This section presents a variety of evidence-based strategies for facilitating effective discussions in your class including whole-group discussions as well as discussions among small groups of students.
Although whole-class discussion can engage students, it can present several challenges for instructors when only a handful of students actively participate in the discussion, when some students dominate the conversation or speak out of turn, when discussions become overly heated, or when discussions become off-topic. This section will provide some strategies to reduce these occurrences.
Encouraging Student Participation
Reinforce participation by thanking them for their input and expressing that their ideas are valuable. Another method of reinforcement is providing students with participation points if they share their thoughts about course content. This may constitute a required component of their grade or may represent extra credit. If you do incorporate student participation in grading, ensure this represents only a small portion of the students’ final grade.1 If some students are reluctant to participate, provide the opportunity to contribute to class conversations outside of class. Create a university-based online discussion forum. Incorporate participation in the discussion forums in the course grade, but ensure that students’ contributions are assessed based on mastery of course content. Consider using comment cards by having students respond to questions you pose or questions they have about the course. An effective approach used by instructors incorporates comments from students presented on the online discussion forums or through comment cards in subsequent class sessions.
To encourage participation, grant students “wait time”--sufficient time to consider their views about a given question and then participate. Count to ten in your head before speaking again to give students time to reflect on the question posed. Use of follow-up questions is important to keep discussions going. For example, ask students to clarify their ideas, connect their ideas to course concepts or to ideas that other students have presented, or explain their reasoning. Although these methods can be useful for igniting a conversation that has stalled, remember that students often share the ideas that are most important to them and the instructor can summarize the conversation.
Managing Talkative Students during Whole-Group Discussions
There are several strategies for managing students who can dominate class discussions or speak out of turn. Provide guidelines for discussion to preemptively address this issue. Use body language or eye contact for the student who is speaking out of turn to indicate their inappropriate behavior. If students do not acknowledge visual cues, meet privately with the student to communicate your expectations and concerns. The student may be unaware of behaviors displayed or seeks to reduce silences in the class. If students continue to speak out of turn or dominate the conversation after addressing these behaviors, offer comments such as, “Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken,” before calling on the next student, or consider requiring hand-raising. You may also choose to call on students who have not participated. This method is often referred to as “cold calling.” A related method, known as “warm calling,” involves informing students in advance of a challenging question you will pose, but gives them a few minutes to prepare an answer in class. The benefit of this method is that it minimizes student anxiety and encourages all students to develop a response. Calling on them by name will facilitate instructor-student relationships.
Another option can be to identify one student as an “observer.” This student reports on the extent of student participation among classmates. This information can be used to identify if strategies for promoting student participation are necessary and if so, the kinds of strategies that are needed.
Keeping Whole-Group Discussions on Topic
Discussions that move in an unanticipated direction or become overly heated can be challenging for instsructors to manage. If the discussion becomes off-topic, redirect the conversation with the comment such as, “Amy raised an important point earlier. Let’s talk about that more.” Redirect the conversation by having them draw the connection between their responses and course content. Although it may be important to redirect the conversation, be sure that you do not overly control or constrict students’ comments.
If whole-class discussions become heated, the instructor should intervene and remind students that the goal of the classroom discussion is to critique ideas, not people. State that the goal of the discussion is not to identify one correct response, but to consider the possibility that there may be multiple correct responses depending on one’s viewpoint.
Like whole-class discussions, small-group discussions facilitate student participation and engagement, but also offer several unique benefits. By offering a less intimidating social context, small groups can promote participation from students who are initially reluctant to do so in whole-class settings. Small-group discussions can also involve structured activities that guide reflection and sharing among pairs of students.
There are several benefits to these activities, which may combine discussion with written assignments to guide students to carefully articulate their ideas. First, by working together in pairs or small groups, students get to know one another on a more personal level. This decreases anonymity in the classroom and gives students a sense of their importance in the class. Second, because small-group discussions give students time to share, reflect on, and carefully articulate their ideas, they can help students feel better prepared to participate in whole-class discussions. This may promote participation in whole-class discussions as well as increase the quality of students’ contributions to those discussions. This section describes three such small-group discussion activities: Think-Pair-Share, Role Playing, and Team-Based Learning.
(1) Green, S. K., Johnson, R. L., Kim, D., Nakia, S. P. (2007). Ethics in classroom assessment practices: Issues and attitudes. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23(7), 999-1011.
(2) Lyman, F. T. (1981). The responsive classroom discussion: The inclusion of all students.
(3) DeNeve, K.M., & Heppner, M .J. (1997). Role playing simulations: The assessment of an active learning technique and comparison with traditional lectures. Innovative higher education, 21(3), 231-246.
(4) Nestel, D. & Tierney, T. (2007). Role-play for medical students learning about communication: Guidelines for maximizing benefits. BMC Medical Education, 7(3). Retrieved from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6920/7/3
(5) Michaelsen, L. & Sweet, M. (2008). Team-based learning. Thriving in Academe, 25(6), 5-8.