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Almost nothing is more frightening for a new TA than the possibility of asking a roomful of students a carefully-crafted discussion question and getting back only a roomful of blank stares. But the Kaneb Center is here to help. We recently hosted our annual TA orientation, which closed, for TAs in the humanities and social sciences, with a panel on facilitating class discussion. Our panelists, Pamela Butler (Gender Studies), John Duffy (University Writing Program), Agustín Fuentes (Anthropology), and Dominique Vargas (English), shared some helpful advice for new TAs. Here are some of the main take-aways from the panel, along with additional research-based tips to help you get the most out of classroom discussion.

Have a Discussion About Discussion

Early in the semester, ask your students to think about why discussion-based learning is important for their course and its learning goals. When students understand the rationale behind class discussion and how it helps them learn, they are more likely to be invested in those discussions. You can also encourage student investment in class conversation by asking them to help develop guidelines for discussion. Students are more likely to abide by standards that they themselves had a hand in setting.

Ask Good Questions

This can be harder than it sounds. But the key is to create questions that are open-ended, on which students can take multiple positions. A yes-or-no question is unlikely to elicit much conversation. You might ask students to analyze a text or image, agree or disagree with a statement, offer examples of a phenomenon, explain a complex process, or synthesize difficult material. Use follow-up questions to help them nuance, extend, or modify their answers.

Provide Thinking Time

Many students find discussion intimidating because they have so little time to think about their comments before they make them. Giving students opportunities to gather their thoughts can help improve participation. If you ask a question which is met with silence from the room, try to count to ten before you follow up. Consider providing students with discussion questions in advance or having them free-write in class before launching the conversation. Try a think-pair-share activity, in which students think individually about a discussion prompt and share their thoughts with a partner before speaking up in front of the entire class. These strategies can not only help students feel more confident about their contributions but also lead to a richer and more productive discussion.

Build an Inclusive Classroom Community

Perhaps the most important thing an instructor can do to encourage quality discussion is to create a classroom environment in which every student feels welcome. One way to do this is to make sure that a variety of perspectives are represented in discussion: if you’re noticing an imbalance in the kind or frequency of student participation, take the steps to make sure that all students feel comfortable sharing their comments. Model active listening for students—that is, listen not to reply but to understand—and encourage your students to do the same. Remind them that point of class discussion is not to win a debate but to learn from one another. Keeping this goal at the forefront of the class can help to create an environment where students are free to change their minds or admit when they were wrong. Finally, build in opportunities for students to get to know one another. When students, and instructors, see each other as individuals, they more likely to engage with others’ ideas or perspectives in good faith. If you’re interested in thinking more about inclusive teaching practices, register to attend the Kaneb Center’s fall workshop on Inclusive Excellence in the Classroom.

Allow for Ambiguity

Class discussion is for elucidating complex issues and questions that don’t lend themselves to easy answers. It’s possible that your students will want to impose an easy answer on the discussion, and it is sometimes tempting to do so yourself. Resist this temptation. Good conversation about difficult topics, rather than leading to resolution, often leads instead to new and better kinds of irresolution. Don’t be afraid of open-endedness. Stress to your students that even if they haven’t completely solved the problem at hand, they can now ask more productive questions and think about the problem in more nuanced ways. Encourage their continued curiosity, and think about how you can return to the conversation in future classes.

And finally, don’t forget about online resources for class discussion. If you’re interested in thinking about how to leverage these tools in your own course, register to attend the Kaneb Center’s fall workshop Continuing the Conversation: Using Class-based Discussion Boards.

Additional Resources

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

Jay R. Howard, “How to Hold a Better Class Discussion

Jay R. Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online 

Kelly A. Roca, “Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review

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