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Plan Classroom Discussions at Least as Carefully as Lectures

Discussions in the classroom can lead to greater student understanding-but this does not automatically happen. Discussions can be fruitful when the teacher is clear on the reasons for conducting discussions, adopts approaches for making the discussions productive, and is comfortable with the various roles the teacher must play in discussions.

Reasons for using discussions
In Discussion as a Way of Teaching , Brookfield and Preskill make fifteen arguments regarding the ways that participating in discussions helps learning:

  1. It helps students explore a diversity of perspectives.
  2. It increases students' awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity and complexity.
  3. It helps students recognize and investigate their assumptions.
  4. It encourages attentive, respectful listening.
  5. It develops new appreciation for continuing differences.
  6. It increases intellectual agility.
  7. It helps students become connected to a topic.
  8. It shows respect for students' voices and experiences.
  9. It helps students learn the processes and habits of democratic discourse.
  10. It affirms students as co-creators of knowledge.
  11. It develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.
  12. It develops habits of collaborative learning.
  13. It increases breadth and makes students more empathetic.
  14. It helps students develop skills of synthesis and integration.
  15. It leads to transformation1.

Teachers need to decide what are their reasons for specific uses of discussion in their classes and how they are connected to their hopes for student learning in the class and student learning outcomes.

Approaches for Setting Up and Conducting Effective Discussions

Prepare students for discussion
The groundwork for discussions needs to be put in place so that students can discuss in a safe environment. Perhaps the most important part of this is establishing and monitoring class norms for participation.

Establish clearly defined groups
In some classes, students stay in the same discussion groups for the entire semester. In other classes, the instructor varies the group composition by using different criteria for practically every discussion-by counting off in groups, alphabetically, by date of birth (both day/month and day), by major, or in other ways. Either of these approaches is preferable to self-selected discussion groups. With self-selection, there is a tendency for students to sit with others who agree with their viewpoints, and discussions tend to be more superficial.

Provide a common base of information for class discussions
At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, like many universities on the semester system, students generally take five separate courses each semester. By the third or fourth week of the semester, as assignments and tests are more frequent, many students do not keep up with the reading. Small group discussion on a reading assignment when only a third of the class has done the reading often leads to one or two students in a small group explaining the reading to the others instead of the group discussing the reading. Assigning short papers on a reading assignment due the day of the discussion ensures that students are prepared. Other ways of providing a common base of information for students is to use class time for a short (12-15 minute) video segment, or have students read a newspaper article or other short written material before a discussion.

Set a specific product for the group discussion
When a charge to a group is too vague, such as "Discuss the short story you read for today," discussions are often brief and shallow. More productive discussion usually occurs when the group is charged with answering a specific question, such as "What are possible motivations for Jerome Robinson's actions in the short story?" Groups may also be asked to assign a group member to report the results of the discussion to the large group.

Allow adequate time for discussion and reflection
When students are prepared for discussion, have a common base of information on which to base the discussion, and are charged with talking about specific questions and coming up with an answer, discussions can be productive. However, often teachers plan for discussion at the end of a class period that lasts 50 or 75 minutes. Instructors need to figure out how much time is needed to adequately discuss the issue or concept, plan the class period accordingly, and then monitor the time so that there is time for discussion. When students have been provided a common base of knowledge and have just begun to discuss this when a class period ends, it is rare that the focus of a discussion can be maintained until the next class meeting, two-seven days later. For some topics, the instructor may also want to allow time at the end of the class period for students to write reflections on the class discussion and their own learning.

Strategies of the Teacher in Discussion
Effective discussions often call for the instructor to do more than putting students in small groups or announcing to the entire class/groups the topic of discussion. Especially in discussions in the entire class, the teacher may employ these strategies 2 :

Using questions (and follow-up questions) that require clear thinking
Often the best questions are ones that are neither too narrow (like yes/no questions) nor too broad (such as "What do you think the author was trying to do here?"). Lively discussions occur when students are asked focused questions with more than one potential answer. In full class discussions, the teacher can use follow-up questions to elicit fuller answers: "Tell me more about the possible effects of this decision."

Reframing the discussion in the context of facts, information, and concepts
When a student is generalizing based on personal opinion or experience, the instructor may choose to relate the discussion back to concepts and information previously covered in class. A reply to a student's comment that "Because of affirmative action, blacks and women are getting all the good jobs" could be "How does that statement fit with the studies on discrimination in the workplace that we read three weeks ago?"

Rephrasing student comments
At times it may be unclear what a student is saying (or trying to say). The instructor can rephrase this to make sure that the teacher and the class are understanding the intended message. Rephrasing is also called for when student comments violate the class norms , such as not speaking for all members or playing devil's advocate. For example, the teacher could rephrase the comment "Don't you think that we pay too much attention to racial differences?" to the student saying "I believe that we pay too much attention to racial differences."

Intervening when necessary for safety
One of the cardinal class norms is "Students should respond to what has been said, not the person saying it-responses should not be personalized." In the case when one student's response to another is personalized and may come across as a personal attack, the instructor needs to step in immediately, remind the class of the norm, and then, depending on the situation, try to rephrase the comment.

Monitoring and responding
Both during small group and large class discussion, the teacher is observing the group process and communication patterns. At times, teachers may comment on what they are seeing: "It seems that in this group only the men (or women) are talking. In large class discussion, when a few students are the only ones talking, the teacher might state: "Let's hear from some people who haven't said anything today."

Working with silence in the classroom
Most of us are uncomfortable with silence. One of the things that students pay attention to early in any class is what happens when there is silence after a question. Often instructors are so uncomfortable with silence that they answer their own questions; students learn from this that when they do not want to talk, they can wait out the teacher. It can be that silence comes from a question being unclear. If that is determined, the instructor can rephrase the question. When students are silent because the question is important (and perhaps uncomfortable to discuss), the teacher can ask the students to reflect and write about the question for a couple of minutes, and talk about it in pairs before resuming a full class discussion. Alternatively, the instructor can ask the students to reflect and comment on the meaning of silence at that particular point in time in the class.

Accepting the expression of feelings
Tears and anger are unusual in college classrooms, and both can occur during discussions of diversity issues. Anger (that is not directed at classmates) and sadness leading to crying are legitimate responses to topics or material that hit close to home. A student starts to cry when recounting being called names as a child. The instructor might respond: "It seems like this is still a painful memory for you. I think it really helps all of us to understand how names can really hurt us. Do other people have similar memories?". It also needs to be clear that students do not have to talk/participate at times when emotions are stirred up: "Please don't feel like you need to talk if you want to keep your feelings to yourself right now."

Modeling effective self-disclosure for the class
When instructors talk about their own learning about diversity, including painful experiences, mistakes they have made, and times that produced greater learning and understanding, they are modeling for the class ways of effectively talking about the issues. They can also model the use of "I statements" and acknowledge their own biases (all of us have biases) by the use of introductory statements such as "I know my bias will be clear when I say…"

  1. Brookfield, Stephen P. and Preskill, Steven (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms . San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, pp. 22-23.
  2. Much of the following is adapted from Griffin , Pat (1997). Facilitating social justice education courses. In Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook , Adams, Maurianne, Bell , Lee Ann, and Griffin , Pat, eds. New York : Routledge, pp. 279-298.