Discussion as a teaching tool — pros, cons and teaching tactics

by Minch Minchin
Ph.D and J.D. student, University of Florida

Minch Minchin

Minch Minchin

Class discussions as a pedagogical tool are as old as teaching, itself.

Yet despite discussion’s rich and ancient lineage, some teachers may be wary of promoting discussions in their classrooms. Such fears are not without merit, as there are practical limitations to discussions as well as the potential for things simply to go wrong:

  • Students may not be prepared and have nothing to say (and silence is often perceived as awkward).
  • If students do all the talking, the teacher may not be able to cover the requisite material.
  • Students may ask questions for which the teacher is unprepared or doesn’t know the answer to.
  • The discussion may become controversial, off topic or out of hand.
  • One or two students may dominate the conversation.
  • Students may think the teacher is neglecting his/her responsibilities and making the students do all the work.
  • Students accustomed to passive learning may need to be re-wired to function within a discussion framework.
  • Skillfully guiding discussion rather than merely stating the facts in a lecture is generally a lot more difficult.
  • The room—especially auditorium-style rooms—may not be spatially conducive to discussion.
  • The class may be too big for entire-class discussions.

So with these potential hardships in mind, why facilitate class discussions? Socrates must have done something right, no? Well, if used skillfully, in-class discussions can be tremendously beneficial to both teachers and students:

  • Most importantly, students are likely to learn more when discussions are sprinkled throughout the class periods because discussion facilitates “active learning,” one of the touchstones of contemporary pedagogy.
  • Discussion breaks up the class period and gives students a chance to do something else (variety, in moderation, is inherently good).
  • Discussion fosters motivation for further learning.
  • Discussion helps students climb the ladder to the more advanced verbs within Bloom’s Taxonomy (moving, for instance, from mere memorization to application by allowing students to come to certain realizations on their own).
  • Discussion provides immediate feedback for the teacher and helps him course-correct immediately if something is not getting through.

Getting Discussion Started

One of the hardest parts of using discussion is getting students to become engaged. One important key to promoting discussions is understanding that class discussions, like any discussion, must move from the known and understood to the potentially unknown and not understood. This means that discussions must be based on a commonality of experience or thought. If there is no commonality, then students will be talking past one another the entire time.

To get discussions started:

  • refer to common “human” experiences of going to class, eating lunch or going to bed (This is banal, but may be helpful.)
  • refer to common cultural artifacts or understandings (though one must be careful here to not unnecessarily alienate cultural minorities)
  • refer to previously read assigned reading
  • refer to a case or question presented in class for which ample time for consideration and thought is given

If using a question to kick off the discussion, teachers should resist the urge to answer the question themselves or move on too quickly if the question isn’t answered right away. Several seconds of silence are often helpful for students to probe their own minds for potential answers. It may be a good idea for teachers to expressly state that they want several seconds of silence before they hear an answer.

When asking questions, it’s also important for teachers to avoid sarcasm, asking multiple questions at once, asking questions that are either too hard or too easy, or asking yes/no questions. These practices can frustrate students.

Discussion Techniques

Endless variations of in-class discussion techniques exist. Yet here are three potential methods that work well for small, medium and large-sized classes, respectively.

  1. The Harkness Table, which only works in smaller classes, is a method wherein the teacher and students sit around a table and discuss an idea or concept in an open, non-confrontational give-and-take with (optimally) minimal teacher input.
  2. Socratic Circles, which work well in small- and medium-sized classes, are formed when one group of people situate themselves in a circle and discuss a topic; ringed around them is the second group, which sits silently and takes notes on the inner-circle discussion. After a pre-determined period of time, the outside circle then provides input and critique on the discussion. The two groups of people then switch circles and reverse roles.
  3. Think-Pair-Share, which works well in large, medium or small-sized classes, starts with the teacher asking a question or posing a problem and asking for students to either pair up or get in small groups to discuss the prompt. After a pre-determined period of time (not too long, else the students get bored and start getting off topic), the teacher then asks for volunteers (or calls on particular students) to represent their groups and state the conclusions they drew.

Final Thoughts

Getting to know students’ names, backgrounds and proclivities (to any degree feasible), discourages students from hiding behind anonymity, thus promoting engagement.

Creating easy-to-discuss, easy-to-answer discussions early in the semester may pay dividends for quality discussions later on in the semester. (Low-stakes, low-intensity work should precede high-stakes, high-intensity work.)

Remember: discussions are a teachers’ friend only to the extent that they’re skillfully used; they’re tools in the toolbox, not a panacea. Teachers should use their instincts where appropriate to guide and direct the discussion to optimize student learning outcomes.

References

Marilla Svinkcki & Wilbert J. McKeachie (2014), McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (14th ed.).

Todd Finley (2013, June 24), Rethinking Whole Class Discussion http://www.edutopia.org/blog/rethinking-whole-class-discussion-todd-finley

Stephen D. Brookfield & Stephen Preskill (2005), Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2d ed.).

Minch Minchin is a J.D. and Ph.D. student at the University of Florida and a student in Multimedia Writing. This blog post is based on a teaching presentation he made in class.

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3 thoughts on “Discussion as a teaching tool — pros, cons and teaching tactics

  1. I love the “think pair and share” technique. I often make students responsible for teaching a certain part of a chapter within a group. This makes it clear than random off-topic discussions will not cut it. Great points!

    I’m excited about returning to the classroom this semester. Here are some of my thoughts about dealing with negative students. https://triciabarkernde.com/2016/08/18/just-say-no-to-other-peoples-negative-energy-love-yourself-enough-to-just-do-it-particular-advice-for-new-teachers-and-professors/

    • Tricia,
      Thanks for your feedback on my session and your additional suggestions about using think-pair-share. I plan to write a future post about encouraging class discussion and handling the challenges to the too-quiet and the too-vocal student. I’ll include the link to your post about dealing with negative students. Your previous teaching experience has you well prepared with strategies and time management approaches (for you and your students). Best wishes for a good semester.

      Julie

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