What is discussion?

An effective discussion moves towards one or two major points, but unlike the Lecture, this process is not controlled by one individual presentation. Rather, the teacher must walk a fine line between controlling the group and letting its members speak.

Why use discussion?

Discussion lets class members work actively with the ideas and the concepts being pursued, and discussion sessions can be an extremely effective in changing behaviour or attitudes. Consequently, teachers use them frequently in instructional situations where the goal is to:

  • develop problem-solving or critical thinking skills or
  • enable students to articulate a position or an informed opinion.

Common issues using discussion

Most teachers are aware that getting students to talk, and keeping the discussion moving, can be problematic. Another common issue is long digressions or pointless arguments by dominant students or the whole group, which can throw a discussion off track.

How do I achieve effective discussion?

1) Encourage students to contribute

You can direct a discussion by asking Questions before and during the session. The questions should offer a genuine starting point for debate.

At the beginning of a discussion session, ask students open-ended or multiple-answer questions such as, "What did you think about a particular chapter (or article)?" These have several advantages:

  • They decrease the odds that students will be completely unable to answer the question.
  • They encourage multiple viewpoints.
  • It is less likely that the most vocal student in the class will answer and dispose of the question straight away.
  • If you record these multiple responses on the blackboard, you can use them to begin further topics for discussion; students often participate more freely in discussions when they feel their own concerns and ideas have contributed to the agenda. (See Brainstorming)

2) Direct the discussion

Effective discussion leaders know their students' skills and perspectives. They use this knowledge to decide whom to call on to start a discussion moving in the appropriate direction, and to maintain its momentum.

Send clear signals about the kind of contributions you want.

  • If you pose a question that asks for real debate, pause long enough for participants to think and respond; this is referred to as "wait time". Not waiting long enough after posing a question is one of the most frequent errors by beginning teachers.
  • If silence follows after the first person presents an opinion, ask follow-up questions, such as, "How do the rest of you feel about it?"
  • Alternatively, pursue the topic with the first student by asking them to clarify or elaborate, or analyse further (for example, "What reasons do you have for thinking this?" and "How might someone state the opposite perspective on this point?").

Emphasise that students should listen to each other and not just to you. Model this behaviour by:

  • building on a student's point
  • withholding judgment until several responses are put forward, or
  • listing the multiple responses on the board and asking the students to regroup them.

Simply negating a student's response and asking another student exactly the same question generally does not help to maintain active participation by all students. How you handle students" responses is important; just calling on them can have a stifling effect, especially for quieter members of the group.

If a student asks a complex question, or some members of the class don't hear the question, restate it for the whole class.

3) Control the discussion

A vocal student who dominates a group is a common problem in discussions. Another problem can occur when the entire class hijacks the discussion and moves it on to another issue.

If you encounter these problems, it may be that the students do not have enough information to engage in the intended discussion. Another possibility is that the topic at hand might be too controversial for them to deal with it objectively.

Sometimes, finding out what students are thinking and how they respond to a given question is more important than momentary control. Listen for a while until you see the students' agenda clearly; try to summarise the key points they have made, then, if appropriate, ask the group to connect their points to those you originally made.

4) Aligning discussion with the curriculum

To be truly effective, each discussion session must work within the course as a whole. Never operate without some kind of a curriculum-related plan. Sometimes, your students will comment or raise questions in class that will make you adjust the discussion's objectives, but without a plan to begin with, it is difficult to make these adjustments responsibly.

One way to ensure the alignment of discussion with learning objectives is to assign specific tasks before each class, such as setting study questions to provide a common ground for the discussion and focus the students on the goals of the course.

Points to consider

  • If my students left this discussion with one or two key ideas or insights, what would they be?
  • Who are my students?
    • What can I assume with absolute certainty that they know?
    • What evidence do I have for these assumptions?
    • What misconceptions are they likely to have about the topic?
    • What misconceptions are they likely to have about what is expected of them in the class?
  • How important is it that we achieve consensus?
  • On which points will I be most tolerant of divergent viewpoints?
  • With which kind of group process am I most comfortable?
    • Do I want to control the whole agenda, or might the students set part of it?
    • Do I plan to call on my students? If not, do I have an alternative plan for encouraging participation from the whole group?
    • How will I handle digressions?
  • What kinds of digressions are likely? How might I make them work for the goals of this session?
  • How does this class session fit in with the last class discussion? With subsequent ones? With the course as a whole?
  • Are there parts of this class that would be better served by the lecture format?

See also on this site

To help you decide whether to use a blog, a wiki or a discussion forum, visit the page Blog, wiki or forum—which should you use?

Resource (external source)