Often in our courses we want to encourage students to think critically and analyze content. We may want them to think in a more sophisticated fashion and be aware of their own thinking patterns and biases. When we have these goals in mind, discussions are an effective teaching method.
It’s common practice to break up a class period or lecture by getting students talking. And students should always be allowed to ask questions when they have confusion during class. However, using discussions effectively as a specific teaching method takes a bit more preparation.
When using discussions it’s advised to have a goal in mind for the discussion and to plan accordingly. Do you want students to arrive at a specific conclusion? Or to explore all options related to an issue? Do you want them to develop a deeper understanding of how people in your discipline reason about issues? Are you using discussions to have students see different viewpoints and ways of thinking?
Having your goals in mind will help you develop appropriate questions to ask and decide how to structure the discussion (large group discussion, small groups, individual writing prompts). You will also have a better sense of your own role in facilitation and how much you want to direct the discussion.
Tips for the effective use of discussions
The following guidelines can help you effectively facilitate discussions:
- Think through the common misconceptions and stumbling blocks students will encounter when participating in the discussion.
- Think through the questions you will ask and the possible student responses. Good questions are hard to develop, it may take some time to get the questions right, but it’s well worth it.
- Allow time for students to think through questions before responding, don’t jump in too soon or to often to answer the questions for them.
- Create a safe environment – establish ground rules with the class, especially when discussing sensitive issues.
- Remember this is a time when students are practicing their thinking skills, your role is to guide them towards more sophisticated thinking about an issue.
- Actively manage and facilitate the discussion by keeping students on track and encouraging multiple perspectives. But at the same time, don’t try to remain neutral in your comments and follow-up questions. Students report that they tend to stop thinking about an issue once they know how the instructor feels about it.