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When teachers open their classroom to discussion, all kinds of good things can happen: students may think about a topic on a deeper level, be exposed to a variety of perspectives, and even learn to respect those with whom they disagree.  Yet, discussions can also go badly, very badly.  Perhaps you may recall a time as a teacher or student when a discussion was derailed by one or two loudmouths, or when a discussion turned ugly, or when (from lack of participation) a planned discussion never got off the ground.  Today we look at strategies for reaping the potential benefits of class discussion.

First, there are many things that a teacher can do before the day of a discussion to help ensure the discussion will succeed:

  • At the beginning of the semester explain the role that discussions will play in the course as a whole (i.e. how they contribute to the course’s learning goals), and spell out your expectations for student participation in the syllabus:
    • What are the ground rules? (Will you call on students or should they just speak out? How often should students speak?)
    • What is the purpose of class discussions? (e.g., you might say something like, “A discussion is not a debate to be won but a conversation intended to open up new perspectives and to teach active listening.”)
    • Emphasize the importance of respectful disagreement and the humility to learn to understand another’s view point
  • During the preceding class remind students to prepare for the discussion:
    • Have students prepare questions for discussion in advance
    • Assign students positions to research and represent
    • Explain to the students how their homework will help them prepare for the coming discussion

Second, a teacher can help foster a stimulating discussion on the day of the discussion through a variety of tactics:

  • At the beginning of the class, before the discussion, begin with a writing prompt or other creative activity to whet students’ imagination.
    • This is also a moment when students could be asked to prepare questions
    • Begin with a sentence-completion exercise such as:
      • “The most interesting idea from the reading is____, because…”
      • “The most confusing idea from the reading is…”
      • “The idea I disagree with the most is…”
    • Students could first share their questions/answers with a partner and/or in a small group of 3 or 4 to give students practice at articulating their thoughts in a less threatening context
    • Consider leading a brainstorming session, in which all ideas are put on the board to be catalogued and evaluated later
  • Before launching into the discussion, remind students about the ground rules and the purpose of class discussions
    • Invite students to become “sociologists” who are excited to figure out why exactly people (their classmates) believe the things that they do
  • During the discussion, the teacher must play many different roles and keep the discussion going
    • As Davis (2009; adapted from Forsyth, 2003) writes: the teacher “will need to serve as a gatekeeper (‘Makayla, you’ve been quiet. Do you have something to add?’), a mirror (‘The group seems to be focusing on…’), an observer (‘Why do we drift into tangents whenever…comes up?’), a validator (‘Great point!’), a negotiator (‘Can we come to consensus on this?’), and a reality tester (‘Do you realize how our comments can be interpreted?’).”
    • Take notes: identify places of confusion or misunderstanding that should be addressed; write down main points that should be summarized at the end
    • Move the conversation deeper: ask “Why would someone hold to this idea?” “What is at stake in this disagreement?” “How are these two ideas related?”
  • After the discussion, wrap thing up and prepare for next time
    • Summarize the main points of the discussion for the class
    • Close with a writing prompt:
      • Ask students to summarize the discussion in 2-3 sentences
      • Or, ask the following: What idea discussed today has left the strongest impression on your mind? If you could say one more thing about today’s discussion, what would it be? What did you learn about a different perspective today?
    • Learn for next time by asking yourself: At what points did the discussion really take off? At what points did the discussion lag? How would you do things differently next time?


Bibliography and Further Reading:

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching, Second edition. San Francisco: Jossey­­‑Bass, 2009.

Forsyth, D. R. The Professor’s Guide to Teaching: Psychological Principles and Practices. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003.

“How to Lead a Discussion.” Stanford University Teaching Commonshttps://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/resources/teaching/small-groups-and-discussions/how-lead-discussion

“Discussions.”  Vanderbilt University, Center for Teachinghttps://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/discussions/

“Leading Scintillating, Stimulating, Substantive Class Discussions.” Colombia University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Teaching Centerhttp://www.columbia.edu/cu/tat/pdfs/discussions.pdf



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