Tips for promoting effective discussions in your college classroom

by Summer Best
MAMC student, University of Florida

Using discussion as a teaching tool has been shown to be a popular and effective way to reach students academically on many learning levels. The technique allows teachers to pose problems, listen, and challenge, while promoting learning by doing and practice in thinking through problems.

Benefits of Using Discussion

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, authors Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki note several of the following benefits discussion can provide:

  • It helps participants evaluate the logic and evidence of several viewpoints on a topic.
  • It offers opportunities to formulate applications of principles.
  • It develops motivation for future and collaborative learning; provides a catalyst for continued discussion.
  • It allows students to participate in the conversation – as opposed to sitting and listening to lecture.
  • It helps us offer opportunities to make informed, reasoned next actions in a new context.
  • It offers an opportunity to break apart an idea or an ideal and put the concept back together with thoughtfulness and respect for each contributor in the discussion.

In Discussion as a Way of Teaching, authors Brookfield and Preskill add more insight on how discussion can be beneficial, a few of which include:

  • It increases students’ awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity and complexity.
  • It helps students recognize and investigate their assumptions.
  • It encourages attentive, respectful listening.
  • It develops new appreciation for continuing differences.
  • It shows respect for students’ voices and experiences.
  • It helps students learn the processes and habits of democratic discourse.
  • It affirms students as co-creators of knowledge.
  • It increases breadth and makes students more empathetic.

How to prepare to lead classroom discussion

The University of Florida’s Teaching Handbook also reminds teachers to give plenty of forethought to your class’s topic discussion implementation:

“There seems to be an unfortunate misunderstanding about the amount of preparation that discussions require. Too many instructors assume that you can “just walk in” to the classroom and begin useful discussion. It is as if they feel that, with a basic understanding of the subject, they can rely upon their students for 40 or 50 minutes. However, a good discussion takes a great deal of prior planning and review of the subject matter (p. 53).”

Strategies for Starting a Great Discussion

  • Begin with a brief, personal story related to the discussion.
  • Begin with an overview of a case study related to the discussion.
  • Begin with questions:  problem questions, interpretation questions or critical questions are just a few options.
  • Begin with a controversial idea.
  • Utilize resources such as TED Talks, which can provide great conversation starters on virtually any topic you are discussing.

There are pros and cons to each of the above approaches. Resources identifying more options are available at the bottom of this post.

Potential Problems of Classroom Discussion

In any discussion, problems might arise. Students might dominate the discussion, while others are as quiet as church mice. Some might not think they are learning during discussion times, even though research indicates they usually are learning more than they realize. Also, the teacher must keep the discussion on topic, even though it’s tempting to allow a good discussion run in a different direction from time to time.

Teachers might struggle, too, with how to grade each student on their class participation.

Despite all efforts to have good, thought-provoking discussions conducted with full professional decorum, students might not always perform as democratically as would be expected. If the discussion becomes emotional for a student, or if a student becomes belligerent, the teacher should be prepared to handle the situation as professionally as possible, both for himself/herself and all students.

Additional Resource
Plan Classroom Discussions at Least as Carefully as Lectures – University of Wisconsin Whitewater School of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education

Summer Best is a master’s student at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930), Fall Semester 2013.

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