4 techniques for promoting class discussion

by Ronen Shay
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Generating discussion can be a challenge for instructors in large lecture halls and smaller settings. Four techniques that an instructor can employ to engage students in constructive conversations are:

Technique #1 –  Brainstorming
The goal of a brainstorm is to generate as long a list as possible of answers to a higher cognitive question. No idea is discounted, and every suggestion is included. This technique creates a safe place and shared experience for students in both large lecture settings and smaller settings.

Technique #2 – Fishbowl
A fishbowl is when you have a group of students or subject matter experts engage in a discussion about a set topic with all other students observing the discussion. The participants are tasked with debating all sides of the issue, whereas the observers are tasked with capturing the information produced. Fishbowls can be open (where new participants are allowed to join the discussion and take the place of an existing participant) or closed (where no new participants can join into the discussion). Fishbowl is appropriate for large lecture settings where not everyone can talk simultaneously. Another benefit it that it teachers good note taking.

Technique #3 – Two-Column Controversy
This technique is designed for controversial and polarizing issues that should be explored from both sides. The class is divided based on their position on an issue and must generate as long a list of arguments for their side as possible. Should one side take issue with something listed by the opposing side they cannot debate the validity of the other side’s perspective, but just need to reframe the argument as something that can be listed on their side. Creative controversy can also be introduced by forcing groups to switch sides half-way through the activity. This technique can be used to practice achieving consensus and forcing students to consider the other side of an issue.

Technique #4 – Student-led group jigsaws
This technique requires dividing the students into groups and allowing them to lead independent small discussion on the subject matter, prior to presenting their findings to the class. This is useful when you have a large lecture and cannot have everyone participate in a discussion simultaneously. Studies have shown student led discussion generating more participation and positive disagreements like debates on the issues.

References and Additional Resources

  • Brigga, Robert Owen and Gert-Jan De Vreede. The cognitive network model of creativity: a new casual model of creativity and a new brainstorming technique. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2000.
  • Fonseca, B. and M.T.H. Chi. Instruction based on self-explanation. In P. Alexander and R. Mayer (eds.) Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction. New York: Routledge. 2011.
  • Henning, J. Leading discussions: Opening up the conversation. College Teaching, 53(3), 90-94, 2005.
  • Jeffery, H. E, Henderson-Smart, D.J. and D.A. Hill. Competency-based Learning in Neonatology. Medical Education, 30(6), 440-444, 2009.
  • Maier, N.R.F. and L.A. Maier. An experimental test of the effects of “developmental” vs “free” discussion on the quality of group decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 41, 320-323, 1957.
  • Phillips, H.J. and Powers R.B. The college seminar: Participation under instructor-led and student-led discussion groups. Teaching of Psychology, 6(2), 67-70, 1979.

Ronen Shay is a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930).

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