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March 19, 2015

Teaching@Pitt: Leading class discussions


Many instructors want discussions to be an integral component of their classes.  In addition to making class more engaging, discussions encourage students to prepare and develop their speaking and critical thinking skills. Discussions help students to articulate questions, consider diverse perspectives, examine personal assumptions and develop insights. Discussion also can give students and instructors feedback on the learning that is taking place.  Most importantly, when students have the opportunity to question, explain and think about course material, they are more likely to understand, retain and use what they learn. Finally, discussions can promote student self-confidence and motivation to learn.

Plan ahead

If you want discussions to be an important part of your classes, you need to plan ahead. In the syllabus, during the first class and throughout the semester, you should emphasize the rationale for discussion as an interactive, collaborative learning process.  If possible, arrange seats in a semicircle. Learn as many student names as you can.  Use informal surveys to find out what students already know — their knowledge, experience and skills regarding the subject — and use this information to plan discussion questions that will engage all students. Begin on the very first day of class by asking non-threatening questions on topics that would evoke a response in each student.

Emphasize discussion skills

As you explain the role that discussions will play in class, emphasize that discussion skills include not simply expressing one’s own views but also listening carefully to others’ ideas, asking questions and engaging others in discussion.

Remind students that the purpose of discussion as a learning activity is not just to state their opinion, but to examine their assumptions and the quality of their reasoning.

To make discussion techniques explicit, ask students to contribute ideas to a list of skills needed for discussion. Examples might include the ability to:

  • Admit uncertainties.
  • Remain open to new ideas.
  • Suspend judgment of others.
  • Listen carefully to others.
  • Tolerate opposing viewpoints.
  • Examine assumptions.
  • Encourage someone to elaborate.
  • Build on what another person has said.

Provide practice

Students need opportunities to practice and become proficient in their discussion skills. Large-group discussion can limit participation, so you might use a “think-pair-share” technique: Pose a question, then give students one minute to think about and jot down a response. Each student then pairs with another to discuss their responses. Finally, invite pairs to share their responses with the class as a whole.

Other activities that can prepare students for a whole-class discussion include brainstorming, deliberation in pairs or small groups, or a panel discussion.

Develop questions

When planning a sequence of discussion prompts, begin with questions that require a basic knowledge of the content and tap into students’ prior learning. Then build toward questions that require higher-level thinking skills such as analysis, comparison, synthesis and evaluation. If there isn’t much response, rephrase the questions or ask a different question at a lower level of learning to confirm that students have the knowledge to apply, analyze or evaluate information at higher levels of thinking.

Debates can be an effective way to draw students into actively participating. To promote debates, choose topics that are likely to provoke controversy, but avoid “hot-button” topics that tend to evoke strong passions. An instructor who tried out a debate in a previously unengaging class reported: “The debate certainly gets every student involved. There was a lot of energy in the classroom because of the debate. It is a great activity to generate classroom discussion.”

Managing discussions

This requires practice. Follow these guidelines to ensure an effective class discussion.

  • Ask questions:

— Ask one question at a time.

— Be brief, clear and focused.

— Ask why or how, not yes-or-no questions.

— Ask questions that do not have a single right answer.

— Wait silently; be patient.

— Listen; don’t interrupt.

— Use students’ names.

— Make sure everyone has heard: Repeat, paraphrase or clarify.

  • Respond to students:

— Vary your reactions and responses.

— Comment positively: “That’s an interesting idea; tell me more.”

— Refer back to students’ comments.

— Maintain focus with brief summaries.

— Follow up by asking for specifics, clarifications, examples, relationships to other issues, explanations.

— Encourage each student to participate.

— Make visible notes showing how all contributions fit.

  • Use nonverbal cues:

— Smile and nod enthusiastically as the student talks.

— Maintain eye contact with the student who is talking.

— Walk toward the person who is speaking.

— Walk around the room.

— Look relaxed. Sit on a desk or pull up a chair to join the class.

Carol DeArment is a senior instructional designer at CIDDE.