Discussions

alt="folks in discussion around a campfire"

Discussions

Including discussions as one of your teaching methods, whether as a whole class or in small groups, allows students to think more deeply and broadly about the concepts they are learning.

How Can I Do This?

Discussions can be with the whole class or in small groups. In a whole class discussion you can control the content and direction more easily but in small groups more students are actively engaged. 

How can I encourage my students to talk?

Promote a positive environment. Students have to feel comfortable to contribute and be able to debate ideas in a respectful, non-judgmental environment:

  • Communicate class expectations and guidelines, or ask the students to write their own.
  • Set expectations early. Find a way to ask students to contribute ideas on the first day of class so you can establish the environment as collaborative and collegial.
  • Model respectful behavior by acknowledging everyone’s viewpoint, even if you do not agree with it.
What kind of questions should I ask?

The success of a discussion session relies heavily on the quality of the prompt or question to be discussed. It takes time to develop good prompts and some will work with some classes better than others.

  • To promote productive discussions, the prompt should be couched in the form a question. These are usually questions that do not have one single correct answer that can be found in the readings or online.
  • For a more structured approach, give the students four possible solutions and ask the group to discuss the best answer. This keeps the discussion focused.
  • Students’ claims should be backed by evidence from lectures, course materials, or other credible sources. Encourage other students to ask for this evidence.
  • Learn about Creating Effective Discussion Questions
How do I know my students know enough to discuss the topic?

The point of discussions is for students to think more deeply about the content. Therefore, it is important that you assess their level of understanding before asking them to discuss a particular topic. You can do this by:

  • asking students to fill out reading guides (e.g., skeletal outlines, graphic organizers) that you provide
  • asking students to write summaries of the information
  • giving the students multiple choice quizzes
How do I lead or facilitate class discussions effectively?

Discussions can very easily get off track. Although at times letting the conversation veer into unplanned territory can be beneficial, keep in mind the point of this learning opportunity and facilitate the discussion so that students stay on course for the topic at hand.

  • Keep in mind what you want the students to achieve by the end of the discussion.
  • Summarize the ideas at various stages of the discussion, or ask students to.
  • Ask students for clarification.
  • Be patient; allow for pauses and silences.
  • Make sure there is participation by as many students as possible.
  • Encourage dialogue among students so comments are not always passed through you.
  • Use different methodologies to get students talking.
  • Check Out the Big List of Class Discussions
How do I know if the discussion was successful?

Discussions can serve many purposes for your class. They can succeed at achieving certain outcomes and still leave plenty of room for refinement. As you reflect on how to maximize the value of class discussions, consider the following:

  • What was the level of engagement?
  • How prepared were the students?
  • What was their attitude during the discussion?
  • How good was the prompt? Could you make it better?
  • Collect student feedback about the discussion.
  • Give students time at the end of class to reflect on the main points of the discussion. Summarize those points or build a table of discussion points and the evidence produced. Ask for their opinions and their level of agreement with each.
  • Also remember: you do not have to assess discussions, many faculty include discussion in their participation grades.
  • Download the Discussion Rubric

Why Is This Important?

Discussions draw students out -- beyond their basic knowledge to apply more advanced concepts "out there" in the world, beyond their own perspectives to understand where someone else is coming from, and beyond their own private thinking to articulate their point of view so others can understand. 

Discussion requires students to think critically about the knowledge they're learning.

When students discuss issues with each other, they have more opportunities to:

  • Analyze the material to articulate it to others
  • Evaluate evidence so they can form an argument
  • Formulate a position that they can rationalize
  • Build an awareness of the complexity of issues and problems beyond just right and wrong answers
  • Formulate and communicate responses to other ideas which can help them evaluate their original analysis
Participating in discussions allows students to engage diverse perspectives.

Often we surround ourselves with people who have similar lifestyles, values, and assumptions, but class discussions let students encounter and work with different students coming from a different standpoint. Students' horizons are expanded when they:

  • Build an appreciation of different ideas
  • Start to recognize their assumptions
  • Broaden their view of the world
Discussions build communication skills.

The best way for students to improve their communication skills is to practice communicating. Using the discussion method in class regularly allows students to gradually develop their communication skills as they:

  • Hone their listening skills
  • Build their oral skills and learn to be clear and succinct
  • Become more confident, particularly in small group scenarios