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.

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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.

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