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The Kaneb Center recently hosted a workshop on facilitating discussion in the social sciences and humanities. The panel was led by four Notre Dame faculty members who utilize discussion in their classes, and provided reflections on and methods for leading effective discussions. Below are some of the highlights of the workshop:

Panelists:

JoAnn DellaNeva, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, Professor of French

Romana Huk, Associate Professor of English

Julianne C. Turner, Associate Professor of Psychology

Christina Wolbrecht, Associate Professor of Political Science

Recap:

IN THE SYLLABUS

  • Emphasize discussion’s importance. If you are planning to use discussion in your course, be sure to include language in your syllabus and talk with your students about how classroom discussions fit your learning goals. Discussion is a technique that requires joint responsibility for students’ learning, so it is important that everyone is prepared to participate.
  • Grade it. You can give students an incentive to participate in class by making participation a portion of their overall grade. Be clear about your expectations and what “counts” as participation, as well as how you will evaluate it. You may also want to give students a participation grade update midway through the semester so they can adjust accordingly.
  • Schedule it. Students will be more or less likely to participate in discussions depending on what else is going on in the course; for instance, if you want students to participate in a deep discussion of the course material, schedule the discussion for a day other than the due date of an important paper. You may also consider having a discussion on the students’ papers. Be sure to consider readings, assignments, vacation days, etc. when planning your class discussions.

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SEMESTER

  • Get everyone participating. The beginning of the semester is crucial for establishing students’ voices in the discussion. Students are even less likely to participate in later classes if they are not asked to participate early on. Look for ways to get students engaged on the first day by holding a mini discussion and calling on students or asking everyone to answer a broad question.
  • Create a respectful environment. In addition to making sure that everyone participates, make sure that each person’s voice is respected and heard. Give students opportunities to participate without having to provide a definitive “right” or “wrong” answer, and handle off-topic responses by trying to pull something useful out of the comment or redirect it to encourage other students to chime in.
  • Get to know your students. And have them get to know each other too! This will not only help build a respectful environment, but also generate a more free-flowing discussion. Use icebreakers or nametags to help you and the students learn names.

DISCUSSING DIFFICULT TOPICS

  • Lead into difficult topics. Once you have established a healthy discussion environment by discussing less-controversial topics early in the semester, it will be easier to discuss difficult topics later on.
  • Prepare and (if necessary) repair. Before discussing difficult topics, remind your students that you will discuss ideas that may challenge their points of view, but that you will work to maintain a respectful environment. If problems arise in the course of the discussion, talk to students individually and confidentially to restore a healthy balance.
  • Represent different opinions. Certain opinions may be less likely to be raised in class, so you as the discussion leader may have to represent different perspectives. Try to avoid putting the burden on students to represent the views of a particular social group, but rather look for ways to ensure different groups and ideas are represented in your discussions and course materials.

Thanks to our four panelists for their excellent advice! For additional resources on leading effective classroom discussions, check out:

The Art of Discussion-Based Teaching: Opening Up Conversation in the Classroom by John E. Henning

Discussion As a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill

Talk, Talk, Talk: Discussion-Based Classrooms by Ann Cook and Phyllis Tashlik

The Teacher’s Guide to Leading Student-Centered Discussions: Talking About Texts in the Classroom by Michael S. Hale and Elizabeth A. City

What’s the Point in Discussion? by Donald A. Bligh

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