some of the same themes come up in every discussion, how they emerge and the connections they raise vary as much as the individual students do. On a great discussion day, the talk flows freely in interesting and unexpected directions, much like jazz.
The evidence that students benefit when they talk about course content keeps mounting. In the study highlighted below, students in two sections of an introductory zoology course were learning about the physiological mechanisms of RU-486 and about emergency contraception medication. They learned about the topic in three 50-minute lecture periods. Students in both sections were given supplementary reading that reinforced the content, and they were encouraged to ask questions and discuss the content during lab. In addition, students in the experimental bioethics section read and discussed essays that addressed the social, ethical, and legal issues associated with use of emergency contraception. Students in the experimental section then discussed these readings. They managed the discussion, asking questions and raising the issues they wanted to talk about. The instructor intervened only when there was confusion about the content or when prompting and follow-up were needed to advance the discussion.
Participation is one of those workhorse instructional strategies—easy to use, straightforward, expected, and often quite successful at accomplishing a number of learning goals. It’s good to remind ourselves of its many different uses, especially on those days when getting students to participate feels like pulling hens’ teeth.
We are used to discussing topics with our colleagues. They know the material, have already thought a lot about it, and can answer questions quickly. We want conversations in class to clip along at a similar pace—there’s always lots of material the class needs to get through.
Sometimes it’s good to revisit an instructional standby. Discussion is a staple in most teachers’ repertoire of strategies, but it frequently disappoints. So few students are willing to participate and they tend to be the same ones. The students who do contribute often do so tentatively, blandly, and pretty much without anything that sounds like interest or conviction. On some days it’s just easier to present the material.
Students find discussions disillusioning just about as often as faculty do. In the analysis referenced below, students objected when a few fellow classmates dominated the discussion; when the discussion wandered off topic, making it difficult to ascertain main points; and when students participated just for the sake of participating.