Discussions that Teach
Discussion is a flexible and effective method of interactive learning. As with other forms of interactive learning, discussion requires careful preparation and skill to achieve pedagogical goals. When done well, classroom discussion enhances student learning and helps students develop a range of intellectual and social skills.
Benefits of Discussion
Discussion is not a mere technique, but a pedagogy that ought to flow from certain instructor values—for instance, that classrooms are communities where everyone has a voice and that well-structured learning communities successfully refine knowledge (Abercrombie, 1979). Classroom discussions can draw attention to greater diversity of viewpoints and help students learn how to formulate and critique arguments—distinguish fact from opinion, distinguish assertion from evidence, judge the relationship between assertion and evidence, organize thoughts, etc. Although lectures can be as effective as discussion in helping students learn foundational knowledge, discussion is better at promoting thought among students and engendering interest in a subject (Bligh, 2000).
Getting Students to Participate
Students may be reluctant to engage in class discussion. This may be linked to introversion, shyness, or fear of being perceived as wrong, uninformed, or inarticulate; but students may also be reticent because they are inexperienced with participating in academic discussions, have language or cultural barriers, expect that college classrooms should be lecture-driven, or simply prefer to process information internally (Zakrajsek, 2017). Instructors should recognize that common American conversation practices—interrupting, contradicting, speaking over another—can be uncomfortable for students from other cultures.
Opinions differ on whether to require students to speak in class; instructors must balance accountability and authenticity (Hess, 2009). Either way, instructors should encourage a range of behaviors as participation beyond voluntary response to a question or prompt. Students can be assigned roles, such as devil’s advocate or reporter. Instructors can also task student with conversational moves, such as making a comment that summarizes what some else has said or finding a way to express appreciation for the what one has learned in the discussion (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005; see Conversational Roles and Conversational Moves for more ideas). Instructors can encourage more and higher-quality participation by asking open-ended and “authentic” questions—that is, questions for which there are many legitimate answers. Thoughtfully arranging the learning space also facilitates participation; for instance, students sitting in a circle are more likely to talk to each other, while student sitting in rows are more likely to talk to the teacher.
One challenge with classroom discussion is ensuring that all participants have opportunities to speak freely. Instructors can overtly or implicitly dominate discussion—by simply speaking more than others, by unduly restricting the boundaries of discussion, or by subtly indicating “right” and “wrong” responses. Outspoken students may also dominate discussion and shut down others’ participation. Because open discussion requires instructors to take a less directive role, it can be both “unpredictable and risky” as well as “enjoyable and exciting” (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005, p. 45; see Keeping Voices in Balance for more ideas).
The degree of regulation an instructor exercises in a discussion has many implications. Observational analysis suggests that high instructor regulation correlates to high content quality, more frequent student-teacher interaction, and higher percentage of students participating (often because of instructor assigning turns or actively inviting contributions from specific individuals). On the other hand, high student regulation correlates to more “genuine” discussion, more student-student interaction, and more domination of the discussion by a few students (Schuitema et al, 2018).
What are Students Learning?
Discussions necessarily include a range of voices; therefore tensions, contradictions, and seemingly disconnected ideas may arise. Consider your learning objectives: if you require memorizing many facts or understanding major categories and concepts, you may want to regularly summarize or close the discussion with a reiteration of main points. Similarly, because discussion necessarily gives greater control to students, a discussion may get stuck on narrow or tangential topics or fail to draw forth well-supported and diverse arguments. Instructors who aim for high content quality may need to ask pointed questions, introduce key information, and press students to reply to one another, expand on their views, and support their positions with evidence and logic.
Some, however, believe that for discussion to be authentic, the instructor must not move the conversation to a predetermined conclusion—that “guided discussion,” in this sense, is an oxymoron (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005). Student ownership of discussion may be especially important if a learning objective is productively participating in discussion as a democratic practice (Hess, 2009).
Abercrombie, M. L. J. (1979). Aims and techniques of group teaching. Guilford: Society for Research into Higher Education.
Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hess, D. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. New York: Routledge.
Schuitema, J., Radstake, H., van de Pol, Janneke, & Veugelers, W. (2018). Guiding classroom discussions for democratic education. Educational Studies, 44(4), 377-407.
Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Students who don’t participate in class discussions: They are not all introverts. The Scholarly Teacher. https://www.scholarlyteacher.com/blog/students-who-dont-participate-in-class-discussions.