University students study in classroom with female lecturer April 1

Facilitation Skills: The Way to Better Student Discussions

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Most faculty aspire to engage and involve students in interesting and insightful discussions. But these in-class and online exchanges frequently disappoint faculty. Students come to them unprepared. They engage reluctantly. Their individual and unrelated comments take the discussion in different directions. There can be awkward silences that force faculty to rephrase questions or make statements in an effort to restart the discussion. Unprepared students tend to deal with discussion topics superficially, and they don’t delve deeply into the issues. Teachers soon feel compelled to add content depth and detail, and the more teachers talk, the less students contribute. Unfortunately, in many cases, discussions morph into lectures and students seem just fine with that.

Are faculty aspirations for discussion unjustified? Are they unrealistic, given today’s college students? No. Discussion remains a powerful instructional tool. It affords students the opportunity to learn from and with each other. Students phrase ideas in ways that help other students understand. One student’s question often asks something many students would like to know. Different perspectives are shared, and students come to realize that not everyone understands or experiences things in the same way. Discussions can be stimulating, provocative even. They can cultivate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Students learn to craft arguments and to refute them. Discussions can model civil discourse. For all these reasons and more, good discussions promote significant learning experiences.

At the crossroads between what discussion can be, and often is, stands the teacher whose challenge is easy to understand yet complicated to execute: lead and guide the exchange, but without controlling and directing it. What makes discussions engaging is the free flow of ideas, but these ideas stop flowing freely when teacher talk dominates. As teachers, there are several factors that make it easy for us to assume a commanding position in discussions. We have content expertise. We are in charge of the course and who gets to talk. We wield grading power. It’s not surprising that students direct their comments to the teacher during discussion and not to each other.

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students in a circle October 27, 2015

Using Personal Stories to Engage Students in Conversation

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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.


October 22, 2014

The Relationship between Participation and Discussion

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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.


September 19, 2014

Does Discussion Make a Difference?

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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?



March 4, 2014

Discussion Made a Difference in Student Learning

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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.



February 13, 2013

Student Comments: Moving from Participation to Contribution

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A colleague and I have been revisiting a wide range of issues associated with classroom interaction. I am finding new articles, confronting aspects of interaction that I still don’t understand very well, having my thinking on other topics challenged, and learning once more how invaluable and personally satisfying a pedagogical exchange with a colleague can be. My colleague recommended an article I had forgotten. The article is old but the point it makes is just as relevant today, if not more, than when it was made in 1987.