student engagement June 7

Classroom Discussions: How to Apply the Right Amount of Structure

By:

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.


University students study in classroom with female lecturer April 1

Facilitation Skills: The Way to Better Student Discussions

By:

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.

This is a Faculty Focus Premium Article

To continue reading, you must be a Faculty Focus Premium Member.
Please log in or sign up for full access.

Log In

[theme-my-login login_template="login-form-paywall.php" show_title=0]

Join

Get full access to premium content and archives

Join Now

classroom discussion December 9, 2015

Influencing How Students Discuss Content

By:

When students are talking with each other about content, most of us worry, at least a little bit. We’ve all heard less-than-impressive exchanges. For example, four students are in a group discussing three open-ended questions about two challenging readings. It’s less than five minutes since they started, but they’re already on question three. Or, they’re working with clickers, supposedly exchanging ideas about a problem, but the group has already decided on one member’s solution. She just happens to be a student who regularly answers in class and is almost always right.


calling on a student September 30, 2015

Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussions

By:

I once heard class discussions described as “transient instructional events.” They pass through the class, the course, and the educational experiences of students with few lingering effects. Ideas are batted around, often with forced participation; students don’t take notes; and then the discussion ends—it runs out of steam or the class runs out of time. If asked a few days later about the exchange, most students would be hard-pressed to remember anything beyond what they themselves might have said, if that. So this post offers some simple suggestions for increasing the impact of the discussions that occur in our courses.


professor with students June 5, 2015

Teacher Questions: An Alternative?

By:

Kant declared false the commonplace saying “That may be true in theory, but it won’t work in practice.” He acknowledged that there might be difficulties in application, but he said that if a proposition is true in theory, it must work in practice. What about the proposition “If teachers don’t ask questions, students will ask more and better ones”? A preponderance of practical and empirical evidence shows that teacher questions suppress student questions (see the Dillon reference). Thus we have every reason to believe that if you want students to develop, ask, and attempt to answer their own questions, we have to quit asking the kinds of questions teachers typically ask.


October 22, 2014

The Relationship between Participation and Discussion

By:

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.


hands raised in class May 28, 2014

The Art of Asking Questions

By:

At one time or another, most of us have been disappointed by the caliber of the questions students ask in class, online, or in the office. Many of them are such mundane questions: “Will material from the book be on the exam?” “How long should the paper be?” “Can we use Google to find references?” “Would you repeat what you just said? I didn’t get it all down in my notes.” Rarely do they ask thoughtful questions that probe the content and stir the interest of the teacher and other students.



April 23, 2014

Class Discussion Challenge: Getting Students to Listen and Respond to Each Other’s Comments

By:

Issue 1: The classroom discussion is going pretty well. Students are offering some good comments and more than one hand is in the air. Then a student makes a really excellent observation that opens up a whole avenue of relevant possibilities. You follow-up by calling on a student whose hand has been in the air for some time. Her comment is fine, but it’s totally unrelated to the previous comment. How do you get students to respond to each other’s comments? How do you get student comments to build on a key topic so that it becomes more like a real discussion?


April 21, 2014

The Sound of Silence: The Value of Quiet Contemplation in the Classroom

By:

As a college student, I was rarely the first to raise my hand or respond to a question posed during class. I was shy by nature and always felt like I had little to offer. There were times, however, that I would interject simply to break the long silence after the instructor asked a question. In those cases, the silence was either too uncomfortable to bear or I figured that my response would be no worse than anyone else’s. There was also the threat of a pop quiz or some other academic challenge looming for the unresponsive class, which included students who obviously either did not know the content or had not read the assignment. I believe this is an experience all college students have faced at one time or another.